Love and basketball
Geneva native Jim Osborne considers himself ‘blessed' in so many ways
By KARL PEARSON
First of a series...
There is one thing that Jim Osborne has held sacrosanct in his basketball career as a player and a coach. The game has never been about him.
Plenty of evidence exists from his playing and coaching days that Osborne would have a legitimate reason to boast about what he has accomplished in basketball from both standpoints. He had a big part in making sure the Geneva boys teams coached by the late Al Bailey in the first two years of the consolidation of old Spencer High School and Geneva into one unit ran smoothly.
He did his job so well that he led the Eagles to special heights in his junior and senior seasons. That included leading Bailey's teams to an 18-2 record in the 1961-62 season, then spearheading the Eagles' drive to a surge from an ordinary regular season to a 13-9 record and a berth in the Class AA district finals in his senior year. For his performance in his senior season of 1962-63, Osborne was chosen the Star Beacon Ashtabula County Player of the Year.
From Geneva, where he was even more recognized for his abilities as a left-handed pitcher for the Eagles of Bill Koval and as a member of Ashtabula Rubber Company's 1963 American Legion state champions, Osborne went on to Wittenberg University.
Some early struggles that almost led to his dropping out of basketball early in his career were overcome through sheer perseverance. He became the guy who ran the Tigers of future Ohio State coach Eldon Miller to success on a national scale in NCAA Division II before his graduation in 1967.
Osborne's life, particularly in basketball, has always been connected to coaching greatness. But he has credentials that might even make luminaries like Bailey and Koval, who are members of the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame, envious.
At 23 years old, he left Wittenberg and had the good fortune to receive the head coaching position at Gallipolis High School, having never set foot in the community until he interviewed for the job. Forty-one years later, and now in a sparkling new 1,800-seat gym at the school now known as Gallia Academy, Osborne has racked up 529 career victories with the Blue Devils. That is more than 100 more than any Ashtabula County coach, male or female, has ever earned.
JIM OSBORNE works the sidelines during a recent game at Gallia Academy. The Geneva graduate will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on March 28.
He entered the 2009-10 season ranked 30th all-time among Ohio's boys basketball coaches and has already moved up to 25th this year. Over the years, Osborne's teams have posted 29 winning seasons and one that ended at .500. He holds a .600 winning percentage overall (529-352) and a .619 percentage in SEOAL play (312-192).
His teams have won 11 Southeastern Ohio Athletic League championships and has been second twice. The Blue Devils have won 14 sectional championships, have been to the regional semifinals twice, district runners-up four times and district semifinalists 21 times. He has been SEOAL and district coach of the year 12 times.
Over the years, he has become known to most people in southern Ohio as Coach Oz. He's also known as the Wizard, with no offense meant to legendary UCLA coach John Wooden.
It's clear he has earned the respect of his coaching colleagues on a statewide basis. At the 2009 boys state basketball tournament, the 64-year-old Osborne was honored by the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association as the recipient of the Paul Walker Award.
The award is named for the late longtime coach at Middletown High School, who at the time of his retirement held the state record of career boys basketball victories with 695 and coached Ohio State and NBA great Jerry Lucas. The award is presented by the OHSBCA to an active coaching member of the association who has made significant contributions to high school basketball.
If anybody has a right to take himself pretty seriously, Osborne probably qualifies. But, if he ever did, he's long since past that stage.
"The success we've had is not about me," he said from his home in the community of 5,000, located on the Ohio River across the border from West Virginia. "I'm just the director.
"Nobody gets where they are by themselves. We never talk about winning. It's ultimately about a team being responsible for each other."
Osborne is already a member of the halls of fame at Geneva, Wittenberg and Gallia Academy, in addition to his recognition at the state level. But he is humbled to be joining his old coaches Bailey and Koval in the latest distinction as a newly minted member of the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame. His induction will take place March 28 at the ACBF's annual banquet at the Conneaut Human Resources Center.
"It's a tremendous honor," Osborne said. "They were such great coaches. It was a privilege to play for them. I learned so much from both of them."
As to his own credentials, Osborne isn't nearly so impressed.
"I'm just a simple old guy," he said. "I'm not that special."
There are those in Geneva and in his adopted community who would argue with that.
