Kahler, Stevens set high standards for every division

Updated: February 15, 2006, 11:28 AM ET
By Beth Mowins | Special to ESPN.com

Kathy Baum is a senior at St. John Fisher College, a Division III school in Rochester, N.Y. She's wrapping up what would be considered an impressive career at any level of competition. Baum is the most prolific 3-point shooter in Cardinals history, collecting more than 1,100 points.

Phil Kahler
St. John Fisher Athletic Dept.Phil Kahler has built the winningest women's program in Division III history at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y.

Off the court, she has a 3.8 grade-point average and is the co-president of the Fisher Student Athlete Advisory Committee. (Currently on the agenda is a faculty mentor program, as well as a study about how afternoon class scheduling affects what courses athletes can take.)

Baum is probably a lot like you and me. She grew up with a basketball in her hand and dimpled leather at her fingertips. She pounded the pavement and parks of western New York, improving her skills.

She filled her days with jump shots and her nights with dreams of national championships and victory parades through the streets of Knoxville, Tenn.; Hartford, Conn.; or South Bend, Ind.

But the reality of big-time college basketball is that the recruiting trail for top 10 programs rarely runs through towns such as Ripley, N.Y. Many of us who have sought or are seeking to play on the grand stage come up short.

Baum was among the thousands of teenagers who were overlooked, fell through the cracks or just wasn't talented enough for the majors. Her high school team didn't win much, but that didn't dampen her enthusiasm for the sport. She wanted to play in college, she wanted to compete and she wanted to show that she had the goods.

For girls like Baum, on a cold day in the boondocks, or out on the prairie or in a suburban subdivision out by the mall, a letter arrives in the mail. They are 17 years old and feeling the acute pain of disappointment that the dream might not come true. That's when the mail carrier delivers their salvation.

ACTIVE NCAA COACHES
A look at the winningest NCAA coaches:

Pat Summitt, Tennessee, 904
Jody Conradt, Texas, 881
C.Vivian Stringer, Rutgers, 742
Phil Kahler, St. John Fisher, 727
Sylvia Hatchell, UNC, 707
Barbara Stevens, Bentley, 706

(as of Feb. 12)

It's a handwritten note from St. John Fisher head coach Phil Kahler. He has no time for e-mails or instant messaging. He has no interest in the gizmos and gadgets of modern America. It's just his chicken scratching with a simple hello and an enticing offer.

Come to Fisher to play a lot of basketball and have a lot of fun. Come to Fisher, where your talents are both wanted and appreciated. Come to Fisher to feel what it's like to be a winner.

Kahler (pronounced Kay-ler) knows better than most what it feels like to be a winner, and what it takes to build one. It takes a team, not individuals. That's the lesson he has been teaching for 32 years in his classroom that is the Fisher gym.

Since 1974, Kahler has recruited hardworking and passionate players, like Baum, and molded them into winners. Their careers might not end with a parade down Main Street or a decade of glory in the WNBA. But the memories of the games and the friendships will last a lifetime.

The winningest program in NCAA Division III history resides in Rochester. The Cardinals have collected more than 700 wins for Kahler. That puts him in the company of legendary coaches such as Pat Summitt, Jody Conradt and C. Vivian Stringer. It also puts him in the company of Barbara Stevens.

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Barbara Stevens is the head coach at Bentley College, a Division II powerhouse near Boston. Earlier this season, she joined the 700-win club, becoming the first D-II coach to reach the milestone.

Bentley's record this season won't be on par with the best in program history, but the team can still compete. The Falcons recently upset archrival Stonehill, knocking them from the unbeaten ranks in conference play.

Barbara Stevens
Noah Pan/Bentley College AthleticsBarbara Stevens, coach of Bentley College near Boston, is the winningest Division II women's coach.

At 51, Stevens is a relative youngster among the legendary coaches of the game to reach the 700-win plateau. She started coaching in 1975 and was a head coach just two years later, at the age of 23. In her 20 seasons at Bentley, all of her teams have won at least 20 games.

Stevens also has helped produce quality individuals like C White, a former player who returned in 2003 -- as an assistant coach -- after spending one season in a similar position at Harvard.

"It was a chance of a lifetime to come back here," White said. "The only hard part is getting used to not being able to play in the games. I'm in a suit now, not a uniform."

