By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
When Klint Pleasant was hired as the head men’s basketball coach in the summer of 2002, he told the media, “I don’t want to be a basketball coach who happens to be a Christian; I want to be a Christian who happens to be a basketball coach.”
A little more than a year later, the second-year front man for the Wildcats has held fast to his principles and has surrounded himself with a coaching staff that cares more about winning souls for Christ than winning basketball games.
“This job is so much more than basketball,” Pleasant says. “One of the big reasons I was excited to be back at ACU was that this job can be a ministry. God’s entrusted me with 15 or 16 young men for a few hours each day, and I take that very seriously.”
Words like these might seem strange coming from a head coach, but to understand Pleasant’s philosophy, you must also understand his father.
Like father, like son
Garth Pleasant has amassed 545 victories in 27 seasons as head men’s basketball coach at Rochester (Mich.) College, making him the winningest active college coach in Michigan. Klint’s dad certainly showed him how to win, but more importantly, he showed him how to truly impact his players.
“I give the credit to my father; he always made it a ministry,” Klint says.
From the time he was 4, Klint would go on road trips with his father’s team.
“I don’t know if I cognitively trained Klint to treat the job as a ministry,” Garth said. “But I always tried to be a role model for him, and that’s what he saw.”
Pleasant hired Josh Graves in August to replace departed assistant coach Steven Hamrick. Ironically enough, Graves played for one Pleasant and now coaches for his son: From 1998 to 2002, Graves played for Garth at Rochester College, averaging 10 points per game as a three-year starter.
Graves said he respected the elder Pleasant-who also happens to be the minister at Rochester’s Lake Orion Church of Christ-because of the ministry he performed to his players.
“He’s one of the most unique people I’ve been around,” says Graves, whose family has been close with the Pleasants for years. “He was such an up-front person about faith when he recruited people. The amazing thing is that he was so committed to ministry, but he still won a lot.
“I remember him saying, ‘I would rather go 0-20 and have all you guys have a relationship with Jesus than go 20-0 and none of you know Jesus,'” recalls Graves. “He took a lot of criticism for not recruiting Christians, but I don’t know how Christian an institution is if they’re not open to everyone.”
But the younger Pleasant remains open, just like dad.
“I’d almost rather recruit guys who aren’t Christians,” Pleasant said. “I wouldn’t want to coach a bunch of guys just like me. I embrace having a bunch of players from all different backgrounds-inner city, suburbs, whatever. If they come here with no religious background, that’s fine with me.”
Pleasant’s team this season is certainly diverse. Besides having players who hail from different economic and religious backgrounds, the lineup features young men from Germany to Alabama, from Mozambique to Michigan- and several other locations that have nothing in common.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys from all different places and all different backgrounds,” first-year assistant coach Clayton Bissett said. “A lot of them didn’t grow up the way I did, with two parents, church and money. But I think when you sit down in the office, close the door and talk to them, you learn you have more in common with them than you thought.”
The coaches’ eager acceptance to know their diverse group has led to admiration, says junior forward Rance Bland.
“Our coaches are men of integrity,” Bland said. “They’re the leaders of the team and they set the tone for the program. They don’t have control over everything the players do, but they do have a major influence on their lives. Some look to them as father figures.”
Sowing the seed
Not a day goes by where Pleasant doesn’t pray for his players: for their lives, their problems… their hearts.
“I try to sow the seed,” he said. “I try to develop one-on-one relationships with the guys, get to know them off the court. When that develops, it opens up the opportunity to minister.”
And he ministers not in the Bible-thumping crusade fashion that the word connotes, but in a personal, more meaningful way.
“‘Ministry’ is a scary word for some people,” Graves said. “It’s safe to pay a guy $75,000 and call him a minister, but ministry looks different in different settings. For us, it’s about being a servant-caring about these kids more than our own ambitions.”
For that reason, Bissett says he always tries to get to know the players off the court; often asking them if they are interested in attending church with him on Sundays.
Off-the-court gestures from coach to player have not gone unnoticed.
“I still have to take [Bissett] up on that offer [to go to church],” senior guard Rodney Lee said. “He’ll come pick you up, too. Man, that’s awesome. You get to see another side of them that makes them more real. It’s easy to listen to someone on the court who cares about you off the court.”
Freshman guard Atiba Alexander said he has gained added respect for his three coaches and their personal care for the team.
“They want to help us out in life, and that shows that they look further beyond basketball,” he said. “It comes down to showing that they really love us; they’re concerned if we’re going to Heaven or hell.”
Pleasant and his staff also show this concern with a team chapel held in the team’s locker room once every two weeks. Sometimes, the players sing; sometimes, they read from former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s inspirational book, Wooden; sometimes Graves speaks on a topic; and prayer requests are always taken.
Bland said they pray before each game that they glorify God with how they play, and try to say a prayer before and after every practice.
Each coach wants to leave a mark that each of his 16 players won’t forget.
“I would hope that our 16 guys know that we care more about them than we do this game,” Graves said.
“I want them to remember me as a coach who really cared about them, who was really interested,” Bissett said. “I want them to want their sons to play for us.”
“I’d like them to leave better people than when they came,” said Pleasant. “That, and to have to make a decision about Jesus, and choose to put their lives in His hands.”
And, after briefly putting each of their lives in these coaches’ hands, that prospect sure seems likely.