"Jim was just super," Koval, who coached Osborne in freshman basketball and had him on his varsity baseball squad for four years, said. "He was super disciplined. He was one of those rare individuals who was like having a coach on the court or on the field. He was always such a team-oriented player."
Hobart Wilson, a retired sports writer for the Gallipolis Daily Tribune, was among the first people to meet Osborne when he came to the community in 1969. He has come to a deep respect for Osborne and his commitment to the sport in the 41 years since.
"I was sitting with Wayne Niday, who, at the time, was board clerk of the Gallipolis City Schools District," Wilson said. "(Niday) said, ‘We've hired a new basketball coach and he's sitting on the other side of the room, the young man with sideburns and horn-rimmed glasses.'
"I thought to myself, ‘Wow, does this guy know what he is getting into? He's coming to a football-baseball oriented town and wants to emphasize basketball.'"
In the years since that first encounter, Wilson has come to learn what a stroke of genius the hiring of Osborne was to Gallia Academy, and not just for basketball.
"He's very dedicated," Wilson said. "I've always said my kids and grandkids were fortunate to have been through this program.
"You'll never find anyone who puts in the time he does. He does summer camps and he always has open gyms going. It seems like he's doing it 15 or 16 hours a day. You'd never get young people to do that."
Throughout his life, Osborne has been associated with greatness. It all started in Geneva for the son of the late Doyle "Doc" and Edna Osborne. His father, who died in 1995, was an optometrist in the community for 49 years.
His mother died in 1970, not long after he became the coach in Gallipolis. Osborne also has two sisters — Sue Cone, who lives in Dallas, and Eileen Kadis, a Buffalo resident.
Osborne recalls first playing basketball at the old Geneva City Hall in the fourth grade. His father was a big part of that experience.
"My dad was a great influence," he said. "He drove us everywhere to games."
Koval developed a deep appreciation for the entire Osborne family.
"Jim's one of those people that just seems to have been born with a special temperament," he said. "I can only believe you're born with it, and then the upbringing he had just added to that. I came to rely on families like the Osbornes and the Kreilachs (from which ACBF Hall of Famer Gary Kreilach originates) over the years."
During his formative years, on into junior high, Osborne counted players like Larry Hill, Joel Novak and Gary Urcheck among his teammates.
At Geneva High School, Osborne spent the beginning of his freshman season with Koval.
"Bill played very structured basketball," Osborne said. "He got us into the fundamentals of playing."
Before the season was over, Osborne's skills had made such an impression that the late Jim Ayers, Geneva varsity coach at the time, brought him up to the varsity level. His arrival at that level didn't prevent a 6-11 season for the varsity Eagles.
Actually, the highlight of Osborne's freshman year came at that level.
"I remember playing in the Conneaut freshman tournament against (the Spartans' ACBF Hall of Famer) Tom Ritari," he said. "We won. That was a great experience."
By the time his sophomore year rolled around, Osborne was playing varsity ball fulltime for Ayers. His sophomore year didn't go much better, though, as the Eagles went 7-11.
By his own admission, Osborne still had a lot to learn about the game, even though his status as a varsity player in that era made him a rarity.
"I was wild," Osborne said. "I wasn't a very good shooter."
The arrival of the consolidation of Geneva schools turned out to be just what Osborne needed. Bailey took over the reins of the newly formed program and immediately transformed it into one with which to be reckoned.
Bailey's tutelage gave Osborne the direction he needed in his game.
"Mr. Bailey saved my life," he said. "I could dribble behind my back and between my legs, but I just was out there running around.
"He took a wild hare and gave him some structure. I had a great home life, but we all wanted to be like him. He gave me the discipline to be a varsity player."
Bailey gave Osborne and the players with Geneva backgrounds the direction they needed. The Spencer guys, fine players like Bill Coy, Sam Hands, Bob Legg, Jim Prill and David Tirabasso, who were thrown into the mix, pushed their Geneva counterparts on the court and gave them the competition they needed. When preparations for the 1961-62 season were completed, Osborne was the only player with Geneva ties who kept a starting job.
"Practice was a war every night," Osborne said. "It wasn't friendly. As we got to know each other better, it got better, but it was tough for quite a while.
"Mr Bailey handled the practices. He made sure it didn't get too bad."
