Kevin Garner has come a long way from playing basketball in the park in Edina, Mo., and playing basketball at Knox County High School to becoming an assistant executive director with the Missouri State High School Activities Association.
Garner, 50, made coaching stops at Missouri high schools in Richland, Kahoka and Sullivan before finding a home in Rolla, where he was the athletic director for seven years. He's now an assistant executive director for MSHSAA, which is based in Columbia, Mo., and one of his prime duties is to coordinate the state basketball tournaments in Columbia each year. He also is in charge of soccer for the state.
However, he's maintained his home in Rolla where he lives with his wife, Kathi. They have four children. He took time on Tuesday while preparing for this weekend's Class 4 and Class 5 state basketball tournaments to talk about his career.
Why do you continue to live in Rolla, which is 90 minutes away from your job in Columbia?
Sometimes, you do things for your family. My wife had just received her dream job. She's a librarian at the middle school. We had four kids, and at the time, one wanted to see what he could do in high school. Sometimes, you make sacrifices, and that was a decision we made. Rolla is a great community. I'm keeping the petroleum engineering school in business.
So how do you pass the time in the car?
I do a little of everything. I spend most of my time on the phone returning phone calls. Text to speech with Siri is really a good thing. I can dictate back some things. I've done some books on tape, and right now, I'm trying to learn Spanish. I'm getting ready to go on a mission trip to Mexico.
Once your playing days were finished, when did you know you wanted to be a coach?
I was a physical education and health major at Evangel University in Springfield, Mo. It's what I wanted to do. Be a basketball coach. That was my dream. I walked on (to the basketball team) for a year, and I had some knee problems. I started the second year, made it through a couple of months and decided it wasn't worth it, so I picked up officiating at that point. It was a away to pay for tuition. It gave me a different perspective of the game. Then I was approached by Lynn Bowen, the girls coach at Evangel, to help. He didn't have an assistant coach, so I did that, and I also was in charge of intramurals. Coach Bowen let me get my feet wet. It opened up some doors.
Talk about your first job out of college at Richland, Mo.
I was hired as a head basketball coach and head baseball coach. I wasn't much of a baseball player, and I didn't have an assistant, so I had to learn pretty quickly. It helps when you have talented kids. I was the freshman coach, the junior varsity and the varsity coach. I learned you have to be willing to put a lot of time in to take care of a program and build and create one. You have to get your hands dirty a little bit.
How did you end up at Clark County?
That was a great opportunity. Roger Nimmo was the girls coach, and he gave me an opportunity to come up there. It was a great fit. I got to work with seventh and eighth graders, and I coached the varsity at the same time. I got to work Jon Kirchner all four years I was there.
Your teams in Kahoka had a lot of success.
We were very fortunate. We were the sixth seed the first year and won the district, and we lost to Palmyra on a half-court shot in the sectional. They went on to get third in the state that year. The following year, we had an outstanding run. We were ranked No. 1 for a while. We were 19-0 before our first loss. We went 26-2. We played Highland four times that year, and they got us in the district championship by three. They went on to get third in state. My third year, we had a group of 13 seniors and we won the district championship, but we ran into Brookfield. They beat us in double overtime in the sectional at Hannibal. They went to place at state as well.
Having that many seniors had to make for an interesting next season.
My last year, we had nobody who had ever worn a varsity uniform. They worked hard, and they won the district tournament when we upset Monroe City. We won our sectional and got to the quarters, and we came up short against Fatima Westphalia. They got second in the state. It was four very fun, great years. They were great young men. The community was behind us. There wasn't a gym we didn't go into when we didn't outnumber the home team with our fans.
So why leave Kahoka for Sullivan?
Sullivan was where I was born. I lived there until I was 5 years old, and my grandparents still lived there. It was an opportunity to go where I had never really lived, but I would be closer to my immediate family. They had good traidition there. Clark County had been super, especially from a coaching standpoint. We averaged 20 victories a year. It was a tough pill to swallow and to leave Kahoka, but it's the decisions you make. I still had lofty ideas that I was going to coach in college, and it was a bigger school. The grass is always greener.
You were in Sullivan for four years and made a trip to the state tournament in 1997. How did you end up in Rolla?
I was approached about becoming the athletic director at Rolla. We had competed against Rolla, and back when I was at Richland, my wife had commuted back and forth to Rolla. I wasn't sure I wanted to give up coaching. I enjoyed working with the kids. That's the one thing that you have to decide. Are you ready to give that up on a daily basis? It made it tough, but I wanted to get into administration. I learned if you're going to get into the college coaching ranks, you don't do it by coaching in high school. With a wife and a couple of kids, I wasn't going to become a graduate assistant. I got my master's degree in administration, and I had this opportunity to go to this school of 1,250 students.
