Schafer Replaces A Legend
When I interviewed Lee McKinney for a Journal story in February 2011, the former Fontbonne University athletic director and men’s basketball coach told me he loved overcoming obstacles and taking on new challenges.
That’s the reason McKinney decided to leave his coaching post at Missouri Baptist University to start Fontbonne’s men’s basketball program from scratch. McKinney also helped found the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which began play in 1990.
That’s the reason McKinney coached 1,425 basketball games in a row over a 52-year span. Never did McKinney miss a game over that time span. And only in the rarest of circumstances did the coaching legend miss a practice. McKinney’s seven-decade streak came to an end last February, when he couldn’t attend the Griffins’ final three games of the regular season.
That’s the reason McKinney overcame cancer twice during his life. He battled through colon cancer in 1996 and metastic colon cancer in 2002. Cancer returned for a third time in 2010 and caused McKinney to lose 50 pounds. McKinney fought the cancer, but on April 4, 2011, the all-time great basketball coach died at the age of 75.
For the first time in program history, Fontbonne began a men’s basketball coaching search. The university wasn’t going to be able to find a Lee McKinney clone, but it needed to hire a coach in McKinney’s mold. A coach who, above all else, was willing to take on a challenge.
It’s a good thing Fontbonne found Steve Schafer.
“I don’t really shy away from any challenge or any situation,” said Schafer, who was hired in April 2011. “I’m a really competitive person. McKinney’s done so much for this university, this athletic department and St. Louis. The guy is an unbelievable man. I will never be able to replace him. I’ve said that to everybody I’ve ever talked to.”
So, how has Schafer filled the shoes of a pillar of the Fontbonne community? How has he gone about replacing the irreplaceable?
By not reinventing the wheel. Schafer’s objective is simply to continue what McKinney created.
“The things he’s done for this university, how much he’s given back, the players he’s touched over the course of his 23 years as a coach here — I’ll never be able to mirror or reach or replace that,” Schafer said. “My goal was to take what he’s built, continue it and hope to make it even better. I hope he’s looking down on us — even though we’re not having a great year wins and losses. I hope he’s pleased with the effort and the way we’re going about things here.”
It’s been an admittedly tough season for the Griffins in their first year under Schafer. Fontbonne finished the season with a 4-20 overall record and a 3-13 SLIAC mark.
But the Griffins’ struggles aren’t all that surprising when the circumstances are taken into account. The players had to recover from the loss of their legendary coach; Schafer’s new system had to be learned and implemented; there were no seniors on the team; Fontbonne had a 5-19 record a year ago.
The Griffins closed the book on their 2011-2012 season with a 71-52 loss at rival Webster University on Feb. 21. It was the first time a Fontbonne head coach not named Lee McKinney patrolled the Griffins’ bench at Grant Gymnasium.
Though Fontbonne fell short against the Gorloks, Schafer and his players were able to walk out of Webster with their heads held high. This season, the players took up the personality of their new coach, who refused to back down from a challenge.
While he watched from above as Schafer and the Griffins battled adversity all season long, Lee McKinney must have been extraordinarily proud.