Bailey did everything he could to make the reconstituted Geneva squad into a class outfit, right down to the way it dressed.
"Mr Bailey was a (Gentleman's Quarterly) kind of guy," Osborne said. "We all wanted to be like him. When we went to games, he had us wearing gray blazers with red and gray striped ties, London Fog overcoats and top hats."
Bailey also brought in some interesting techniques to help his players maximize their skills.
"He had us wear galoshes in practice so we'd become quicker," Osborne said. "He'd have us wear boxing gloves so it would make our hands quicker."
At that point in his career, Bailey was still a young man and loved to get out on the court and give the players a few lessons.
"We used to play all the time on the outdoor courts they had at the high school in the summer," Osborne said. "We'd have teams coming in from Ashtabula, Madison and as far away as Warren. I remember playing against (Ashtabula's ACBF Hall of Famer) Bob Walters on those courts.
"Mr. Bailey loved to play tennis, too. He and I used to play tennis in the summer all the time, too."
Osborne has taken Bailey's sense of style into his own coaching at Gallia Academy. He's always dressed in a suit and tie, although he might shed the coat eventually.
"When I go to practice, I'm dressed well for that, too," he said. "I never go there disheveled. I don't have a whistle at practice."
There is one side of Bailey's coaching persona that he has eliminated, though.
"Mr. Bailey took losses so personally that he wouldn't show up for practice after a loss," Osborne said.
Osborne believes in intensity, but controlled intensity.
"My motto is, ‘Love to play, hate to lose,' but I wouldn't do something like (not being at practice)," he said.
The Eagles of his junior season seldom lost, finishing 18-2.
"We lost to Chardon in the sectional final on the last shot of the game," Osborne said.
A special senior year
In Osborne's senior season, he was the only remaining starter from Geneva's fine 1961-62 season. The 1962-63 regular season didn't go particularly well as the Eagles went 9-8.
"I missed a couple games in there," Osborne said.
But Geneva found its game at tournament time, winning the sectional title in Willoughby to earn a district semifinal date against a fine Euclid team coached by the great Harold "Doc" Daugherty, one of the coaches ahead of Osborne on the state list.
The Panthers had their usual group of tall timber going up against the Eagles.
"I was listed at 5-11 and I was never more than 5-9," Osborne said.
Geneva also received very little respect from its opponent.
"They all thought we were a bunch of farmers," Osborne said. "(The Geneva student section) all came to the game dressed in overalls and straw hats. They laughed at us when we came out for the center jump."
Actually, Euclid knew very little about Geneva.
"Doc Daugherty had a guy that was supposed to come to scout us and didn't get to the game, so they went into the game with almost no information about us," Osborne said.
It all conspired to contribute to an upset win by the Eagles. Unfortunately, their luck ran out in the district final against a Cleveland East team featuring 6-foot-8 Emanuel Leaks, who went on to a famed collegiate career and even some time in the American Basketball Association and NBA. But the Eagles went down fighting.
"We lost by five," Osborne said.
Osborne was chosen Star Beacon Ashtabula County Player of the Year in his senior season. But it wasn't because of gaudy statistics.
"I was so happy when I won that award," he said. "My senior year, I probably didn't average more than 10 points a game. But I just wanted to deliver the ball. I got more pleasure out of letting others score than I did myself."
Osborne was privileged to play against a number of other fine players.
"I remember playing against Tim Scanlon from Ashtabula (now the golf pro at Village Green Golf Course in North Kingsville)," he said.
"I also remember playing against (the late) Wash Lyons (of Ashtabula, who is more acknowledged for his status as an Ashtabula County Football Hall of Fame member). We used to have a saying, ‘Ring the Bell. Hang Up the Wash."
Bailey was not the only gigantic coaching figure during Osborne's playing career. Conneaut's Andy Garcia was in the closing years of his coaching career with the Spartans, while Ashtabula's Gene Gephart was just beginning his coaching tenure with the Panthers. Both are also ACBF Hall of Famers.
"I was so fortunate to work in high school with coaches of the caliber of Al Bailey and Bill Koval," Osborne said. "(Garcia and Gephart) were great coaches, too."
Koval recalled some of Osborne's basketball exploits.
