By CHRIS MORRIS
NEW ALBANY —
Jim Morris didn’t take the job as athletic director and men’s basketball coach at IU Southeast in 1975 for headlines or some power trip. He went there with a much greater mission in mind — to help mold young, student-athletes into responsible and successful adults.
“He is a great mentor not only to his staff, but to his players who had the opportunity to play for him,” said Bob Lane, who worked in the athletic department under Morris for 10 years. “He tried to develop players to reach their full potential. He’s just an excellent guy.”
Morris said he knew the challenges he faced when he accepted the job. He went to IU Southeast with limited funds, no facilities or staff. But he never let it deter him from his mission of coaching and mentoring those he came in contact with.
“I was just a guy who went to work everyday and enjoyed most of my time there,” Morris said. “When you spend 25 years at a place, it becomes a major part of your life. You miss it even after all these years.”
On Saturday night, it will be the university’s turn to honor the former coach at the IU Southeast Champions Dinner which will be held in the Hoosier Room on the IUS campus. All proceeds from the event — which is sold out — will go toward athletic scholarships, and IU Southeast Athletic Director Joe Glover hopes to raise around $25,000.
Three athletes — Cameron Mitchell, Heather Wheat and Jacob Holtz — will be recognized as IU Southeast Athletic Department men’s and women’s athlete of the year, and Holtz will receive the Jim Morris Champions of Character Award which will be given to a student-athlete who “exemplifies strong moral character and sportsmanship” each year.
Just like the man it is named after.
Glover said he still meets with Morris on a regular basis and said it was important to have the yearly sportsmanship and character award named in “Coach’s” honor.
“One thing that strikes me about Coach Morris is how much he cares about the former student-athletes who played for him,” Glover said. “Even after they graduated and left he would keep in contact with them and help them any way possible. He really became a mentor.”
In the early years Morris probably wondered what he got himself into. The men’s basketball team played at Nachand Fieldhouse in Jeffersonville; there was no Activities Building at the time. He was the janitor, secretary, bus driver, coach and athletic director. He eventually was allowed to hire Lane who served as assistant basketball coach, ran the intramural program and also coached women’s basketball, and Claudia Walter who served as secretary.
“I was blessed to have good people work in the athletic office. That was a big part of their lives, they took pride in what they did,” Morris said.
Not only did IU Southeast join the NAIA under Morris’ guidance, he also grew the program, adding baseball, volleyball and cross country. He said he always wanted to have a baseball program and was assured he would have the necessary funds to have a team and hire a coach. But those funds never materialized, so he quickly had to do fundraising to help get baseball off the ground.
“Jim allowed other programs to grow, at times to the detriment of his own program,” Lane said. “He would spread the money around to five or six programs.”
Morris said when he arrived at IU Southeast, there were men’s and women’s basketball and tennis, men’s golf and club soccer and softball. Now IU Southeast has state-of-the-art facilities and fields seven programs. The men’s basketball team advanced to the NAIA Division II Final Four this past season and some IU Southeast sporting events will be broadcast this season on WXVW-1450 AM.
The champions dinner event each year will now help fund scholarships to be given to student-athletes, which is sorely needed. Glover said IU Southeast ranks in the bottom 7 percent of NAIA schools when it comes to scholarship money.
IU Southeast receives athletic scholarship money from donations, fundraisers and the school gets a small percentage of sales from Indiana University apparel.
“I have been so pleased with the way the community and Southern Indiana have embraced this athletic department,” Glover said. “We have gotten tremendous support. There are a lot of alumns in the area who have a passion for this institution.”
Morris helped fuel that passion 38 years ago. He said he is impressed with the strides the athletic department has taken in recent years.
“The department has progressed and achieved some tremendous things,” he said. “They are doing well in all sports. They have a nice young athletic director who has some great ideas and I am really proud of the program.”
Glover said the inaugural Champions Dinner has been in the planning stage for two years and said it would not be a success without the hard work of former IUS basketball player Jerry Roby, who has served as committee chair.
Morris, 78, a Jeffersonville native and resident, began coaching basketball at age 22 at Flaget High School in Louisville where he led the 1960 team to a state championship and was named Kentucky High School Coach of the Year. He later coached at New Albany High School before moving on to the college ranks at Oscar Rose Junior College and Indiana State University.
He stayed 25 years at IU Southeast. He actually retired at the end of the 1999 season but came back as a part-time employee to coach the 2000 season at the university’s request. But with only seven games left that year, heart problems forced him to the sidelines for good.
“That finished me,” he said. “But I feel good now. I have things that go with age but I have been very lucky. I try to stay in shape.”
Morris said he was proud of the athletic department’s progress and his basketball team’s success during his 25 years at IU Southeast. It was a career worth celebrating, something the university plans to do Saturday.
“He is just a great guy,” Lane said. “He has been a father figure to so many people.”