There was always one extra statistic to keep when covering a Colby College men’s basketball game over the years.
Nothing to do with shooting percentage or turnovers, and nothing that superficially, at least, had anything to do with the game.
The stat was the time into each game that Mules’ head coach Dick Whitmore would rip off his sports coat and either hand it to close friend, assistant coach and Waterville legend Johnny “Swisher” Mitchell or throw it more adamantly farther down the bench.
It always seemed somewhat funny at the time, but what was remarkable to me in watching it take place was the utter consistency in the timing — between two and three minutes into the first half every night.
Let the game begin.
And it was inevitable, whether Colby was playing for an Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference championship or at the outset of what would be a 30-point nonconference victory.
What the coat shedding represented to me was that to Whitmore those games were no different, and that such intensity was an intangible to be brought to the court every night lest an opportunity to compete be wasted.
More often than not, his players responded.
The 68-year-old Whitmore announced his retirement this week after a 40-year career on Mayflower Hill during which he became one of the all-time leaders nationwide in basketball coaching victories. His 637-341 record ranks seventh in career wins among Division III coaches and resulted in 27 postseason berths among 31 winning seasons, six coach of the year awards in four different decades and induction into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame and New England Basketball Hall of Fame.
I had the opportunity to cover the team during what might be considered the glory years of Whitmore’s tenure, from 1989 to 1995 when Colby amassed a 154-26 record and seven straight 20-plus-win seasons.
The Mules won three ECAC New England championships in four years and then made two straight NCAA tourney appearances after the Mules and other members of the New England Small College Athletic Conference finally were allowed to play in that national tournament beginning in 1994.
Matt Hancock of Casco and Lake Region High School became a three-time NCAA Division III All-American during that run, leading the nation in scoring and finishing his four-year career with 2,678 points.
And Whitmore’s son Kevin transferred back home after starting his college career at Dartmouth and became another of Colby’s 14 All-Americans under his father’s watch.
But while such individual and team milestones are a big part of the Whitmore story, for many the deeper memories will center on his larger-than-life presence on the sideline, his competitive spirit and his tremendous sense of loyalty to all he has touched as a coach, mentor and friend long after their lives moved in different directions.
“I think I may miss the alumni games more than I would Christmas,” he said. “It’s really a mutual appreciation situation. I’m so thankful to them not only as players and what they accomplished, but that they sustained the relationship with me after they were done playing. It’s a generational thing now with the alumni. The guys that first played for me when I started here are thinking about retirement, and the guys who played for me recently are just starting careers. That part of it is really amazing to me.”
Enjoy the grandkids, Whit.