"I remember one game that we played against Euclid," he said. "They couldn't stop Jim. He could drive and he had this two-handed push shot. It helped that he was left-handed, too. But he was good in every facet of the game, including defense."
Actually, Osborne was perhaps even better known for what he did for Koval's baseball squads. A feared left-hander, he led the Eagles to the district finals his senior year.
"Jim was a special player," Koval said. "I remember that we went to the district up at Edgewater Park and Elyria was there watching us. We had guys like (football hall of famer) Bob Herpy on that team, but I remember them talking about not wanting to face Osborne.
"We used to play a lot back then. I think we played 44 games one year, including 10 over Easter break. Jim pitched a lot. He was a special player."
He was also a part of the Ashtabula Rubber Company baseball team that claimed the American Legion state championship in 1963. Among his teammates were Dennis DeGennaro, Harvey Wells and Lou Wisnyai..
"We just had a team reunion (in the summer of 2008)," Osborne said. "What a great time that was!"
He also got to play in the state all-star game at old Clipper Stadium in Columbus. Off his exploits at the American Legion state tournament, Osborne's talents caught the eye of fabled Ohio University coach Bob Wren, who offered the youngster a scholarship with the Bobcats. He had also been drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Eye of the Tiger
But Osborne had already committed to attend Wittenberg. It is a decision he did not regret.
"I was looking at several bigger schools, but my dad suggested I take a look at Wittenberg and I loved it," Osborne said.
His first real impact there was in baseball.
"I finished up 14-2 for three varsity baseball seasons," Osborne said. "I enjoyed every bit of my time at Wittenberg. I was very fortunate to watch great coaches like (basketball coach) Eldon Miller (later the coach at Ohio State), (baseball coach) Howard Maurer and (football coach) Dave Maurer and so many other great coaches there.
"I've been so fortunate to be around great people and great coaches in high school and college."
It took longer for Osborne to make an impact on Wittenberg basketball team, which had already earned a huge reputation under Ray Mears, the future coach at the University of Tennessee. Miller would continue that tradition. He didn't make the varsity squad with the Tigers until his junior year, where he earned team MVP honors. He also started in his senior year for Miller.
Osborne found out later his basketball playing career at Wittenberg might never have happened at all.
"After I graduated, Eldon told me he was going to cut me before my junior year, but another player left and they kept me on," he said. "My claim to fame was that I was the only left-handed point guard Wittenberg ever had."
Even though it was an NCAA Division III school, Wittenberg didn't duck anybody.
"I got to play against Vanderbilt when Clyde Lee was there," Osborne said. "We played Bowling Green with Walt Piatkowski (who also played in the ABA)."
Actually, he found Miller to be a kindred spirit.
"Eldon was only three years older than me," Osborne said. "He always emphasized that we were such a team.
"He said we always had to fight a different sort of pressure because we were everyone's target (having won their first national championship in 1961). We had to live up to that heritage.
"You knew you were associated with great people. You wanted to be a great player, but even more, you wanted to be a great person.
"I try to make sure my players understand that," Osborne said. "I want them to understand they're more than just a player."
Osborne certainly did his part for the Tigers in both sports. In his senior season of 1967, he was the team captain, earned team MVP honors and was chosen first-team All-Ohio Athletic Conference and All-Midwest Region. He helped pitch the Tigers to the Midwest Region title.
"That's where it ended," Osborne said. "There was no national tournament then."
Armed with his degree from Wittenberg, where he is also a member of the athletic hall of fame, Osborne was looking for a teaching and coaching job.
"When I graduated I had a chance to go to Kent State or Ohio State as a graduate assistant, but my (military) draft number came up," he said. "Eldon got me a teaching job at Northwestern High School (in Springfield). I was his JV coach for one year and a varsity assistant the second year."
Then his opportunity came in Gallipolis. He interviewed for the job of a program that had enjoyed only two winning seasons in the decade before he arrived. He knew nothing else about the community.
"When I lived in Geneva and then at Wittenberg, I had no idea where Gallipolis was," Osborne said. "Now, some people have told me I don't know when to get out of town."
