Usually, high school coaches become legendary because they stay in one place forever and become synonymous with that school. Butch Simpson, the long-time and recently-retired football coach at Newark High, is the perfect example of that.
And then there are some coaches who become legendary because they never stay in one place and are still able to make their mark even though they’re not identified with one school, just like hundreds of athletes. And a perfect example of that is the late Lou Bender, who died last week in Berlin, MD., at the age of 78.
It seems like Bender coached at every school in Delaware. At one time or another he ran the programs at Salesianum, Delcastle, Alexis I. DuPont, Caravel and Hodgson, plus a short stint at Wilmington College in the late 1980s. In that time he won 509 games – more than any basketball coach in Delaware history – and six Blue Hen Conference champions. The only thing he didn’t achieve was a state championship, although he did take Delcastle and Hodgson to the big game.
That impressive resume got Bender into the Delaware Basketball Hall of Fame as well as the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame. But what doesn’t show up on that resume is the young people he influenced with his low-key, yet demanding style of coaching and teaching.
I was fortunate to play for Lou Bender at Salesianum in the late 1960s, although the word “play’’ might be a little strong – they let me wear a Sallies uniform and sit on the bench. Anyhow, it was Bender, as much as anybody, who made me love basketball so much. He made me realize that it was a mental game even more than a physical game, and when you ran and jumped like I did, that was a good thing to know.
Bender was meticulous in his details. In fact, I still have the booklet that he prepared for all of his players that showed you how to do just about everything you needed to know to play basketball, including step-by-step diagrams on how to play correct man-to-man defense. Up until that time I always figured playing defense meant you just stayed as close to your man as you could and harassed him, but Bender taught us the triangle principle of playing man-to-man and how to play weak side defense as well as straight-up coverage. Suddenly, playing defense became fun (and, when you shot like I did, necessary).
Other coaches just told you what to do, but Bender also told you why you were doing it. And even though he was as passionate about basketball as anybody I’ve ever known, I don’t think I ever head coach Bender yell, although you always knew when he wasn’t happy. The man who constantly preached to his players about being in control on the court was always in control on the sideline. He was always a teacher even more than a coach and it’s not a surprise that so many of his former players went on to become coaches themselves.
Off the court, Bender took a genuine interest in you and your life, even a low-level bench-warmer like me. We didn’t have great basketball teams at Salesianum in those days, but Bender made us as good as we could possibly be, just like he did everywhere else he coached.
Now, the kids Bender coached at the beginning of his career are grandfathers and most of them are retired or at least thinking about it. And as long as they live they’ll have their memories of the quiet coach who did so much to shape their lives. Lou Bender never won a state championship, but he won the affection and loyalty of hundreds of young men who are better old men because of him.