BURNABY MOUNTAIN — Ask Bruce Langford how many more seasons he is planning on coaching the Simon Fraser women’s basketball team, and instead of providing a direct answer, he quotes his wife Leslie.
“When we go out to dinner with couples our age, they all bring up this ‘When is Bruce going to retire?’ stuff,’” Langford relates. “My wife shakes her head and she says to them ‘Well, Bruce doesn’t think he has a job, so you don’t retire if you don’t have a job. He just loves what he’s doing.’”
It’s a sentiment that could not be more succinct, and it’s especially apropos today as one of the most enduring members of our B.C. basketball community celebrates his 70th birthday.
Nov. 16, 1951 indeed equals 70.
It’s something of an exclusive club in the NCAA ranks, the environment in which Langford has now coached in for 12 of his 21 continuous seasons at helm of SFU women’s basketball. (Click here for his complete SFU coaching record).
Men’s coaches Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), 76, and Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), 74, along with Rutger’s women’s coach C. Vivian Stringer, 73, are his elders.
While just behind him in age are Iona’s much-travelled 69-year-old men’s coach Rick Pitino, and legendary women’s coaches in Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, 68, and Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, 67.
Locally, newly-returned Thompson Rivers WolfPack women’s head coach Ken Olynyk and Britannia Bruins senior girls coach Mike Evans share a similar vintage, as do boys high school coaches Ken Dockendorf, Bill Disbrow and Rich Chambers.
Yet just the fact that Langford was able to emerge from a hard-scrabble childhood to find his passion in coaching is in and of itself a bit of a miracle.
After all, how does a person who has never played basketball come to understand its every dynamic with such precision?
And to take that a step further, how has Langford, over every substantial stop he has made, managed to achieve such levels of excellence, whether it be three B.C. senior girls high school titles between Hatzic (AA, 1994) and Heritage Park (AAA, 2000, 2001), five Bronze Baby national titles in nine seasons during Simon Fraser’s time in U SPORTS (2001-10), and two Sweet 16 national championship appearances (2013, 2017) since transitioning to NCAA Div. 2 in 2010-11?
Ask the 1970 grad of Burnaby South Secondary about his a-ha moment on the road to coaching enlightenment, however, and he admits that at an early career crossroads, it was either complete his courses at BCIT to become a computer programmer, or follow his heart and get a teaching degree.
There were too many parts about the former that he didn’t enjoy, yet when it came to the latter, despite the fact he self-admittedly was not the best student in high school, he had this inkling within him that he might have a knack for reaching and teaching young people.
“My wife said to me ‘Why don’t you teach? You love history. You read it every night. You love sports. You love working with kids. You could coach in school, and you could teach history.’”
So Langford quit his studies at BCIT, quit his job in the computer department at Sears, and enrolled as a student at Simon Fraser University.
And although his coaching journey would be circuitous, it has most certainly come full circle.
Since being hired to replace the legendary former Simon Fraser, Oregon, Semiahmoo, and Canadian national team and Olympic head coach Allison McNeill ahead of the 2001-02 season, Bruce Langford has gone on to compile a 449-142 overall record as a university coach.
Off to a 2-4 start this season over a stretch of six road games stateside in a span of just 11 days, the coach was schedule to return home late Monday after a 59-56 overtime loss in California to fellow D2 non-conference rivals, the Academy of Art Urban Knights.
“It’s going to be Gemma Cutler’s birthday on the 15th,” he said of the team’s freshman forward from North Vancouver’s St. Thomas Aquinas, “so we’ll have a little celebration for her, then rush off to the airport, catch a plane and be home that night.”
Langford was contemplating an off-day Tuesday for the team, but didn’t make it sound like anything special was on tap for his own birthday. He did mention that he and wife Leslie were reserving a day later in the week for a birthday dinner.
“She tells me it’s basketball season, and so I need to book that in my day planner,” Langford says. “She knows that if I don’t write it in, I am going to probably book something else.”
It’s comforting to think that 42 seasons into a coaching life, some things never change.
“…HE LEARNED TOTALLY OUT OF A BOOK”
Bruce Langford, at his current pace of coaching success, is probably about two seasons and change away from reaching 500 wins as a university head coach.
Yet as someone who never played the game, how did he learn his craft so well?
It all came together in the late 1970s when he came to Langley’s H.D. Stafford as a student-teacher and began his first true basketball coaching assignment with the school’s junior varsity girls team.
“He came to Stafford (in 1979-80) as a teacher, and he (coached) volleyball and basketball, and he did it straight out of a book,” remembers Paul Langford, five years his older brother’s junior and the longtime head coach of the senior girls Quad-A team at PoCo’s Riverside Secondary. “He learned totally out of a book. He’s always been a crazy reader.”
