COLUMBIA — Curt Riley, 52, sits inside his new office at Fr. Tolton Catholic High School as the school’s first-year girls basketball coach.
He brings himself back to that fall morning in 2001 when his father, Buck, was taking his last breaths. See him watching the man go.
Tolton Girls Basketball
Coach: Curt Riley, first year
Last year's finish: 12-14
Projected starters: sophomore PG Lydia Hale, junior G Hope Wright, junior F River Remis, senior F Lacey Stephen, junior F Chase Fridel
Team motto: "If we want things we've never had we have to do things we've never done" - message on back of team shirt
The man. That’s what Curt Riley calls his dad. The man, he says with some authority, is his father, his coach.
At the time, he was nearing the end of his 11-year tenure at Kirksville High School, where he brought a girls basketball program to prominence. He made four other stops across mid-Missouri before then, beginning at Linn County High School when he was a just-out-of-college 23-year-old living alone.
He’s entering his 30th season overall as a coach. He’s here following a seven-year stint as an assistant with the Columbia College women’s team.
Tolton is entering its second varsity year, and he’s here, he says, primarily for the challenge.
“I live for that stuff, man,” Riley says.
He knows his career is at its tail end, and there’s more to being here than just for the challenge. And he will try to explain.
• • •
But see him first on that fall morning in 2001. Riley gets home from the job around 2 a.m. His mom calls, telling him to come quick. He barrels away in his Jeep, knowing that he will have to miss practice the next day, which he doesn't like, but for this he will miss.
• • •
He says he was getting "the itch" at Columbia College. He says he loved his time there under Mike Davis, loved doing all the day-to-day stuff required of him. But he couldn't ignore the 22 years worth of binders loaded with crumpled sheets of written-out practice schedules from his days as a head coach. He kept them in a pile. He kept the records showing the 434 wins he got in 714 high school games. He accepted the Tolton job in July.
“You just don't …” he says, stopping. “You just never lose that itch.”
It’s a tough thing to explain.
• • •
But try to see Riley when he’s an 8-year-old boy in pajamas watching his dad, the football coach, the man. The boy watched Buck Riley gather up his assistants at the kitchen table. He watched his dad flick on the 16-millimeter projector and take notes with his assistants after each play. How they talk to each other. How they plan for practice, for victory. See how the boy sees the man in victory.
• • •
Hours after he accepted the Tolton job, Riley says he started watching film. He started drawing up practice schedules again.
He says he’d like to build this program to the point where people say: “Tolton Lady Trailblazers. This is who we are. This is what we do.”
He says this often about coaching: “This is what I am. This is what I do.”
It is also tough to explain.
• • •
But try to see Riley at the man’s bedside, there at roughly 5:30 a.m. His dad waged war against the cancer for a final five hours. They say nothing. They look at each other.
Riley thinks back to high school. He's an average athlete, wanting still as ever to be the man. Football practice ends, and the quarterback is throwing the ball at a swinging tire that the man roped onto the field goal’s crossbar. The weekends come, and he’s working on his jump shot with the man rebounding for him on an empty court.
See Riley as he enters college, as he walks on to the basketball team at what was then Tarkio College, where he went because that was where the man once played sports. Riley wasn't good enough to get in games, so he scrapped at practice, hand-checked on defense, tugged at players’ shirts, jabbed his knee into their backs on rebounds so that he could stay competitive, because he had to somehow. His dad calls one day to talk about his son’s plans for the future, and his son tells him, of course, that he wants to be him.
• • •
Riley's son, Cory, came home from college for the weekend to see his dad leading a practice again. In his 19 years, Cory Riley says he has always been at practices with his dad, whether he was in a stroller or in a chair on the sideline as he is now.
Cory says he worries about his dad being a head coach again because he’s seen what a season makes his dad. He says he’s seen how his dad sometimes gets home late from a game, from a loss that shouldn’t have been a loss, but it was because of him. Riley blames himself for not calling the right plays, for not doing the necessary amount of study on the opponent, for getting outcoached. Cory says he has seen his dad those nights on the couch with a laptop and notepad.
Growing up, Cory wasn’t always able to look to the stands and see his dad.
“My biggest regret is ... tunnel vision during my season," Rileysays. "It seems like other stuff is not nearly as important to me. And I don't think that’s the way to be. I shouldn't be that way. I don’t know why I am.”
Cory understands: “It’s his life. It’s what he’s dedicated himself to."
He’s home from college, so he can watch his dad in practice.
“I just watch him,” he says. “That helps me.”
He says he will, of course, be a coach someday.
• • •
See Riley watch the man in his last hour.
The arms flail upward when the breaths won’t come. Riley watches him fight as he knew the man would.
Riley sees his father, his coach breathe once more.
• • •
“You’re not guaranteed anything,” Riley says here in his new office.
He had practice end on a fun note. Those practices, he believes, can be important, too.
“He’s kind of from the old school in the sense that he’s very intense. He wants to win,” says Kelli Kent, a former point guard of his at Kirksville, now an assistant at Tolton. “From another perspective, he cares a lot about any girl he’s ever coached. We all keep in touch with him.”
She’s watching Riley try his signature right hook shot from half-court. Players are attempting them with him. They’re all laughing here at the end of practice.
You’re not guaranteed anything, Riley believes.
He rubs at his graying goatee and repeats a question to himself.
“How will I know if I’m successful here …?”
He thinks hard about it. He knows, after all, that Tolton might be his final stop after more than a quarter of a lifetime doing what he does, being who he is.
He’s quiet and staring off somewhere, his eyes slightly shifting, maybe getting a glimpse into the place where he knows finally that it has all paid off, wherever that place in the distance is.
In that place players are giving fives to each other. Hugging each other.
“After that first win,” he answers.
• • •
See what Riley sees at the funeral. See all the former players and former teammates, all the coaches his dad worked with and coached against, all the people who tell him they learned something from his dad in the 30 years his dad coached. See Riley return to practice the next week.
And see him today — a coach — because he can't imagine doing anything else, because it is possible to have some desire you can’t explain course through your blood.
See the coach sitting in his new office, bringing his glasses down to the bridge of his nose so that he can wipe at the tears. See him smiling. See him think of his dad, of what it must mean to be able to make a difference, of what it must mean to build a legacy, of what it must mean to be a good coach.
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.