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Building Legends by Remembering Legends

Mike Vining

Sport: Coach

Induction Year: 2010

Wins stacked up at ULM while Vining stayed home

 

By Paul Letlow

 

Mike ViningThe coaching carousel is always spinning in today’s college basketball world.


The successful coaches parlay wins at one stop into bigger bucks and bigger opportunities. If they move around enough, they can stay on a permanent honeymoon.

 

It’s hard to blame them though, because loyalty is a two-way relationship. Those coaches that can’t control their fate often find themselves dismissed if they hit a lean year or two.

 

Former University of Louisiana at Monroe men’s coach Mike Vining, who spent all 24 of his years as a college head coach at ULM, is one of the noble exceptions.

 

“It was a special situation, said former ULM point guard Casey Jones, now a successful high school coach. “He loves that community and institution. It was the place he wanted to be. In order to be successful, you have to want to be somewhere.”

A product of nearby Goodwill, Vining went to college in Monroe, and then served as a graduate assistant and later as an assistant coach on the same campus. And he never felt compelled to chase the next big thing once he landed his dream job.

“The way I was brought up in Goodwill, there was something wrong with you if you couldn’t hold a job,” said Vining, part of the 2010 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction class. “I never bought into that culture. I was always trying to prove President Dwight Vines made the right decision hiring me.”

 

He did.  Vining’s achievements bear that out, ultimately carrying him to the state’s highest sports honor. For more information on the Hall of Fame’s 2010 Induction Celebration and to purchase tickets to the Induction Dinner and Ceremonies, visit the www.lasportshall.com website or call 318-238-4250.

 

The coach who won 401 games, made seven NCAA Tournament appearances and earned an NIT bid had the chips to cash in but never did. Vining guided the program to its first NCAA Tournament in 1982, his first year as head coach, enjoyed six 20-win seasons and earned nine conference championships.

 

“I had a friend who was a coach ask me once why I stayed here,” Vining said. “I never had the big offer to leave. He said that’s because nobody thinks you will leave. He told me if I’d resign, I’d be shocked at the offers I would get. But I never even considered it. 

“The thing about us is, we were happy and where we wanted to be. We were going to be happy wherever we were, but we were happy here so why take a chance? My family was here and (wife) Sammie’s family was here. We had kids. If I wanted to drag my kids all over the world, I’d have stayed in the military.” 

The most serious courtship came from Lamar in 1993. Vining mulled it briefly but declined to pursue the move. His moment of clarity then came as he was driving home from visiting his father in Goodwill. It was a drive he made religiously every Sunday and when he thought about leaving those familiar roads behind, he was overcome with emotion.   

 

“This was home,” Vining said, “and I liked home.” 

Vining’s staying power had a lot to do with his personality. Beyond the wins, he ran a clean program and served as a likeable ambassador for the school.

 

“One of the things that makes Mike special is his humor,” said newly-hired ULM head coach Keith Richard, a former player and assistant under Vining. “He’s got a great sense of humor. If you can’t live life with a sense of humor, you’ll be a miserable son of a gun. He had a way of making funny cracks at the right time. That’s what a lot of players remember.”

 

Vining was still cracking jokes earlier this year when ULM inducted him into its sports Hall of Fame. He said President James Cofer called him a “model coach” when he offered his resignation in 2005.

 

Then Vining checked the dictionary for the definition of “model.”

 

“It said ‘a replica or a small imitation of the real thing,’” Vining quipped.

   

Vining liked to laugh, but he was serious about basketball. The values of hard work and dedication that he brought with him from West Carroll Parish carried over into his profession.  He was from a large family and treated his teams like family too. 

“I told them that basketball ought to be fun, but I never had fun losing,” said Vining, one of four Louisiana men’s basketball coaches with more than 400 victories. “I wanted to have fun when we played. But I always told them that you worked basketball and played after you won.”

 

Vining’s heyday  came in the mid-1980s and early 1990s with return trips to the NCAA Tournament in 1986, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 and later in 1996.  Then known as Northeast Louisiana University or NLU, the basketball teams tangled with players like Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan, Duke’s Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill and Iowa’s Acie Earl.  Vining matched wits with Mike Krzyzewski of Duke,  Lute Olson at Iowa and UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian.

 

Though Vining was 0-for-7 in NCAA opportunities, there was the close 62-50 loss to Duncan’s Wake Forest squad in 1996. ULM cut the lead to eight with 3:06 remaining and held Duncan to 10 points. But the Demon Deacons shot 24 free throws to ULM’s four to prevail. 

