Now in his 20th season as UBC head coach, Kevin Hanson sits one win away from the Canada West's all-time conference wins record. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2019. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Men's Basketball

Kevin Hanson: On the precipice of a milestone, UBC’s unflappable men’s basketball coach reflects on his lifetime in the game

VANCOUVER — Kevin Hanson remembers everything about the day he became a head basketball coach for the first time in his life.

“When Dunc McCallum asked me to be the head coach, it was for a $1,000 honourarium, and that was typical of the day,” Hanson recalled earlier this week, going back in his mind to the start of the 1991-92 season, when at the age of 26, he was offered the reigns of the CCAA’s Langara College Falcons by its longtime legendary coach and athletic director.

“I can look back at that day as a sign that I wasn’t getting into coaching for the money,” continued Hanson with a chuckle. “There was another reason. It felt like a calling. I was young, but even then I had a confidence in myself and a love for the game that told me that I could do this.”

Talk about trusting your gut.

Almost three decades later, at the age of 55, the fire-plug tough former point guard has become one of the most enduring faces in the B.C. basketball world.

And on Thursday, now in his 20th season as the head coach of the UBC Thunderbirds, following nine seasons and two national championships at Langara, Hanson has a chance to become the winningest coach in Canada West men’s basketball conference history.

If the ‘Birds are able to get past Langley’s visiting Trinity Western Spartans (7 p.m., War Memorial Gymnasium), Hanson would notch his 314th career conference regular season victory, breaking the mark of 313 he currently holds with Don Horwood, who set his own standard of excellence over 26 years at the helm of the Alberta Golden Bears.

UBC wraps up its weekend home series with the Spartans on Saturday (7 p.m.).

Since being named the Thunderbirds’ head coach in time for the 2000-01 season, all Hanson has done is re-write the record books.

The 304-91 conference record he brought into the 2019-20 season, one which includes an all-time high .770 winning percentage, is stunning enough on its own, but when averaged out, translates to averaging a 16-5 league record for 19 straight years.

Over that span, Hanson has led UBC to five Canada West titles, eight Pacific Division pennants, and three trips to the U Sports Final Four, including second-place finishes nationally in 2009 and 2010.

UBC head coach Kevin Hanson spends a moment with former ‘Birds star Tommy Nixon. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2019. All Rights Reserved)

Hanson’s overall record at UBC, however, is just as impressive.

Heading into Thursday’s game against Trinity Western, the former UBC point guard from North Delta’s Seaquam Secondary had a 478-182 (.724) overall record.

So prodigious has Hanson’s winning pace been since he took helm of the ‘Birds at the start of the century that he became UBC men’s basketball’s all-time overall wins leader on Oct. 26, 2014.

That day he led the ‘Birds to a 77-69 win over the Guelph Gryphons in a non-conference game to pick up his 338th overall victory at the school, surpassing the late, great Dr. Peter Mullins.

Incredibly, Mullins was actually the one to take Hanson on his recruiting trip around the Point Grey campus in the spring of 1982, before deciding to retire prior to the start of the 1982-83 season with those 337 overall wins.

Hanson, who later discovered he didn’t have the French courses he needed to get into UBC, spent his first two post-secondary seasons playing at Langara, before coming to the Thunderbirds for real, playing for Mullins’ successor Bruce Enns from 1984-85 through 1986-87.

In that final season, Hanson who still holds’ UBC’s all-time single-season career assists average of 10.5 per game, helped lead the ‘Birds to a berth in the national championship game where they lost to Brandon.

Yet it was even before then that Hanson caught the coaching bug while growing up near Seaquam Secondary, a North Delta-area high school which opened in the fall of 1977.

In his Grade 11 year of 1980-81, Hanson and high school teammate Chris Terris, one year his senior and also a lifelong coach now well-established in the Penticton area, began coaching elementary school-aged kids as part of a weekend program.

“I fell in love with it,” admits Hanson. “It was such an intrinsically motivating experience, that today, for me, it is still a driving force.”

That’s an especially meaningful statement for someone who entered the coaching profession without ever having coached at the high school level, yet has uniquely spent 20 years coaching at the same university.

“You can’t do this alone and I want to acknowledge Vern,” added Hanson of assistant coach Vern Knopp, the former Burnaby Central forward of mid-1980s vintage. “He has been here since Day 1 and we’ve done this journey together, through both great and challenging times.”

UBC head coach Kevin Hanson confers with assistants Sean Shook (left) and Vern Knopp. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2019. All Rights Reserved)

In the five seasons since he became the school’s all-times wins leader, Hanson’s magic has shown no signs of slowing as he has won 140 overall games over that span, averaging 28 wins per season.

Yet ask Hanson if he knows how many games he has head coached in total, between UBC and Langara, and he falls almost 100 wins shy.

“I am thinking I must be getting up around 900?” he offers.

Thursday’s contest will actually be the 995th overall of Hanson’s 29-year head coaching career, one in which he has fashioned an overall record of 739-256.

Hanson, who coached Langara for nine straight CCAA seasons (1991-92-to-1999-2000), winning a pair of national titles in 1998 and 1999 and compiling a 261-74 record (.757 win percentage) before returning to the blue and gold, will coach the 1,000th game of his career when the ‘Birds open a two-game series at Grant MacEwan on Jan. 24.

And of course, you can’t coach in that many games and not have an entire tree filled with former players who still keep in regular touch.

“I am proud to have him as my mentor in basketball,” said former player Jordan Yu, who will be in the Lower Mainland this weekend when his Triple-A No. 2-ranked Duchess Park Condors take part in the annual St. Thomas More Chancellor tournament in Burnaby. “I still text him almost every week for advice, and we enjoy a close connection.”

The length of Hanson’s tenure at UBC, when translated to the current NCAA Div. 1 ranks, is voluminous enough that he would sit in a tie for No. 10 overall in terms of continuous service at one school, locked in a group of four which also includes Gonzaga’s Mark Few.

Yes, he’s sitting well behind Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (42 years) and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (38), the top 1-2, but he’s longer tenured than the likes of Villanova’s Jay Wright (18 seasons) and Kansas’ Bill Self (16 seasons).

Jadon Cohee chats with head coach Kevin Hanson during last Saturday’s loss in Abbotsford to the Fraser Valley Cascades. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)

“I love what I do, I love coaching,” Hanson says when asked what fuels his daily fire. “It certainly gets more and more challenging as we get older, but the best part about it is that I am still learning. The day I stop learning is when I retire.”

Win or lose, it’s been the same process for almost 30 years, and that includes Sunday mornings like the one which followed last Saturday’s 84-82 loss at Fraser Valley.

“Every game is a tough game to play and a tough game to win, and in our conference anything can happen,” noted Hanson of the Canada West, which uniquely plays virtually all of its league games in back-to-back Friday-Saturday settings against the same team, in the same gym. “I look back at my preparation. How to focus. How to get better. And then Sunday morning I start watching video. It’s what my life is: To prepare a group of guys to be the best that they can be.”

Now, almost three decades after his first paying gig in 1991-92, he has a much broader perspective on what it was like to toil through that debut season at Langara for $1,000.

“I loved it,” says Hanson. “It was worth every penny.”

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