White grew up in New England and was a diehard Bentley fan. She says she couldn't have imagined going anywhere else for college.

"Growing up a local kid, I used to go to Coach Stevens' camps and come to all the games," White said. "You would die to play for her and I would work hard every day to make sure I got the chance. When I got here, I knew she could make us win and that we would be ready and prepared to go."

Stevens has spent a lifetime around sports and coaching was always her calling. She grew up the youngest of four girls in a family where both her parents played basketball. Barbara became a willing participant in athletic endeavors sponsored by her father, George, and supported by her mom, Betty.

"My father was a good player in high school and taught me a lot," Stevens said. "My mom has been wonderful over the years. She's in her early 80s and is still our most avid Bentley fan. I may have won 700 games, but that is nothing. She's probably been to over 1,500 in her career."

Stevens' coaching career started out with a stroke of good fortune at Clark College. The men's basketball coach at the time was Wally Halas, a relative of the legendary Halas football coaching family. Halas and Stevens formed a Hardwood Think Tank and the young coach soaked in as much as she could.

"Wally was so innovative, creative and enthusiastic," Stevens remembered. "We always talked Xs and Os, and he encouraged me to think outside the norm. He challenged me to see the game in different ways."

Stevens often harkens back to that way of thinking when preparing her game plans for a sport that has changed so much in the last 29 years. She says she has left some of her stubborn ways behind and is more open to new things on the court. She has cooked up some pretty good stuff during the practice sessions at the Dana Center.

"The thrill of coaching to me is getting five players together to do the same thing," Stevens said. "That still drives me today. I love the opportunity to take individuals and make them a team; it's a great challenge."

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Baum, a senior, knows the end of the line is approaching for her. She also understands she is part of a much bigger picture. She is now, and always will be, a part of the Fisher family.

"[Kahler] has taught me to be a team player," she said. "We win as a team. Everyone has a role and everyone has to contribute. He's also taught me to accept responsibility for my actions, to be a good role model and to pass on the winning tradition to our younger players."

I just hope people think I did the best I could for the college and the kids. It's not about me, it's about them. I've never scored a point.
St. John Fisher coach Phil Kahler, when asked what his legacy will be

That tradition includes the same flex offense he has been running for three decades. It's the same offense Marianne O'Connor used to run when she played for the Cardinals back in the 1980s. She is now Marianne O'Connor Ermi and has been Kahler's assistant for 21 years.

"He teaches during practice and leaves it to the players to execute in a game," O'Connor Ermi said. "He's usually pretty calm during games and only stands up for timeouts, which he doesn't call very often. He has a very sedentary demeanor on the outside, but he is a very intense and competitive coach on the inside."

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Bentley senior Kate Kelley recognizes a similar competitive fire in Stevens. Kelley grew up in Hull, Mass., about an hour south of Boston. She wanted to play big-time ball but checked out Bentley on a whim. She started talking to people around the Northeast 10 Conference and discovered the success and tradition of the Division II school in Waltham.

"I went to some games and met with Coach and I was so impressed," Kelley said. "I just knew I wanted to come here and play for her. The way she looked at her players, you could tell she put her heart and soul into her job. This was the best place for me and my ability. I can't picture myself anywhere else."

Stevens thrives on teaching the game to young women like Kelley.

"I look forward to practice every day," Stevens said. "The players help keep me young and excited. And during the games I may look like I'm under control when I'm coaching, but in my mind, I'm bursting with lots of inner turmoil. I won't say much, but my looks tend to say a lot."

White agrees that Stevens' actions speak louder than words.

"Her gestures say it all," White said. "You want to run through walls for her when you are on the court. She doesn't need to say much, she'll just give you a look and you know. The players all respond to her techniques. She'll do whatever it takes to win."

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That's the same attitude Kahler displayed growing up in Anchorage, Alaska. His parents were really supportive of his love for sports, and they would cart him all over town looking for a good game. When the sun is only shining for a few hours a day in the winter, what better place to be than in the gym?

Phil Kahler, Marianne O'Connor Ermi
St. John Fisher Athletic Dept.Former player and current assistant Marianne O'Connor Ermi says Kahler has "a very sedentary demeanor" but is "very intense and competitive" on the inside."