It didn't take long for Osborne to turn around the fortunes of the Blue Devils. They had 10 straight winning seasons after his arrival, including a trip to the Class AA regional tournament in 1973 and their first conference championship in the 1974-75 season while facing other basketball powers like Logan (home of OSU and WNBA star Katie Smith), Chillicothe, Portsmouth, Ironton, Wheelersburg, Athens and Zanesville.
He reached his 100th victory during the 1976-77 season, his 200th win during the 1985-86 season, his 300th win during the 1991-92 season, his 400th win during 1999-2000 and his 500th victory in 2006-07 against Rock Hill.
Loyalty is a big part of Osborne's makeup.
"He had the opportunity to go to Chillicothe and Canton McKinley, but he stayed," Wilson said.
Wilson has watched Osborne's maturation over the years. Early in his career, he probably had some of Bailey's characteristics.
"He started out as a screamer when he first came here," Wilson said. "I think he started to mellow about 10 or 15 years ago."
But there are certain standards Osborne has adhered to all along.
"He's always been a stickler for fundamentals," Wilson said. "From the time he gets a player until they're finished, he emphasizes fundamentals."
Osborne is also a great believer in continuity. All of his coaching staff from the varsity level down to elementary school has either been one of his former players or is very familiar with his expectations.
"My varsity assistant graduated in 1975," he said. "The JV coach didn't play for me, but knows our system, the freshman coach was a two-year starter for me in the 1980s, my eighth-grade coach is a 1975 grad, my seventh-grade coach played against us for Portsmouth and the fourth-sixth grade coach played for three years in the 1980s. They all understand our system.
"I'm fortunate to have good people. And most of the kids I have now, I had their parents before."
He has served as president of the District 13 Basketball Coaches Association since 1988. He has shared his wisdom with other coaches, too.
"Norm Persin, who led Oak Hill to the (Division IV) state championship last weekend, used to be my JV coach," Osborne said with a hint of pride.
It is quite obvious Osborne is respected on a statewide basis. In 2003, he received the Ohio High School Athletic Association's Sportsmanship, Ethics and Integrity Award.
"It's pretty amazing," he said. "Both times I've been honored, LeBron James has been on the court, too. In 2003, of course, he was still a high school player. It was really something to see him again as an NBA superstar (when Osborne received the Walker Award)."
Osborne's coaching wizardry has extended beyond the basketball court. He has spent 23 years as the tennis coach at Gallia Academy, notching more than 200 victories.
He coached baseball for 11 years, racking up more than 100 wins.
"But I got fired from that job," he said with a laugh.
He also spent time as an assistant track coach. He even had a run of a few weeks with the school's golf team, taking over when the head coach was unavailable because of illness and guiding the golfers to a fifth-place finish in the state tournament.
"That situation with the golf team was pretty ironic," Osborne said. "The coach had Crohn's Disease, so the athletic director asked me if I'd take the team to the state tournament and the boys finished fifth.
"Those guys were super golfers. They hardly ever practiced. After that experience, I said, ‘If I had known practice was so overrated, I wouldn't have practiced that much in basketball.' But I also realized basketball takes a lot more practice."
He taught for 36 years at Gallia Academy in physical education, health, general science and driver's education and retired for a few months. Then he returned to the school and is in his seventh year of his second tenure at the Division II school, which has 268 boys.
"I teach six phys ed classes a day," Osborne said.
Osborne has been married for 29 years to Jennifer, who is the vice president of the Ohio Valley Bank, and still resides in Gallipolis.
"She's not a sports nut, so we kind of get to do our own thing," Osborne said.
They have two grown children, Tige Osborne and Tia Vasquez. They have two grandchildren, Caden, 4, and Keely Vasquez, 21⁄2.
"Tige is named after the actor that was Captain Greer on the Mod Squad television show, Tige Andrews, who was one of my favorite characters," Osborne said. "Tige lives in Los Angeles and is a pilot of a charter airline that has flown teams like the Knicks and Yankees."
Obviously, basketball is a vital part of Osborne's life, perhaps even more than he can adequately express. He knows he owes it much, but has also given back much.
"Basketball has been a vehicle to help me meet so many other great people," he said. "It's been a vehicle for me to teach that life is a team thing."
He intends to give back to basketball as long as he can.
"As long as I'm healthy, I'm in it," Osborne said. "As long as other people want me, I'm in it."