Bob Lutz

Sedan's Les Davis was a coach who molded young men

They're going to have Les Davis' funeral in the Sedan High gymnasium on Saturday. Good luck with that. If everybody comes back to town who played for Davis during his 48-year coaching career, they'll need 10 gymnasiums. Maybe 20.

It's incredible how many lives Davis, who was born in Wichita and went to North High but made his mark as a small-town coach, impacted in his 77 years. And most of it in Sedan, which has a declining population that now hovers close to 1,200.

Davis suffered a stroke during his grandson's wedding Saturday in Copan, Okla., but rather than say anything that might have caused a disruption, he waited until the service was over to tell his wife, Mary, he wasn't feeling well. He died Sunday at a Tulsa hospital.

That's Davis. He was almost embarrassed by the 1,522 coaching victories he piled up in football, basketball and baseball over the years. When somebody mentioned all of his wins, he quickly turned the discussion to the losses —"So many losses,'' he'd say — his teams endured.

That's Davis, too. He didn't coach in pursuit of victories, although those who knew him will attest to his competitive fire. He coached to help young people. His chalkboard speeches were lessons of life and he refused to treat the last guy on the bench any differently than the all-league quarterback or point guard.

"We've been talking to guys who played for dad all day and not one of them has mentioned the wins or losses or going to state tournaments or any of that,'' said Randy Davis, the oldest of Davis' three sons. "But all of them have talked about how he molded their lives, how he turned them into men.''

There was no negotiation in Davis' style of coaching. He set the rules and they were to be followed. By everyone.

His sons were the world to him, but when they were his players they were just his players.

"Dad knew how to handle kids,'' said Mark Davis, 53, who teaches in Udall, where he coached baseball until resigning last spring. "He didn't just coach sports, he coached life.''

Imagine coaching three high school sports. That's what Davis did for 30 years before finally giving up baseball, his favorite.

Yet his sons never felt like they weren't the center of his attention. Yes, coaching took up a lot of time. But Davis, inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2008, stressed to his family that God should come first in their lives, family second and school third.

"Dad always found time for us,'' Mark Davis said. "Growing up, I think that's why we all became such avid hunters and fishermen because that's something he always loved doing. The amount of time he put into coaching was unbelievable. But he was always there for us.''

It's telling that all three of Davis' sons went into coaching. His youngest, Criss, is the football coach at Caney Valley, which has always been one of Sedan's fiercest rivals. The two towns are located about 20 miles apart — Sedan in Chautauqua County and Caney in Montgomery.

Two years ago, he talked his dad into being one of his assistants. It wasn't an easy sell.

It was unthinkable to some that Davis, such a legend in Sedan, could go to Caney. And he wouldn't have done it, Criss said, if the two schools played one another. But they're in different leagues and districts.

And Les needed something to feed his competitive juices. Retirement was not his thing.

"I think one of the best things that happened to my dad is when Criss asked him to help coach at Caney,'' Randy Davis said.

Criss said it was a two-way street.

"The best two years of my life,'' he said. "It took me quite a while to talk him into it because he's a (Sedan) Blue Devil. But when he finally agreed, it was just great having him around. It's a blessing nobody can take away from me.''

Davis coached thousands of players through the years, but it's doubtful any of their stories would be much different.

He was all about loyalty and discipline and attention to detail. He didn't necessarily understand "today's kids," but he embraced them just the same.

In all of his years of coaching, Davis won one state championship — with Sedan's 1973 baseball team. Current Sedan superintendent Scott Hills was on that team. So was Wichita orthopedic surgeon Brad Bruner.

Don Chrisman was another player on that team. He said he was a 5-foot-6, 106-pound sophomore when he first encountered Davis.

"He tried to talk me into going out for football,'' Chrisman said. "He said there was nothing like knocking somebody on their butt and getting away with it.''

Just who, exactly, was a 106-pound kid going to knock on his butt?

"Somebody who wasn't looking,'' Chrisman said.

Looking back, Chrisman has figured out how Davis won so many games.

"He had the ability as a coach to convince a slower, less-experienced and smaller team that it could beat a better, more-experienced and faster team, and then be able to take those guys out there and prove it,'' said Chrisman, who works at Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita. "He taught us a lot more than sports.''

Even if they didn't know it at the time.