How did you get involved with MSHSAA in 2005?
When I was at Rolla, we hosted several events for the state in track, basketball, volleyball. I also was on the ad hoc committee for the multiplier (for private schools). I had gotten involved with the Missouri Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association and became the South Central Region representative. The year before I was hired, I was approached to become the director of music and cheerleading competitions (at MSHSAA), but I didn't have much experience in that. A year later, the association added a job. At the time, they didn't know what the assignments were going to be, but I threw my name in the hat. It sounded like something I would enjoy doing, and it worked out.
What's a typical day like for at MSHSAA?
It's never the same. I can't go into the office and expect to do this, this and this. That's what's exciting about the job. It doesn't get old. MSHSAA is a private organization, our schools choose to be a member. They want to know that when they're playing against other schools, they will be held to the same standard of rules. Kevin Garner doesn't make rules. Our schools make the rules. MSHSAA is all 570-plus high schools, and they vote, and they make the rules. My job is that when the schools have questions is to explain the rules and interpret the rules. I don't have a vote on it.
Possibly the most visible thing you do is organize the state basketball tournament.
That's easy to see. We're setting things up, working with the officials, getting the teams hotels and practice times. The rest of the year, I have 60 venues I have to secure for the lead-up sites (for sectional and quarterfinal games). We use high schools, civic centers, colleges and universities, and a lot of time is spent securing those venues. We're constantly evaluating if the venues were too big, too small, centrally located. Those are done a year or two years in advance. I spend a lot of time writing the (rules) manuals, revising them. We have a basketball advisory committee who we meet with. We get a lot of calls from parents. We answer their questions. An executive takes 20 to 30 calls a day. I could be a good customer service agent. We do spend a lot of time on the phone. That's not counting emails. I do the same thing for soccer.
What is the weekend like for you during the state tournament?
Hopefully, it's just like a game in that the preparation we've done all season will pay off. We want to make it a success for all who are participating. We have to be flexible and adjust. Up until the (NCAA Tournament) women's selection (Monday) night, we had to be ready to walk in the office and change everything we had planned for the last 12 months and move it all to a different venue. Most of the job is done, other than game time, getting the floor and the locker rooms ready and getting the souvenirs and medals ready to go. Then I get to enjoy watching the students have a good time and the communities rally behind their teams. This is a culmination of what we've been working on for 12 months.
Is there a hot-button topic or rule that you've dealt with a lot lately?
Our rules are determined by the National Federation of High Schools, and we don't vary from those rules. The shot clock is a topic of discussion. If Illinois were to vary from the NFHS rules and put in a shot clock, or if Missouri wanted to, we could, but we want to have the ability to sit on the (NFHS) rules committee. We're not on the rules committee every year, but we like to have that opportunity. We get a chance to influence how the sport is governed.
How much does your coaching background help you in your job?
Immensely. When a coach calls, I can empathize with that person. I was the only coach at my first job, and I coached every level. I also was the bus driver, and I lined my field. My experiences at different-sized schools and being an administrator at a larger school gave me a perspective from both the large schools and the smaller schools. You have to wear a lot of hats at a small school.
What is the biggest challenge in your job now?
Equity. Classification. Everybody would like an opportunity to win a state championship. What is fair? Where is that line? Over the last 13 years, and I'm in my 29th year in education, the biggest challenge we face now is people remembering why we play the sport. Do we play the sport to win or play the sport to build character? Billy Graham said it very well. Coaches will touch more lives in one year than many do their entire lives. Parents, administrators and coaches sometimes forget the reason there is for sport. Specialization also is a hot topic ... the loss of three sport athletes. These things have always been there, but they've kind of come to the forefront.
Have your beliefs about sports changed since when you first started coaching?
No. Sometimes we forget that it's not all about an opportunity for a college scholarship. In reality, only three percent of high school athletes go on to play college at any level. It's the life lessons we learn through sport -- how to persevere, how to cooperate with people -- that's why we play. That's why have sport in school. Instead of worrying about the officiating or the venue, parents should ask themselves: Did my son or daughter have a good time tonight? Whether or not they scored 20 points or if they sat on the bench, did they have fun? Did they improve? Did they build friendships? That's why, honestly, I got into this business. I was fortunate to have success with wins and losses and district championships, and those are great memories, but the strongest memories are when I catch up with a former player and they tell me that I affected them in a positive way somehow -- maybe not at the time but down the road. That's how I define success.