He wasn't a star player at Anchorage High School, but rather a piece of a puzzle that achieved great success. Anchorage won four state titles while Kahler was there. He didn't win, his team won. And several years later, when he got into coaching, that's just the way his team would play.

Kahler's coaching opportunity arrived in 1974, when he got a job at Fisher as the athletic director. Women were just being admitted to what had been an all-male school, and Kahler was commissioned by the school president to find out what they wanted to play. Basketball and volleyball were the answer, but with no money to pay for coaches, the jobs fell into Kahler's lap.

"Basketball was not a problem," he said. "But I had never seen a volleyball game in my life. That's when I realized I had to become a good recruiter and develop a keen eye for talent. I found girls who knew how to play the game well. Those first couple of years, I pretty much just drove the bus. I'd drop them off, the girls would play, the girls would usually win and then I'd drive them home. Some people say I should have stuck to volleyball."

The recruiting carried over to the basketball team, as well. In his first season, the Cardinals had a 3-8 record -- and then Kahler hit the bricks. He started recruiting when it was new to women's athletics, shortly after the advent of Title IX.

"He's a very good recruiter and evaluator of talent," O'Connor Ermi said. "He finds the pieces we need to succeed. They have to be smart, interchangeable parts. And to his credit, Phil adapts well to the strengths of the team. He makes modifications to his game plan based on who we have and who the opponent has."

Kahler says he enjoys the recruiting process.

"I like the interaction with the kids. They may not be the most talented in the country, but they want to play just as much and work just as hard," he said. "They aren't going to Syracuse or Manhattan or Ohio State, but they can excel here if they make the effort."

Under Kahler's tutelage, they do excel. Fisher hasn't had a losing season since that inaugural campaign. That's 30 winning seasons in a row, and on 26 occasions, his teams won at least 20 games. The Cardinals have played for the national championship twice, losing in both 1988 and 1990.

An avid fisherman, Kahler admits those two games are the big ones that got away. But there aren't many regrets in a 30-year career that lets him do his favorite things. He gets to teach the game, spend time with his family and go fishing every summer with his buddies in the Thousand Islands, up near Alex Bay.

"We just relax and enjoy each other's company," Kahler said. "We catch fish and throw them back. Lots of stories are tossed around and lots of lies are told."

Stevens had her one shot at a national championship in 1990, but the Falcons lost in the final to Delta State. She makes her getaway from the game by hitting the links. She's a self-proclaimed golf vagabond. She'll bring the clubs along on trips, anxious to test her skills on some of the toughest courses in the country.

Her golf partners in the past have included Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. They were on the same coaching staff for the U.S. Sports Festival back in the early 1990s. The two also will enter the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame together in June.

Stevens says she does not know her handicap, but White says she has heard her coach grumbling about carding an 82 on a round, a score most would be proud of.

In an era in which many coaches are constantly on the move, Kahler and Stevens have stayed grounded. Kahler could have left Fisher long ago to pursue the glory and money of coaching on the grand stage. He has had offers, but says he doesn't like the business of big-time college basketball. His business is his players.

He enjoys sitting in his office with his big board of memories. Pictures from his former players watch over him at his desk, a board filled with photos from weddings, reunions, children and Christmas cards. They've taken lessons learned from the coach on the court and put them to good use at their jobs in classrooms, hospitals and law offices.

Stevens often hears from her former players, as well.

"You can teach women so much through basketball," she said. "I get great satisfaction when former players tell me they learned more about themselves on the court than in the classroom. It's a sport, not a business."

So, how about your legacy, coach?

"I can't even spell legacy," Kahler says. "I just hope people think I did the best I could for the college and the kids. It's not about me, it's about them. I've never scored a point."

Spoken with all the humility the folks in Rochester have come to expect from the man everyone calls PK. But as his angling buddies can attest, even the small ponds have some pretty big fish.

As for the soft-spoken Stevens, she's already nervous about the Hall of Fame induction. She says the honor sometimes leaves her feeling totally overwhelmed, and she just hopes she'll be able to speak at the ceremony.

But even if her emotions render her speechless, Stevens' players know that sometimes just a look from her says it all.

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

Beth Mowins

Women's Basketball
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.