Answers from those who know ETSU’s new basketball coach best
By Trey Williams
Steve Forbes has paid his dues and East Tennessee State basketball is about to have an elite club.
At least, that’s the sentiment of some who know ETSU’s new 50-year-old, first-time Division I head coach, including former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie.
“He’s gonna knock it out of the park from day one,” Gillsipie said, “and East Tennessee State will be doing everything they can to hold on to him and everyone else will be saying, ‘Man alive, how did we let this guy get this far into his career? Why didn’t we have him at our place?’ That’s just how good he is.”
Forbes was with Gregg Marshall the past two years at Wichita State, where he capped an 11-year run of unprecedented feats that began with Gillispie at Texas A&M. The Aggies went from 21 losses to 21 wins during Forbes’ first year (2004-05).
Forbes left A&M for Tennessee and was part of five straight NCAA Tournament teams under Bruce Pearl.
An Elite Eight berth and No. 1 national ranking were among the Volunteers’ firsts accomplished with Forbes on the staff of Pearl, who brought the remarkable era crumbling down by basically turning a secondary NCAA recruiting violation into Watergate.
Forbes was pardoned by Northwest Florida State, his third junior college head-coaching job. Tennessee assistant Jason Shay went with him and they maintained momentum, leading NFS to a 62-6 record and back-to-back national runner-up finishes.
It was unrivaled success for a proven program that’d gone 317-82 under Bruce Stewart in 13 seasons before he was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2010. Stewart died the following May.
“It’s unfortunate the circumstances that brought Steve to our program,” Northwest Florida State athletic director Ramsey Ross said. “But you know, to say that he made the most of his opportunity would be an understatement.”
Ross was impressed with Forbes’ “low maintenance” personality. Forbes didn’t blink when told one of the rewards for qualifying for the national tournament was an 18-hour bus ride to Hutchinson, Kansas.
More impressive, Ross said, was how some 150-200 elementary school students began cheering wildly when Forbes’ players took the court in Hutchinson. Unbeknownst to Ross, Forbes and his players had visited the students at their school.
“No longer will the people of Johnson City, you know, just kind of casually be interested in ETSU,” said Ross, who noted a 40-percent fundraising increase under Forbes. “And that was with an already successful booster club.”
Forbes’ two seasons at Wichita State included a 35-0 start, the most wins in school history (35) and the proud program’s first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The culmination came March 22 – Forbes’ 50th birthday – when Wichita State upset rival Kansas to reach the Sweet 16.
“That was about as good as it gets,” Forbes said.
Doug Hofmeister, Forbes’ high school coach in Lone Tree, Iowa, watched proudly while the Shockers rocked the Jayhawks.
“I just knew they were gonna beat Kansas,” Hofmeister said. “That was inevitable.”
Hofmeister, who now coaches in Oregon (Forest Grove), took over as coach at Lone Tree during Forbes’ freshman season (1979-80). He hadn’t spotted any reason for optimism during “open gym” until a freshman football player arrived one day.
“One night he (Forbes) walked in and started shooting around a little bit,” Hofmeister said, “and I’m going, ‘Oh my God, there is a player here.’”
Forbes was a four-sport star. He was an all-state wide receiver, point guard, pitcher and state finalist in the high hurdles, long jump and two relays.
“But the one he loved the most was basketball,” said Hofmeister, who described Forbes as a point guard who could post up. “He was the leader of our team, without a doubt, and everybody looked up to him and kind of followed his lead.”
Forbes grew up on a farm without cable TV. His parents, Lowell and Linda, have each battled cancer. He said Lowell had to postpone a year of school when he was around five years old due to polio, and gave up basketball when he slipped in a spilled drink and broke his knee his freshman year.
“They’re both tough people that are very caring,” Forbes said. “They taught me to treat people with respect. They taught me the value of a hard day’s work. … I had to make the honor roll to play sports.”
Hofmeister and Forbes recall a satisfying win against rival Mediapolis, which hadn’t lost to Lone Tree in numerous years.
“That was a special time,” Forbes said. “It’s funny the things you remember. We won the league but I will never forget my last game. We lost in the district tournament and I went 4-for-20 and we lost in overtime.
“I really thought we would’ve won the state championship. We’d won it in football. I assumed we’d win it in basketball. And I went 4-for-20 and had a horrible game.”
Despite an excellent GPA, Forbes entered Muscatine Community College to raise his basketball stock. His teammates included Bobby Locke, who went on to an excellent career at Illinois-Chicago.
Forbes moved on to Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa his junior season, and transferred to Southern Arkansas to concentrate on baseball his senior year.
“We got third in the NAIA World Series my senior year,” Forbes said. “My claim to fame was Tim Salmon took me deep for Grand Canyon. He ended up being a pretty good major leaguer.”
Forbes’ self-deprecating wit is charming. Gillispie thought about it when reminded of the night Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks scored a record 54 points against Tennessee after Forbes’ had done UT’s scouting.
“It was so bad,” Forbes said with an amused chuckle. “Here is Jodie Meeks scoring 54 points running the offense that we ran at A&M – that I knew inside-out.”
It didn’t help that UTs Bobby Maze was talking trash much of the game.
“Steve knows how to take a joke, so we needled him a little bit,” Gillispie said. “But I will say this too – he probably did the scout, but had he been able to make all the decisions on all their defense from start to finish, nobody would ever score 54 on a team that Steve is coaching, I promise you. …
“He’s very, very, very competitive, but you can joke with Steve and he can be the butt of the joke and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, okay, but I’m gonna get you next time.’ And he has that same kind of feel with players.”
Toronto Raptors assistant Nick Nurse is two years younger than Forbes.
He was a high school star in Iowa who played basketball for Eldon Miller at Northern Iowa. Nurse and Forbes have been friends since early in their coaching careers, and knew of one another long before then.
“In Iowa you know who the good players are in high school,” Nurse said. “I’d heard of him. When we first actually met it was almost like you know who he is when he sits down.”
Nurse was the head coach at Grand View when Forbes was coaching 70 miles away at Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa. Grand View’s JV would scrimmage Forbes’ team.
“Neither one of us knew what we were doing back then,” Nurse said.
Nurse, who won two NBA D-League titles, said they’d drive 10-15 hours on recruiting trips.
“We kind of hit it off from day one,” Nurse said. “He was really good at developing relationships and finding players from good programs. And he’s such a likeable guy.
It’s no wonder he’s such a good recruiter. He’s just one of those guys that everybody likes to sit down and chat with. I don’t think I’ve ever had an uncomfortable moment with the guy. …
“I’m excited for him. I can’t wait. I’ll be coming down there this summer or fall.”
Gillispie said Forbes is equally adept at coaching offense and defense, frontcourt players or guards.
“And again, I’m talking like he’s the next coming of John Wooden,” Gillispie said, “but I’m just telling you that Steve can coach it all. He understands how to teach players the game. … I’m telling you, he will knock it out of the park from day one just like he did at Northwest Florida.
“He and his great family are gonna be so important to that community and they’ll accept every responsibility and surpass the expectations in every single way. I’m so happy because I heard the jubilation in his voice when he told me he’d been selected to be the coach.”
ETSU president Dr. Brian Noland and athletic director Richard Sander were much of the reason for Forbes’ excitement. Noland grew up a Washington Bullets fan. Sander’s a former basketball coach who hired Anthony Grant and Jeff Capel at VCU.
“I was blown away – how impressed I was with both of them, their desire to win and have a good program and do the right thing,” Forbes said while revisiting their initial meeting in mid-March. “When they left I felt good about it, but you never know. … I was ecstatic to get that phone call.”