But while he gobbled up the written word, he also immersed himself in watching as much as he could, including his youngest brother, Peter Langford, who during that same time period played for Vancouver’s Gladstone Gladiators on a team coached by the esteemed Bill Ruby, and one which finished third at the top-tiered 1979 B.C. boys championships.
That would be the start of a full 15 years of learning the coaching ropes for Langford, before it all came together in the 1993-94 season at Mission’s Hatzic Secondary.
That season, a Crusaders’ team with star Joby McKenzie and a Grade 9 Teresa Gabriele nee Kleindienst, won the B.C. AA championship title. Yet perhaps even more revealing was the fact that they had beaten the Triple-A champion New Westminster Hyacks in three of their four meetings that same season.
Then, with stars like Kim Smith Gaucher, Julia Wilson and his daughter, current Golden State Warriors manager of player rehabilitation Dani Langford, he won back-to-back B.C. top-tiered AAA titles at crosstown Heritage Park in 2000 and 2001.
Following the ’01 season, McNeill stepped down as SFU coach to return to her alma mater, teamming with her former high school and college teammate Bev Smith to coach the Oregon Ducks..
Suddenly, a vacancy had opened atop Burnaby Mountain.
“Dani and Theresa had to basically convince me to apply for the job,” Langford says of his two former high school players who had been recruited to Simon Fraser by McNeill. “I had always thought that it would be interesting to coach at university, but I didn’t have a real confidence in myself to do it.”
Yet he coached SFU to a 35-0 record that season, one which ended with a victory in the national championship final.
“…I THINK I COULD GO TO 75”
Ask one of his former players about what has allowed Bruce Langford to continue to coach at such a high level on his 70th birthday, and Sophie Swant doesn’t hesitate.
“I would say that basketball is a benefit, but he is there for the people, and that is one of the things that really sets him apart,” said Swant, who came to Simon Fraser out of North Vancouver’s Argyle Secondary as a raw prospect but by the time of her graduation following the 2018-19 season, had grown into one of the most complete front-court players in program history.
“To him, coaching has always meant that you are developing people,” continued Swant, these days working locally as a recruitment coordinator within the business sector. “You’re taking a 17- or 18-year-old kid and helping them find success on the court, but you’re also helping them to find that in real life. And he stays in touch. He’s invited to more weddings than you can shake a stick at.”
Trinity Western Spartans and Canada Basketball age group national team head coach Cheryl Jean-Paul has gotten to know Langford over the years, and her appreciation for his generational body of work is apparent at so many different levels, including one fact that is both unique to his resume and universally overlooked.
“He has run these incredible programs, and I say that in the plural because to coach in U SPORTS and then in the NCAA, you have to re-create your program,” Jean-Paul begins. “The rules are different, recruiting is different, your conference is different. But he just keeps finding ways to make it work.”
And then there is the delight that comes in listening to a coaching dean like Langford chatting with a younger player with whom there is an entire generation’s gap.
“He’s connected to so many people, and it’s cool,” says Jean-Paul, “when you hear him say ‘When I coached your mom, she was exactly like that.’”
Quite suddenly, there is no generation gap.
“I think it’s why he still coaches,” offers Langley Christian senior girls head coach Danielle Gardner, who as a freshman guard in 1991-92 at the former BCCAA Fraser Valley College, played on a team coached by both Langford and Mike Hind. “He still feels like he still has a lot to give and to share with the next generation, and so he does.”
Interesting to note that this season, her daughter Makenna Gardner, exactly 30 seasons later, is a freshman guard playing for Langford at SFU.
“He was like my second father when I was at SFU, and I wouldn’t even say that was a unique experience,” adds Swant. “I am sure many felt the same way. He was not just there for the basketball. He was about the people. That was the real ‘why’ behind it all.”
Ask anyone who knows him about who Bruce Langford really is, and truer words could not be spoken.
Just recently, he donated his entire collection of basketball coaching books, thought to be over 100, to a local basketball club so that it’s young coaches could read them and learn about the game in the same ways that he did when he was lost kid, looking for his life’s direction and trying to stay out of trouble.
They are books that need to be treasured both because of their origin, and because of the legacy their original owner will always hold within the B.C. basketball community.
And with that said, we can all agree that the kid who would have been horribly mis-cast as computer programmer… might have made the right choice by going back to school.
“The main thing is, I don’t want to do a disservice to the kids I am coaching… I don’t want to short-change them,” Langford says when asked about the inevitable challenges that come as we all age.
“I look at it now, and I think I could I could go to 75 and not diminish what is happening,” he adds, “but I don’t know.”
What we do know is that if Bruce Langford doesn’t consider his posting as SFU women’s basketball coach a ‘job’, what is he supposed to retire from?
“I don’t see myself as being that old,” he says. “But I guess I am. In some ways it shows, but when you look in the mirror, do you still see the 30-year-old you?”
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