CRAWFORD: Spalding leaves lasting legacy at Bellarmine
LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Opposing teams never knew what the Bellarmine University basketball team was up to during the starting lineup introductions in its national championship season of 2010-11.
The Knights' players would hear their names, run out, then sprint to an old guy in the stands and touch his tan "BU" hat, shake his hand or say a word to him.
To know the story behind it, you have to turn the pages back quite a few years and you have to get to know that man, Jim Spalding, who died last week at the age of 79 after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease.
Sports heroes are easy to find. You can see them praised on any edition of SportsCenter or on the cover any sports magazine.
But sometimes the biggest heroes rarely make the front page. Take a few minutes and get to know one of them.
Spalding did not set out to be a basketball coach, let alone the Father of Bellarmine Athletics. He actually was on a path to become a different kind of Father. He attended high school at Mount Saint Francis Seminary in Southern Indiana but decided against the priesthood to pursue either basketball or girls; family accounts are split.
Either way, he pursued his career in sports as if it were a high calling. His son Jay said he realized that on the day when he, as a teenager, noted to his dad that given all the hours he spent working at Bellarmine, he was probably only being paid $1 or $2 an hour.
"Hell, son, the joke is on Bellarmine," Jim said, without missing a beat. "I would work there for free."
And Jim Spalding did work. He played basketball at Bellarmine as a student from 1952 to '55, then two years later came back with his Master's Degree and never left. He taught biology, was an assistant basketball coach and, in 1966 took the head-coaching job. In 1971 he added the title of athletic director and replaced himself as basketball coach with Joe Reibel, who went on to become the winningest coach in school history.
Over 31 years at the school, Spalding would coach cross-country, track, tennis and golf. He expanded the number of sports at Bellarmine from four to 16. He added women's sports and worked, always, to fund the teams so that there would be more opportunities for students.
In 1977, he wrangled a concert in Knights' Hall by Jimmy Buffett as an athletics fundraiser. And he instituted the famous Friday night Bingo games in Knights Hall, working long hours to set up and clean up, recruiting volunteers and managing the games, to help raise money. He drove buses and cars, counseled students and coaches, and always infused the athletic department with his own energy.
Long before Post-It Notes, his daughter, Nina Spalding Hudelson, remembers him taping small, ticket-stub-sized pieces of paper to his desk in neat rows, prioritized and organized.
He helped found the Great Lakes Valley Conference, now the most powerful in NCAA Division II. He chaired the Division II Tournament selection committee. He worked to bring the Division II Elite Eight to Louisville.
He rarely made headlines for doing so. But his death was big news to thousands whose lives he touched. Over the past two days, his family heard story after story of people who got part of a scholarship after meeting with him, or who benefited when Spalding "stuck with" them even if they weren't playing well in their sport.
Lauren Just told the family that Spalding asked her five times to coach the women's golf team until she finally just gave up and said yes.
That kind of determination continued to show itself even as his disease progressed. Last summer, the family took its usual trip to Nolin Lake and Jim told them he wanted to dive in the lake. It took a lot of figuring out, but they finally figured out a way to let him do it, and in he went, diving off the back of a pontoon boat face-first, then having his family haul him back onto the boat.
He was not one to shy away from diving in, regardless of the obstacles.
"The words that come to my mind when I speak of my Dad are honesty, devotion, loyalty, incredible integrity but most of all love," Jay Spalding said. "Dad wasn't just a coach of sports; he was a coach of life and how to live it by example."
For someone as active as he was, Parkinson's was a particular blow. But he handled it with grace. He didn't complain.
And he was rewarded with a final chapter that was beyond his wildest dreams. He got to see the program he in many ways started and nurtured, through so many Bingo nights and long road trips, win an NCAA Division II National championship. When the Knights won the regional to advance to the Elite Eight, they took the trophy first to their student section, then over to Spalding.
After the national championship, Spalding went to the postgame celebration at a local bar and grill with his family, wheelchair and all. Later, there was a knock at his hotel room door. Some coaches and players walked into the room with the national championship trophy. They handed it to him, let him touch it, see it up close.
Not everyone gets the see the seeds they've sown blossom so wonderfully. Spalding did.
The next time Bellarmine played, the following fall in Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke, coaches were getting antsy that the players were late getting back to the locker room from their pregame shooting. Then word came back. They had stopped to talk to Jim Spalding.
"He was a great gentleman, and everything he did, he did for Bellarmine," Knights' basketball coach Scotty Davenport said. "Our players had such great respect for him and what he did. Why do we as coaches here sweep the floors and polish the backboards and vacuum the locker room? It's the Jim Spalding way. You do what you have to do for them. The happiness and satisfaction he took from that championship was one of its greatest rewards."
They will lay Jim Spalding to rest today, and I suspect the headlines of sports will roll right along. But I'm always partial to people like this, people who, if you stop and listen long enough, leave legacies that shout as loud as any packed arena.
Spalding's legacy certainly will rumble through this city and beyond for years to come.
The great coach John Wooden often quoted a verse that he both aspired to and applied to great coaches and teachers. It certainly fits here.
No written word, no spoken plea,
Can teach our youth what they should be,
Nor all the books on all the shelves.
It's what the teachers are themselves.
Spalding's funeral Mass will be held at 11 a.m. on Monday (June 11) at Mother of Good Shepherd, 3511 Rudd Avenue in Louisville's Portland neighborhood. Burial will follow at Calvary Cemetery.
Memorial gifts in his honor may be made to the Conventional Franciscan Friars (Province of Our Lady of Consolation, Development Office, 103 St. Francis Blvd., Mount St. Francis IN 47146) or to the Bellarmine University Athletics Scholarship Fund in memory of Jim Spalding (2001 Newburg Road, Louisville, KY 40205).
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