Three Rivers College’s Gene Bess will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in a ceremony Saturday, Aug. 12, in Springfield, Massachusetts.
“I didn’t have any thoughts about being in the Hall of Fame, but I’m here with a bunch of great guys and I’m humbled and honored to be here,” Bess said during a press conference Saturday. “I was honored to stay in the same community for 50 years … I enjoyed junior college, I felt like that was my God-given place to do my job.”
Bess will be inducted alongside Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, Dwyane Wade, Becky Hammon, Gregg Popovich, Jim Valvano, Gene Keady, Gary Blair, and David Hixon. Bess is the first coach inducted to spend his entire career as a JUCO coach.
“This class not only represents all levels of basketball — it represents truly, in every regard, what the game is all about and where it is,” Hall of Fame chairman Jerry Colangelo told the Associated Press. “I mean, think about the candidates. There’s the countries that are represented, Germany and Spain and France. It shows how far the game has come and where it is today. I think maybe it’s the most unique class, I’d say, of all time, and that covers a lot of territory. It stands by itself as in its uniqueness.”
Bess retired as the Three Rivers men’s basketball coach in 2020 as the all-time wins leader in college basketball history with 1,300 wins over 50 years at Three Rivers.
“Coach Bess’ induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame is well deserved,” said Dr. Wesley Payne, President of Three Rivers College. “His contributions to Three Rivers College and our community are immeasurable. Coach is both an icon and a legend, but his greatest legacy is not his wins but the lives he has touched and changed for the better over his career. Gene is not only a legendary coach, he is a shining example of honor and sportsmanship.”
Bess finished with a career record of 1,300-416, won two NJCAA National Championships (1979, 1992), was a runner-up twice (1994, 2010), and went to the final four eight times among his 17 trips to the national tournament. The Raiders won 23 Region XVI Championships and won at least 20 games in 42 seasons. Bess was a two-time NJCAA Coach of the Year, and including one season as an assistant coach, he coached in 1,746 games with a winning percentage of .756. He also coached Missouri high school basketball for 12 years with a record of 237-95 between Lesterville (31-20, 1957-59), Anniston (62-58, 1959-64), and Oran (144-17, 1964-69).
His longest losing streak was six games.
Both his son (Brian) and grandson (Kolby) played for the Raiders with all three on the bench at one time. Bess’ granddaughter (Kiley) made an appearance earlier this month in the NCAA Women’s National Tournament as a member of the Saint Louis University team. Brian Bess is the current coach of the Raiders. This past season was his 30th as a member of the coaching staff.
Bess is now a member of six halls of fame: Poplar Bluff Sports Hall of Fame, Missouri Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame, Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, National Junior College Hall of Fame, Three Rivers College Athletic Hall of Fame.
“Congratulations to Gene Bess on his upcoming enshrinement to the Naismith Hall of Fame,” said Brian Rosener, Poplar Bluff Sports Hall of Fame President, which inducted Bess in 1983. “For half a century, Coach Gene Bess led the Three Rivers College Raiders men’s basketball team and influenced the sport more than anyone in the Mid-South Region. While he was revered nationally in the junior college ranks, basketball fans are learning with this honor that he has more wins than any college coach on any level and all but three NBA coaches. His impact on the game is more than just those 1,300 wins and two national championships. His influence continues to guide generations of players, coaches, and fans to give everything they have in all aspects of their lives.”
Bess became college basketball’s all-time wins leader in 2001 when he surpassed North Carolina’s Dean Smith and Richard Baldwin of Broome Community College, and he set a new record with every win.
He was the first college basketball coach to reach 1,000 wins in 2006, the first with 1,100 four seasons later, and 1,200 in 2015. His 1,300th win came in what ended up being his final home game on a court named in his honor.
Bess arrived in Poplar Bluff in the fall of 1969 to be an assistant coach at what was then called Three Rivers Junior College. He told his wife Nelda not to unpack much in case he didn’t make it.
The program was in its third season, coming off a losing year, and didn’t have a gym to practice in. A year later, Bess was in charge.
“I had no reservation at all recommending him as my successor,” said Three Rivers’ first coach Bob Cradic in a 2006 interview. “I wouldn’t presume that I could actually envision he would set all the records and have the kind of career he’s had, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t recognize his talent and that he was certainly going to be a success.”
Bess was an early adopter of new science and technology. In the 1960s, he would take an 8 mm strip of film to the Greyhound bus station after games, send it to St. Louis, and get a viewable version back the next afternoon. He later added weight training and nutrition before much of his competition.
The ‘79 national championship team practiced at the Sears Youth Center, played games at Poplar Bluff High School, slept in dorms downtown, and traveled in station wagons.
“You hear coaches nowadays complaining about facilities; we need this, we need this,” said Sam Weaver, MVP of the ’79 national tournament. “Here’s a guy that didn’t even have a gym. He’d pack us in station wagons and we’d go here, we’d go there and I don’t think I ever heard Coach Bess complain about that. He had one thing in mind, he was going to coach and prepare us. If it was a distraction that he had to do all those things, he was great at never letting us know.
“It shows the type of focus he had to have a team with no gymnasium, no consistency in practice time, but yet be able to do his job and do it well enough for a team to win a national championship.”
The Bess Activity Center opened in 1982 and became one of the toughest places to play in the nation. The Raiders set a record with 48 straight home wins and won 80 of 81 games there from the 1990-91 season to 1995-96. They were 417-61 in the gym, which is named after Arrettia and Herschel Bess, and seated 2,600. Three Rivers currently plays in the Libla Family Sports Complex on Gene Bess Court. A bronze statue of Bess in front of the main entrance was unveiled in February 2023.
From 1978-84, the Raiders won at least 30 games and had an 83-game home winning streak that set a junior college record. In the early ’90s, they went on another five-year tear and averaged a 32-5 record, including their second national title.
Each run included a future NBA player.
Marvin “Moon” McCrary was on the Raiders’ first national championship team and went on to play at Missouri before being drafted in the fifth round by the Phoenix Suns.
Latrell Sprewell, who still holds several Three Rivers scoring records set in 1990, went on to Alabama and a 13-year NBA career.
Fellow NBA players Tyler and Ben Hansbrough and Otto Porter Jr. were regulars at the Three Rivers summer camps growing up.
Then there are all the guys who aren’t nationally known but found success in one profession or another.
“I’ve got a bunch of former players out there who are doing well, and that’s probably the greatest satisfaction I get out of life is seeing those guys do well,” Bess said in 2020.
Born in the middle of the Great Depression, Bess grew up on a farm near Jackson, Missouri. He went to high school at Oak Ridge, graduated from Southeast Missouri State University, and started coaching high school basketball in 1957.
His 1969 Oran team finished 34-1, losing the state championship game after a late controversial call. Fred Johnson was shooting free throws with 12 seconds left and Oran trailing by two points. He made the first foul shot but was denied a second attempt for violating the 10-second rule. Dixon, which was unbeaten and featured future Missouri Tiger and NBA player John Brown, won 76-74.
Johnson and another player from that team signed with Three Rivers and Cradic invited Bess to become an assistant.
Bess won his first game as head coach, 86-81 over Phillips County, but the Raiders were 14-9 before winning nine straight to claim a conference and regional title.
Bess and the Raiders won their first game at the national tournament, 100-75 over Niagra Falls (N.Y.), then lost to hometown Hutchinson (Kan.) before winning twice to place fourth and finish 27-10.
The roster featured two players who became hall of fame coaches with over 500 wins each at the high school level— Lennies McFerren and Paul Hale.
Since then, at least 42 former Raiders played for Bess and went on to become coaches.