Bighaus column: Retired Wilkins still assisting Battlin' Bears

2013-12-12T22:00:00Z 2013-12-19T13:53:05Z Bighaus column: Retired Wilkins still assisting Battlin' Bears The Billings Gazette

Len “Fuzzy” Wilkins’ days on the bench and at practice ended after last season, but that doesn’t mean he has stopped working to ensure Rocky Mountain College keeps racking up victories in men’s basketball.

While Wilkins, who will turn 80 on Jan. 30, has officially retired as an assistant coach, he is remaining with the Battlin’ Bears on a volunteer basis, using his numerous basketball contacts around the country to help Rocky secure more talented players for the future.

“Len has never been a guy for accolades, names on doors and all those kind of things,” Rocky coach Bill Dreikosen said this week. “He’s always been a behind-the-scenes guy, a guy that just wants to come and do his work.

“It’s always been about helping others. That’s been his main focus. He has helped me in countless ways.”

A California native, Wilkins, who has lived in Billings since 1981 and also coached at Eastern Montana College (now MSUB), has a basketball resume that dates back to 1955, with 50-plus years of coaching under his belt.

He spent the previous 11 seasons on Rocky’s bench, making four trips to Kansas City, Mo., for the NAIA Division I national championship tournament while assisting Dreikosen and Wes Keller.

Now, in his volunteer role as Rocky’s recruiting coordinator, Wilkins spends a couple of hours most weekday mornings making calls from his desk in Dreikosen’s small Fortin Center office.

His wife of 32 years, Edwina, accompanies him on some of the mornings, spending her time swimming in the pool while he works the phone.

“His list (of promising recruits) is continual,” Dreikosen said. “He’s always turning over the next rock. Right now, nothing has changed in how hard he works.

“It’s just he’s able to come and go a little bit more as he pleases. He doesn’t feel like he has to be here all the time.”

Wilkins went to the NAIA national tournament during his first season at Rocky in 2002-03. He was also there last year.

And, of course, in 2009 when the Bears won the national championship.

“You know, I’m a product of the tail end of the Depression, so you just worked all the time, all of your life to survive,” Wilkins said of his longevity in coaching. “It’s hard to drop that.”

“It is fun, too, helping kids, making contacts, and straightening Bill and Wes out once in a while.”

Wilkins said he decided to reduce his workload, in part, to be available to help out with his grandchildren in Idaho and also tend to the needs of other in-laws.

“I think the biggest reason is I used to catch Bill and Wes working CPR on Gail (Nutting’s) mannequin, so I think they were worried about me having a heart attack,” he added with a laugh.

“Come on!” Dreikosen shouted in protest. “He’s in better health than either one of us.”

Besides the friendly banter, it has also been refreshing over the years to watch the 6-foot-3 Wilkins operate in his old-fashioned ways.

He favors 3-ring binders and notepads over iPads. He still works a land line instead of a cellphone in dialing up contacts and scouring the nation for players, especially from the junior college ranks.

“I’ve still got some guys that are still alive,” Wilkins said with another laugh, referring to some of his aging coaching connections. “I like to talk to them. I’ve got some buddies in Texas, Arkansas and different spots in Illinois.

“There’s a guy I talk to at Southwestern Illinois, Jay Harrington, who played at Montana State back in the 60s.”

Those phone calls over the years have landed a virtual who’s who of recent Rocky basketball stars, including Devin Uskoski, Nate Richardson, Luke Kunkel, Bobby Coleman, Anthony Allen, Anthony (AC) Carter, Marshaun Jourdan, Elijah Swan, Don Parham and Matt Fogarty.

His current wish list of recruits from around the country is neatly written out on three notebook pages.

“I just think the greatest common denominator for happiness in life is helping other people,” Wilkins said. “For me, getting a football scholarship (to Cal Poly) took me out of a poor social and economic background, you know, living in a labor camp and working in the fields.

“I thought that’s what I needed to do is to help people.”

Dreikosen, for one, appreciates all that Wilkins has done, for the program, the players and for him personally.

“Its been one of my greatest relationships, not only coaching, but friendships,” he said.

Rocky off to an 8-2 start this season and ranked No. 10 nationally will be at home on Friday, Dec. 27 for a game against the University of Lethbridge. Tipoff is set for 7:30 p.m. in the Fortin Center.

These days, Wilkins usually pulls up a chair near the door to Dreikosen’s office and watches the game from there.

There were a lot of different players, buzzer-beaters and crucial defensive stops during his great run on the Rocky bench.

The Bears also accomplished seven consecutive winning seasons from 2003-2009 and nine during his 11 years, including three Frontier Conference tournament titles.

“I enjoyed it a lot,” Wilkins said. “I’ve never found any enjoyment in losing, you know.”

Dreikosen, who is in his 14th season as head coach at Rocky, said that he has benefited greatly from Wilkins’ “calming presence” on the bench and around the office.

“He’s a great listener and he gives you some words of wisdom,” Dreikosen said. “The other thing I really appreciate about Fuzzy is just his positive outlook on everything.

“He always says everything is going to work out.”

Wilkins won nearly 400 games as a head coach at the high school, junior college and college level. Two-hundred and forty of those wins came at Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif., where he was head coach from 1968-81.

Wilkins was enshrined in the California Community College Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2001.

“It’s an insurmountable resource that I have here,” Dreikosen said of Wilkins’ contribution. “To watch this guy come with passion every day to do what he does ... that leaks over to me and my assistants and Rocky Mountain College as a whole.

“That to me is something I can never thank him enough for.”

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