When Kurt Kinnamon was hired as McPherson High boys basketball coach in 1995, it was greeted with a smattering of skepticism.
After all he was just 30 years old, which was considered relatively young in those days. While he had been a standout player at McPherson College under the tutelage of Roger Trimmell after a legendary high school career at St. John and two years playing at Hutchinson Community College, he had only 2 years of high school head coaching experience at neighboring Canton-Galva, where he was a modest 25-16. There were some who said, “Who’s he and what has he done to deserve this?”
He was replacing a legend that followed a legend. Mike Henson, who had plied his trade for several years at McPherson Junior High, followed the legendary Jay Frazier. I can remember when the 34-year-old Henson was hired that there were critics who howled that he had no high school varsity head coaching experience.
One of his very first moves was to insert his son, Steve, into the starting lineup. Some traditionalists bristled as sophomores simply didn’t start their very first game for McPherson and many felt he had to play his way into the lineup.
All Henson did in his varsity debut against Winfield, still to me the best all-around game he ever had, was go for 29 points and pull down 14 rebounds. He threw in a dunk for good measure and from then on, MHS fans delighted in his exploits, never bringing up again how he was handed a starting spot. Of course, he went on to play at Kansas State and in the NBA.
Mike Henson guided MHS during perhaps its most golden era ever as he won 250 games and lost only 34, with four state championships in 12 years He left at the height of his success as in his final six years the Bullpups were 140-7.
Kinnamon was a polar opposite of Henson. He was fire to Henson’s ice and to some of the old-timers who had been attending games for 50 years, his style turned out to be an acquired taste. He had a stare that bore through officials and his players alike and it spoke volumes even if he didn’t say a word. He believed in going to his bench early and often, whereas Henson’s starters logged big minutes, even when they up big late in games.
Kinnamon’s first year quelled the detractors. The Bullpups were 24-1 and won a state championship.
But in his second year, MHS lost 9 games and some were wondering if he had won just because Henson left a ready-made team. However, that team still took fourth in the state, which is the benchmark by which coaches are judged in McPherson, which has incredibly knowledgeable fans, some of whom live vicariously through their ‘Pups.
But in his 24 years, the Bullpups have been an elite program, easily a Top 5 in the state. They did have another 9-loss season in 2000-01, but since then it’s basically been nothing but league championships and state appearances. He has won six state titles and been runner-up five times.
On Tuesday, Kinnamon notched his 500th career coaching victory as he’s now 475-82 at MHS and 500-98 overall. He didn’t mention it until after his radio interview after the game and kept it low-key, almost as if it was an afterthought.
He gave all the credit to his players and his assistant coaches, noting that had the MHS administration not taken a chance on him, he wouldn’t have approached the milestone. There’s been countless times through the years that he’s said he’s the luckiest coach in the state to be at arguably the most tradition-rich program in Kansas.
Kinnamon, who is 11 wins from catching Frazier’s overall record of 511-179, without question studies more game film than anybody I know. He has stacks of disks and goes online to break down teams for an extensive scouting report. He spends time on the phone with some of his coaching colleagues in an attempt to glean information and is in constant contact with his brother, Clint, who also has been outrageously successful himself, for tips and ideas. He said his love and respect for the game pushes him to have his team better prepared than his opposition, evident by how well the Bullpups run in-bounds plays.
I can remember back in 2013 when the Bullpups were coming off an upset of Shawnee Mission East in the championship game of the McPherson Invitational and they were facing a one-win Circle team the following Tuesday. His team had played at such a high level that he didn’t do his normal preparation and the result was, to this day, the most stunning loss of his career. He made a vow then that he would never allow his team to go into a game without only the most detailed scouting report he could devise.
Kinnamon knows he’s getting closer to the end. His son, Jace, is a senior, and he has avoided burnout to this point. He says he still has tremendous love for the game and as long as he has that, he’ll continue.
Whomever takes over when the time comes, it will be only the fourth Bullpup coach since 1957. Now that’s tradition.