Kouts coach Marty Gaff during the PCC championship finals on Saturday, January 19, 2013 at Boone Grove High School. | Mark Smith~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 26, 2013 7:00PM
How do you say goodbye to Hoosier Hysteria after 36 years of coaching?
For Kouts’ Marty Gaff, it was easy for about 95 percent of the season.
He didn’t answer the question.
He ran practices, scouted opponents, drew up game plans and immersed himself in the daily grind of managing a basketball team. These habits are reflexive and comforting for an old basketball coach. By nature, they are not overly self-aware this time of year. The season is relatively compact and the games are quick. There is no time for rumination. It’s always onto the next adjustment, the next practice, the next film session, the next game.
In that way, it was no different than his previous 35 years. Until last Friday. The Mustangs were playing Lacrosse and there was a presentation for Gaff — one of a few that he has received this year — and the moment overwhelmed him briefly.
It was the last regular season home game for Gaff. He was surrounded by 50 of his former players, and two of the best he ever coached in Josh Kain and Jake Wade, graduates who helped lead Kouts to two sectional titles in the 90s.
The sight of it was almost too much to take for Gaff, a man who is as even-keeled as an Olympic balance beam. Gaff hardly ever has revealed much of himself over the years, mostly because he never seemed to want to get in the way of the players.
Coaches coach, players play and they get the credit when it goes well. That’s how it went with Gaff, who has never been about Gaff.
“It was a tough moment and it was a satisfying moment,” Gaff said.
That’s Gaff way saying he knew the end was near. He has seen a lot of basketball. Been around it for 53 years — since he was 10. Leaving will be hard, for sure.
He played at Wolf Lake High School, a small school in the Northeast corner of the state. Consolidation turned it into Central Noble.
This is the way he remembers his playing days.
“I wasn’t necessarily a stud,” he said.
But he did, at 6-2, lead the team in rebounding and Wolf Lake did beat Columbia City, the same school that former Valparaiso High School coach Chris Bennett returned to twice to coach, for a sectional in his senior season.
He found his way out to Kouts from Goshen, where he worked for six years as an assistant after graduating from Goshen College. Jim Welsh, the coach Goshen, had worked at Kouts and he put a good word in for Gaff, who replaced Jim Crist at Kouts. Crist went to North Newton to coach in 1983.
The place fits Gaff like a pair of comfortable jeans. He never felt the urge to move around to try to move up and he never wanted to be anything more than a good Social Studies and History teacher and a good basketball coach.
That philosophy has served Kouts and Gaff well.
He is 411-259 in 19 seasons with seven sectional titles and two regional championships.
Gaff has gracefully rolled with plenty of changes in 30 seasons — the extra summer hours, the more physical play, the erosion of offense in favor of bruising man-to-man defense — because it’s still basketball, they’re still kids and he gets to coach them. That’s what he does.
“I’ve enjoyed coaching and teaching,” Gaff said. “I can’t say enough about the kids at Kouts High School.”
The end of this column could include a dreamy paragraph or two about how Gaff wants to go out on top, with a championship ring on his finger. The Mustangs are very good — 19-2 record and state-ranked — and anything is possible. Sure, he’d love to win one. But those kinds of thoughts are reserved for the irrational exuberance of teenagers who don’t really know any better.
Gaff is worried about the opening game against Gary 21st Century. He is concerned about matchups and their quickness and his kids’ state of mind.
He’ll worry about what it feels like to be retired when he walks out of the locker room one last time, without another season to look forward to.
Then, he’ll know for sure.