In 2012, after his team lost a tough 44-23 home tournament title game to Branson, then-Bolivar High School Lady Liberators basketball coach Darin Archer reflected on a lesson a coach had once taught him.
“As a young coach, I can remember Jerry Kirksey telling me there are going to be nights where your team just can’t seem to do anything right, no matter how hard you coach and no matter how hard the kids play,” Archer said.
Kirksey, whose successful, decades-long tenure at both the high school and collegiate levels of the sport touched countless lives, died last week after being hospitalized for COVID-19, according to his family. He was 82.
Speaking on Kirksey’s legacy Monday, Aug. 10, Archer said even through losses on the court, Kirksey — who sometimes felt larger than life — never let his players forget how important they were.
“I think the biggest part of his philosophy as a coach was just caring for your players and understanding that there's a human element to the game of basketball that oftentimes gets overlooked,” Archer said. “He paid a lot of attention to that and made each individual feel like they were part of something bigger than themselves.”
Archer said he first encountered the longtime coach on the basketball court at Southwest Baptist University. He played three years and spent a fourth as a graduate assistant in Kirksey’s program.
Kirksey coached the Bearcats for eight years starting in 1987, leading the team to a 1991 MIAA championship with a 15-1 league record. The Bearcats had a 146-79 record during his tenure. The team also qualified for two NCAA Div. 2 tournament appearances, a regional championship and an Elite Eight appearance in 1991, according to an SBU news release.
The Bearcats were nationally ranked for five of his eight years at the helm.
“In that fourth year, I just got to see both sides of him as a coach and as a member of his staff,” Archer said. “I learned a tremendous amount about basketball, and it set the foundation for me as a coach. He was a wealth of knowledge. He had an ability to teach the game and an attention to detail and just he was a great motivator.”
Archer is now the boys basketball coach at Fair Play High School.
“From a coaching standpoint, what amazes me is still being able to use what I learned from him,” Archer said. “It’s still effective today, and it just shows how good a coach he was.”
From player to coach
A native of Halfway, Kirksey started playing basketball for the Cardinals as a freshman before moving to Buffalo, where he was a two-time all-state performer, according to a Drury University news release.
He opened his collegiate career at Missouri, then transferred to now-Missouri State University as a sophomore and played three seasons for the Bears from 1959-61. Kirksey was a part of MSU’s NCAA Div. 2 national runner-up squad in 1959 and a team that went 23-3 while winning the MIAA championship.
He was a two-time MIAA All-Tournament selection and ended his career at MSU with 973 career points.
Kirksey went on to compile a 146-52 record over eight years as a high school coach at Weaubleau, Stockton and Houston.
In 1970, he became the head baseball coach and assistant men's basketball coach at Missouri S&T University, helping lead the Miners’ basketball program to six winning seasons in the MIAA and two national tournament appearances.
Kirksey joined Drury University as an assistant coach in 1977-78, when the Panthers went 29-4, were ranked number one in the NAIA at the end of the regular season and advanced to the national quarterfinals.
In his lone season as Drury's head coach, Kirksey guided the Panthers to the 1979 NAIA National Championship and a 33-2 record.
He later coached for Henderson State University, leading the program to two NAIA national tournaments and a national quarterfinals appearance in 1982 before returning to Polk County to take over as SBU’s head coach.
SBU athletics director Mike Pitts said in a university news release he was saddened by Kirksey’s death.
“I have very fond memories of the contests in the 1990s that he coached,” Pitts said in the release. “I lived in Kansas City at the time, but I remember his teams well. My wife and I were blessed to be able to follow the Bearcats closely and watch many of those exciting games. Today is certainly sad for us, as we have lost a great member of the Bearcat family."
Archer, who went on to coach the Bearcats himself, said Kirksey’s level of preparation for each matchup was legendary.
In 13 years as a collegiate head coach, Kirksey garnered a 246-124 record, including six 20-win seasons and five national tournament appearances, with three of those teams advancing to the national quarterfinals or better.
He was inducted into the Missouri State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1999 and was enshrined as a member of the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2018.
Beyond the court
But, just as he could be a cunning strategist and taskmaster, Kirksey was also a loving father figure to many on his teams, Archer said.
“He was demanding on the court, no doubt,” Archer said. “He pushed us to be the best we could be, but he would change hats once we were off the court and became incredibly caring. I know that he loved his wife and three boys and family. They were a very tight-knit family, and he allowed us as players to be an extension of that family.”
As the coach’s son, Jay Kirksey said he saw his father’s competitive drive and his compassion both on and off the basketball court.
He said his father always asked two questions when his team lost a game — “Did you do your best? Did you play your hardest?”
Jay Kirksey said his father didn’t expect perfection from his players, but he expected players to do their best with the gifts they had.
“Dad was so simple in his approach,” he said. “You are never going to be out-worked. You will always do your best. And refuse to lose.”
Jay Kirksey called his dad “a winner and a competitor.”
“But, most importantly, he attempted every day to touch lives and make a difference in a positive manner,” he said. “It didn’t matter where you were from. Dad helped people all the way from the ghetto, the Bronx, to the people we associate with every day in Polk County.”
Jay Kirksey said his father’s dedication to impacting others’ lives is an inspiration.
“We all have different gifts to use, and Dad used his gifts to help others,” he said.
Kirksey’s extended family included those on the golf course, Silo Ridge Country Club office manager and PGA pro Bryan Daniels said.
Kirksey, who was consistently one of the top senior players in the state, was also a gentleman on the fairway.
“He was quiet on the course but also quick to give compliments,” Daniels said.
Kirksey regularly volunteered as a rules official for Missouri Golf Association junior events, Daniels said.
“That just showed how important he thought it was to give back,” he said.
The same drive that pushed Kirksey to excel on the basketball court and helped him make the best of every player was evident every day, Daniels said.
“He was a constant practicer,” Daniels said. “He always worked on his game every day. If the sun was shining and he was in Bolivar, he was working. He had great hand-eye coordination, and he just put the time in. When we played together, he was as competitive as you’ll find. He wanted to beat you every time he played.”
Jay Kirksey said he often saw his father’s competitive side on the golf course.
“Dad would be out there playing golf, and when he got against someone who was really good, he had this ability, you could physically see it, to up his game one more level,” he said.
But, at the end of the day, the coach would say the key to success isn’t as much a competitive spirit as valuing the support of others, Jay Kirksey said.
“We could talk about Dad all day long, but if he were telling you, the first thing he would say is that he was only successful because of my mom,” Jay Kirksey said. “Mom’s strong. He would tell you in a heartbeat — he was only successful because of her.”
Services for Jerry Kirksey will be at 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 22, at Northside Christian Church, Springfield, according to the family.