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Russell is prize catch for UTM

Russell is prize catch for UTM
Russell is prize catch for UTM | Russell is prize catch for UTM
Messenger Sports Editor
Kevin McMillan went fishing for an assistant coach a couple of years ago and landed the ultimate big one.
Typical of most anglers, the UT Martin head women’s coach couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell exactly where he was that day, but his catch is one he gladly keeps on display.
“I think — make that, I know — we were fishing. I’m not sure when it was or where we were, but I just threw it out there when we were talking,” the Skyhawk skipper recalled of his first effort to lure legendary West Tennessee prep coach David Russell into the UTM boat.
“I knew if I could talk him into it, it would be a no-brainer for me and our program.”
Russell was indeed a prize addition to the UT Martin women’s staff after an iconic 35-year high school career that saw his teams win over 950 games and six state championships.
He and McMillan — when not on the water together — had previously worked side-by-side at Gibson County for two seasons, leading the Lady Pioneers to a pair of state tournament appearances, the second an undefeated Class 2A state championship run.
The following year (2010) after McMillan left for the UTM job, Russell stepped back into the lead position of the program and won the last of his state titles and gave GC back-to-back Double-A crowns when the Pioneer girls rallied from 17 down in the second half of the championship game to beat McMinn Central.
He said his is the perfect situation.
“The only way it’d be any better is if they’d just start sending me a check for not showing up,” Russell grinned.
“He (McMillan) told me that he wanted it to be the ideal job for me and he’s let it be. I wanted to back off a little from the hot seat, and I’m certainly comfortable in my role here.
“Some days I think I’d like to get back on the high school level and do it again. I don’t think you could do what I did for 35 years and not miss it a little bit. Then I go to the games and hear the parents and see some of the other things that go on and know why I got out.”
Personalities and ego are non-issues for the two coaches — nor assistant Brian Haskins (another former Westview coach) — and being able to bounce ideas off of and get suggestions from someone of Russell’s experience is obviously invaluable for McMillan.
“I think ‘unique’ is definitely the word for it,” McMillan said. “Coach Russell has had tremendous success, but he’s eager to do whatever we need around here in order for the program to be successful. From the most important detail to the least, he’ll do whatever. Just point him in a direction and tell him when to go.
“I know what he’s about and knew how good of a coach he was from our time together at Gibson County. Because he’s coached so many different styles, he’s a great resource, but his view of the game is very simple.
You can’t just pigeonhole him into one role, because he’s so good at so many different things. He’s a very good complement to what I do and how I look at stuff.”
Russell actually was responsible for McMillan — who left the rural West Tennessee prep ranks after a successful tenure at Westview for a job on Rick Insell’s staff at Middle Tennessee State University — returning to the area.
“I contacted him and asked if he was interested in coming to Gibson County as my assistant because I’d heard he was looking to get back to West Tennessee,” Russell recalled. “He said he wasn’t ready to be an assistant, and I said, ‘Well, I can be.’”
The college game is obviously different and has been somewhat of an adjustment for the 59-year-old Russell, who says the “travel is the biggest thing and that recruiting is 85 percent of the game.”
“It’s less coaching, but I do believe college coaches do a better job today than they did in the past because they have more resources.”
Russell has a set of core values on the game that he shares with McMillan, though, that he insists haven’t been nor won’t be compromised.
“From the standpoint of setting goals and attaining those, and them (the players) seeing the game through your eyes and having them accomplish something they didn’t know they could, there’s no difference,” he said. “It’s still basketball. You get to teach more of the game on the philosophical and skill side on the high school level and you’re responsible for how the game should be played when you have them from the fifth grade on. You get to teach more of the game.
“Still, it gets back to having people who have skills and who want to compete and win.”
Russell claims McMillan has done with the UT Martin program what he and his then-high school coaching brethren had talked about for many years by turning the Skyhawks into a reputable program with some West Tennessee kids (Heather Butler, Jasmine Newsome, Aubrey Reedy, Pericia Glenn, Heather Griffin), mixing in others from other parts of the state (Jaclissa Haislip, Taylor Hall, Beth Hawn, Paige Smith), and bringing in a handful more (Shelby Crawford, Rickiesha Bryant, Megan White) to lay the groundwork for success and interest.
“We coaches all used to sit around at camps and talk about how you could take some of the best kids in West Tennessee and make them the cornerstone and get some kids to complement them and make UTM competitive in the OVC every year,” Russell said. “I think Tennessee, as a whole, has the best girls’ high school basketball because of the work ethic and commitment of the kids.
“Kevin and (Brian) Haskins have done a good job of not only doing that, but have done making the campus accessible to high school coaches and programs in the area. They make them feel a part of things here which, in turn, gives those folks the idea of pride. They don’t always necessarily look for the best athletes, but are more about good, quality people.”
Despite what he chuckled was a “reduced schedule” with a little time for fishing and yardwork in the spring and early summer, Russell still takes his job seriously.
More importantly, he relishes the title of ‘coach.’
“Anybody can go down to Ken-Tenn (Sporting Goods) and get a shirt and call themselves a coach,” he claimed. “The countless hours in gym or on the field with kids and all the things they go through and that you go through with them, that’s what makes you a coach.
“I always wanted to be a teacher of basketball. I’m happy with what I’ve done in my career, and everything I have I owe to education and basketball. And I’m proud that people who I’ve had dealings with call me and consider me a ‘coach.’”
And while he and McMillan both claim Russell’s role isn’t necessarily defined in the usual assistant-head coach directory, it is somewhat simplified.
“He doesn’t need a lot of advice from me. He asks my opinion and I give it to him, that’s what he pays me for,” Russell said. “Different eyes see different things, and if I see him get caught up in one point of the game and not seeing another part, I’ll say something. He just wants to win.
“I obviously think Kevin’s a good coach and he coaches the game how it was meant to be played.”
He’s pretty good at setting a hook, too.
Published in The Messenger 3.15.12