 

NLU and ULM produced plenty of its own stars in the Vining era.  Seven players earned Player of the Year honors, to go along with five Newcomer of the Year selections and 46 all-conference picks.

Sixteen of Vining’s players were 1,000-point scorers and seven-footer Wojciech Myrda set the NCAA record in career blocks in 2002.

“He knows the game and knows how to deal with people,” said Richwood High School coach Terry Martin, a player and assistant for Vining.  “It was just the confidence that he had. He truly enjoyed coaching and developing young men. The way he dealt with people is, he taught you to work hard and to believe in yourself.”

As for his recruiting philosophy, Vining favored a team filled with “tweeners” like Carlos Funchess. Some schools bypassed Funchess as too small to play power forward and not skilled enough to play small forward.

 

“I got him and let the other team figure out who could guard him,” Vining said. “If you put a three on him, we’d put him inside. If you tried to guard him with a four, we’d take him outside. We let them worry about it.”

 

Vining’s best teams had great point guards like Jones or Keith Johnson, were up-tempo, played man-to-man defense and fun to watch. Funchess was the collegiate dunk champion in 1991, beating out teammate Anthony “Greyhound” Jones. Four players between 1988 and 1995 finished in the national top three in the dunk competition.

 

“The team that I looked at and admired in the early years was Louisville with Denny Crum,” Vining said. “They always had the best athletes. If it was a running contest, they could out-run you. If it was a jumping contest, they could out-jump you. I always liked that idea.” 

Vining's connection to ULM began in 1962 when he enrolled with his teammate Larry Butler after a standout prep career at Forest High School. Vining played basketball for Coach Lenny Fant and pitched for the baseball team, which he helped lead to the Gulf States Conference Championships in 1964 and 1966.

 

After graduating in 1967, he spent two years coaching the school’s junior varsity team while working toward his master's degree. Following a two-year stint as an officer in the U.S. Army, Vining was back in coaching in 1971 at Bastrop High School. Fant recommended him for the job to follow another future Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer – Leon Barmore.

 

Through seven years in Bastrop, Vining led the Rams to a 175-47 record, six playoff trips and one state title. The Bastrop program produced seven future ULM stars including NBA standout Calvin Natt, the best men’s basketball player in school history and also a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee.

Vining left Bastrop for ULM in 1978 and spent one season as an assistant to Fant and two under Benny Hollis before President Vines awarded him the top job in 1981.

 

While assisting Hollis, Vining signed the 6-9 Martin out of Shady Grove High in Saline. The highly-regarded recruit evolved into a key player on ULM’s first NCAA playoff team under Vining.

 

“Signing Terry Martin is probably what got me the job,” Vining said.

 

Vining’s promotion continued a remarkable coaching legacy at ULM that would span through six decades. With win No. 327 in 1999, Vining would pass Fant (326-221 in 22 seasons) on ULM’s career list.  Combined, Vining and Fant (also a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame member) won 727 games.

 

“He’s responsible for all of it,” Vining said of Fant when he was approaching the milestone in 1999. “He’s responsible for all of his and mine too.”

 

In addition to being ULM’s career leader in wins, Vining also set the standard in the Southland Conference. From 1983 to 2005, Vining won 383 games while coaching in the league and is a member of the SLC Hall of Honor. 

 

Vining’s impact continues today with numerous former players who have gone into the coaching profession in high school or college.

“He was a terrific motivator,” said Jones, who won a state championship at Ouachita as a coach. “You’d come into a 6 o’clock practice and he was ready to go. He may have been up since 4 o’clock. He understood that hard work and accountability help you become successful. He instilled that in a lot of guys who played for him.”

Said Martin, who has won two state titles at Richwood: “I try to bring out the best in my players the way he did with us. A lot of my success at Richwood has come with his system.”

Since retiring from coaching in 2005, Vining has remained close to the athletics department. For several years, he served as facilities manager at Fant-Ewing Coliseum and shared an office with ULM women’s coach Mona Martin. He frequently shows up to speak at ULM functions, where he showcases his trademark humor. He’s currently serving as executive administrative officer to Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, who was his point guard at Bastrop. 

“The only thing about coaching that I miss is the relationships I had with the kids,” Vining said. “One night, a bunch came over here to the house. They gathered up for some reason. They broke out the dominoes, 10 or 12 of ‘em cutting up and carrying on. They were fussing about which of my teams were the best.  Casey Jones, Keith Johnson, it was great. They were trying to get me and Sammie to take a side. Being around them, it reverted back. You remember the good times.”

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