LINDSBORG – Clair Oleen, Bethany College's long-serving and legendary basketball coach, announced his retirement from coaching on Tuesday.
For 38 years, Oleen masterfully controlled the Bethany basketball sideline as the winningest coach in the college's history. He is the current Dean of KCAC men's basketball coaches.
"Bethany is a place that grows on you. The people make it special," Oleen said.
After 36 years as a head coach, the Swede alum's office bears resemblance to a Bethany basketball history museum. Oleen's all-time career record is 541-487. His teams earned 208 wins on the women's side, making him the winningest women's coach in Bethany history, and 333 wins on the men's side, making him the winningest men's coach in Bethany history as well. The legendary coach has led numerous All-Conference student-athletes, eight NAIA All-American athletes, over 100 academic NAIA Scholar-Athletes, and six players who went on to play professionally. Oleen has earned the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association Coach of the Year award and was the 2003 NAIA Division II Men's Basketball Coach of the Year.
"Coach Oleen has built a tremendous program constructed on accountability and character," Dean of Athletics and Student Development Dane Pavlovich said. "His current and former players speak of his loyalty to Bethany College, and he has worked to instill similar feelings in all who have been a part of the program. Both he and his wife, Jerrine, have gone above and beyond in supporting student-athletes in every way imaginable. He is a legend in our conference and within the NAIA and his legacy at Bethany College will last forever."
Before beginning his collegiate coaching career at Bethany, Oleen spent two years as a coach at Clay Center High School. All-in-all Oleen has been on the hardwood for 51 years as a player and a coach.
In his first two years of collegiate coaching, Oleen was the assistant coach to the late George Stephens and helped Stephens lead the Swedes to KCAC titles in 1980 and 1981. Oleen sees Coach Stephens as one of his most significant mentors. He coached both of Coach Stephens' children at Bethany and stayed connected with the Stephens family throughout his coaching career. Along with Stephens, Oleen considers Tex Winter, who has been with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, as another mentor. With Winter's help, Oleen used the triangle offense as a key component of his coaching strategy.
After his first two years as an assistant, Oleen spent the next 12 years as the head of the Swedes’ women's basketball program. Oleen's teams earned 208 wins, a 1983 KCAC championship, 10 NAIA play-off appearances, and numerous national rankings.
When Stephens retired in 1993, Oleen stepped into a new role as head men's basketball coach, and has kept that position for the last 24 years. During these decades, Oleen experienced 333 wins, three KCAC Tournament Championships, several national rankings, three NAIA National Tournaments where his teams have a 4-3 record, and an appearance in the 2003 NAIA Division II National Championship game.
"Coach Oleen has done so much for Bethany College in his 38 years of service. He embodies our core value of servant leadership," President William Jones said. "His loyalty to Bethany through the years demonstrates his love for the college and his commitment to his players."
Oleen has seen many changes at Bethany and in the game of basketball. He was the Swedes’ women's head coach when the three-point line was implemented. He was the head coach of the men when the rules change led to calling fouls closer. His first year as the men's head coach was the first year that NAIA basketball split into two divisions.
Both of the rule changes have altered how the game is played, according to Oleen.
"The purity of the game of basketball is the passing, cutting, teamwork and teams playing together," Oleen said.
For Oleen, it has always been about the team. His players and their growth are the most important part of being a coach. His favorite coaching memory is not a specific win or even a national championship game appearance; it is the relationships he has built with his players. Coach Oleen expressed his love of seeing his players succeed and grow, not only on the court, but also off the court and later in life.
"It's about the people. When you have a program, you have to surround yourself with good people. It doesn't matter if it's a business, if it's a sports team, or a college. Your greatest resource is your people," Oleen said.
"Coach Oleen was always there for me whenever I needed him, and I truly appreciate that," Ryan Swartz, a former player and current member of the Bethany College Board of Directors, said. "His diligence, unshakeable faith, and loyalty over the years has made an incredible impact on his players, staff and the entire Bethany family. Beyond basketball and the many achievements, as a teacher, mentor, and role model, Coach created a positive influence on so many. I wish Clair and his family all the best in their future endeavors. While he may no longer be on the sidelines at Bethany College, his legacy will always be a part of Bethany basketball."
When asked about his individual success as a coach, Oleen said, "I don't look at individual success; it's all about the team. I was embarrassed when they made a big deal about my 500th win. For me, that is what is wrong with college basketball, the focus is way too much on the coaches; it should be on the players. We are here for the players, this whole thing is for the players, the young people."
Player development is one reason for Oleen's extensive community service work over the years. He has a desire to show the players the importance of service work, of doing work with no incentive or return. Oleen said he sees the service work in the community as very important to the players' growth.
"I want them to not only be productive members of the community, but also to lead lives of service," Oleen said.
Along with his service, Oleen recognizes his wife's service to the community and to Bethany basketball for the last 38 years.
Oleen simply stated, "She is the epitome of helping others."
From feeding over 5,000 people with her post-home game meals, to the Bethany men's basketball pen pals program with Soderstrom Elementary, to the simple act of being a there for the players in any way she can; Jerrine Oleen utilizes her connection to the student-athletes to serve as many people she can, he said.
Coach Oleen knows that Bethany College and the Swede basketball programs will carry on without him, and will prosper. Again, for him, it is all about the team.
"Bethany College is a special place; it will continue to prosper. . . I have been very blessed, the loyalty has been a two-way street. I have been very loyal to Bethany and Bethany has been very loyal to me. You don't just walk away from it. It's going to be a change, but it's what I need to do," Oleen said.
A national search for Oleen's replacement will begin immediately.