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Basketball is his life

Thursday, February 28, 2008  
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By Terrell Lester
Courtesy of the Claremore Daily Progress

He's a self-proclaimed, unabashed gym rat.

He's spent his life in a gym. Sweeping floors. Shooting baskets. Coaching others.

Truth be told, Dan Hays probably was born in a gym.

The only thing he knows more about than the inside of a gym is basketball.

He played basketball in high school. In college. Into middle age.

He's coached basketball in high school. In college. In international competition.

Basketball is what makes Dan Hays tick. Basketball is what makes Dan Hays Dan Hays.

And who Dan Hays is is the dean of Oklahoma’s collegiate basketball coaches, a 40-year coaching veteran, a 650-win coach, an NAIA Hall of Fame coach, a beacon of virtue that illuminates the coaching landscape.

For the last quarter-century, Hays has been the head coach at Oklahoma Christian University, an NAIA school in Edmond that annually ranks among the nation’s elite.

The school’s unsullied image and the basketball team’s no-nonsense calling card are a clear reflection of the man and his lifestyle.

“Dan is a great coach,” says Rogers State’s first-year head coach Wren Baker.

“He’s a Hall of Famer all the way around, not just in terms of wins and losses, but also in the way he runs his program, the class that he brings to the game.”

Basketball is a game that Hays learned, and learned to love, as a youngster in Albuquerque.

He swept gym floors, as he said, “just to get into the games free.”

It’s a practice he continues to follow, even at the age of 61, after a series of Coach of the Year awards at various levels, after coaching on the USA Junior World Championship team.

“I sweep our gym floor every day before practice,” he says, with more than a trace of pride and accomplishment in his voice.

“I always want to remember where I came from.

“That’s really important to me.”

Coaching is equally important to the slender man who walks five miles daily to retain his athletic physique and fluent movement.

“All I ever wanted to do was play and coach,” he says.

“Even in elementary school, I knew I wanted to be a PE teacher. I worshipped those guys that took us out on the playground.

“There was never a doubt in my mind that if, or when, my playing career ended, I was going to start coaching.

“It’s never been a second thought,” he said.

He played collegiately at Eastern New Mexico and began coaching at Eastern Washington with a six-year stint as a high school coach in New Mexico.

He landed at Southeastern Oklahoma State at Durant for three years as an assistant under Mike Martin. Then, Hays took the head-coaching job at Northwestern State at Alva.

Five years later, he wound up in Edmond at Oklahoma Christian.

“It’s a good fit for me, for my lifestyle, for my family,” he said. “I live three blocks from the gym.”

He can walk to the gym from his home, although some might suggest that the gym is his home.

He played basketball in a campus noon league until he was 48. Back surgery forced him to leave the court.

They might as well have told him to give up breathing.

“I had to leave the gym at noon every day,” he said, slowly, deliberately, disdainfully.

“All my buddies were out there playing.

“So, I started walking. I walk a minimum of five miles every day.

“At that same exact time. Noon.”

While others play basketball now, Hays walks.

It gnaws at the competitive spirit of Dan Hays.

“That’s the only way I can stand it,” he said. “Get out of the gym and go walk.”

He is alternately introduced at events as “the Hall of Fame Coach” and “the dean of Sooner Athletic Conference coaches.”

He smiles at the descriptions.

“It just means longevity,” he said.

More to the point, what it means is respect.

Hays has earned the approval and the esteem of his colleagues and peers for his straight-ahead approach to coaching and to life.

He takes no shortcuts, leaves nothing to chance.

He talks more about student graduation rates than he does about field goal percentages.

“I’m an old gym rat who just likes to coach good kids, student-athletes,” he said. “We’ve won a lot of games through the years — not as many as others — but I think we’ve done it the right way, where we’ve graduated over 90 percent of every senior I’ve ever had,” he says.

“I really believe in the student-athlete.”

He sees a lot of himself in those student-athletes.

“I’m very, very proud to be a small-college coach,” he said.

“I bleed NAIA. I’m an NAIA guy. I’ve been involved in it since 1965 when I transferred to Eastern New Mexico as a sophomore.

“I love small-college athletics, where we have student-athletes that are basically gym rats, much as I am.”

At the age of 61, the old gym rat is asked often how much longer he will be sitting on the bench, coaching games, coaching younger gym rats.

“Well, what would I do?” he answers with a question. “Go to games?

“I might as well go to games and get paid.

“I can’t hang around the house.”

Not unless his house is a gym.

For a coach who arrived in Oklahoma in 1978, not knowing a single soul, Dan Hays has made an impression upon his adopted state.

“They’re the friendliest people I’ve ever been around,” he says.

The same can be said by the people who know Dan Hays. And that takes in just about everybody involved in basketball in Oklahoma.

A nice guy, a friendly guy, a gym rat for life.

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