Bob Lutz

Eck finds way back to beginning

Steve Eck wasn't hired at Hutchinson Community College to win basketball games.

At the risk of sounding trite, Hutch has always won basketball games. Since the Blue Dragons' last national tournament appearance in 1997, they have averaged 23 wins.

Yet there is a perception — perhaps even a recognition — that Hutch hoops isn't what it used to be or what it needs to be.

Can a basketball program that has won 23, 23 and 20 games the past three seasons really be considered down?

Conversely, are expectations at Hutch, which battles it out yearly in the rugged Jayhawk Conference, out of whack?

All questions to ponder.

Which brings us back to Eck, who was born to coach at Hutchinson after growing up in nearby Haven. That it took him 54 years to get there is interesting, to say the least.

But he's there now and his overall coaching record of 650-86 is with him. He long ago proved himself as a winner at Wichita's Jardine Junior High, South High and in the juco ranks at Butler, Redlands (Okla.), and, for the past two seasons, at Cowley Community College in Arkansas City, where he narrowly missed out on two national tournament appearances.

Hutch, though, is a different creature. First, it's the home of the national junior college tournament every March, and Blue Dragons fans are understandably weary of their team not being in the field.

The Sports Arena, where the Blue Dragons play and where the national tournament is held, is a legendary venue in junior college basketball.

And the Hutch faithful have long memories of the team's 11 national tournament appearances in 19 seasons from 1957-75.

"When you grew up in Haven at that time, you grew up a Blue Dragons fan,'' Eck said.

He went to games with his father, Rusty, and remembers how dominant Hutch teams were under Sam Butterfield and Gene Keady.

"Deep down, I always wanted to coach here,'' Eck said. "But if it didn't happen, I wasn't going to lose sleep. I was very happy at Cowley. It was a good situation.''

For whatever reason, Hutchinson bypassed Eck a couple of times when it had a coaching opening. I never understood why, but after Ryan Swanson resigned after last season, the Hutch administration acted quickly.

"A lot of people are excited about having Steve here,'' Hutchinson athletic director Randy Stange said. "Based upon ticket sales, there's a real element of excitement out there for him and Steve has done nothing to discourage that.''

As for the team, it will be young. Eck didn't inherit a bunch of seasoned returning players; he had to go out and beat the bushes to bring in some promising freshmen and brought along several transfers from Cowley, including former City Leaguers Adonis Gantt, Cortez Barnes and Garrius Hollomon.

Eck has always downplayed his teams, but he's not crazy enough to suggest the Blue Dragons won't be capable. However, anyone expecting an immediate jump into the national championship picture is advised to show some patience.

Here's what you can bank on with an Eck-coached team: It will play defense. It will play hard for 40 minutes. It won't make a lot of mistakes. It will make the Sports Arena the place to be once again.

"I know a lot of people here in Hutch,'' Eck said. "I have a lot of high school friends here and a lot of my former softball teammates are close by.''

Eck played softball for Hutch G.E. for about 16 years after he graduated from high school. It was, he said, a powerhouse team that won numerous state championships. He was the second baseman and leadoff hitter.

Others shared the glory of hitting home run after home run; Eck slapped singles to get on base and flashed the leather up the middle.

Even though he's lived in Wichita for more than 30 years, Hutchinson has always felt like home, too.

"But I don't pinch myself about having this coaching job,'' he said. "If you do something like that, then you shouldn't be here. If all you're here for is your ego — to be able to say you're coaching at Hutch — then that's the wrong reason. You've got to get in the trenches and work just like you did everywhere else.''