January 13, 2014 • From the BenchWinning Hoops

Going his own way

by Kevin Hoffman, Editorial Director

John Hutchcraft isn’t much for scheming and play calling. If a player has the ball and they’re open, shoot it — it’s that simple.

Some coaches might scoff at that philosophy, but it’s difficult to argue with a coach who has nearly as many championship rings as fingers. His approach is born from the basic principal that sports must be fun, and nothing keeps kids more entertained than a gun-slinging offense that few opponents can match.

“If you’re open and you don’t shoot, you’ll be taken out of the game, said Hutchcraft, the boys and girls basketball coach at Guy-Perkins High School (Arkansas). Everyone kind of laughs at that, but it really is my rule.”

Hutchcraft strikes you as the prototypical basketball coach, a towering 6-foot-8 with white hair that makes him slightly resemble Phil Jackson. In April, Hutchcraft led the McDonald’s All American East girl’s team to an 89-87 victory in Chicago, the very same arena where Jackson built his dynasty.

Hutchcraft called the experience with the McDonald’s All-Americans one of the best in his 38-year coaching career. That’s saying a lot for a coach with nine state basketball championships — four boys and five girls — along with another nine runner-up finishes and “two or three” state softball championships.

Guy-Perkins High School competes in the state’s lowest class, and Hutchcraft said there are only about 400 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Because of its size, Hutchcraft spent 25 years as the school’s only coach, leading teams in all sports.

That makes it of little surprise that the McDonald’s All American Games selection committee, led by Hall-of-Famer Morgan Wootten, would choose him to coach some of the nation’s top prep athletes. Hutchcraft said he was given the choice to either coach the boys or girls, and the reason he chose the latter was so he could bring along his daughter and one of his former players — both Arkansas high school coaches — to fill out his staff.

“It was a cool experience to have three Guy-Perkins (alumni) that got to be there, said Vic Rimmer, head girls coach at Fayetteville High School. It was just a first-class experience all the way around. Once in a lifetime.”

Hutchcraft’s long career has created a coaching tree that spreads throughout Arkansas, with his daughter Ashley Nance and Rimmer already blossoming into two of the state’s top coaches. Rimmer led Fayetteville to a class 7A championship last season, beating Nance’s Conway team in the title game. The year before, Nance got the best of Rimmer for the championship.

Both Rimmer and Nance have created their own coaching philosophies, though they admit the high-volume-shooting approach used by Hutchcraft is part of it.

“He started the up-tempo style really early, but now it’s pretty common, said Nance. While playing on her father’s team, she set the national record with 15 made 3-pointers in one game.

“I want people to shoot the basketball and have confidence to do that, she continued. Everyone says we’re alike, but of course I learn from other people and developed some things that I like to do as a coach. But for sure he taught me the foundation.”

Coaching two high school teams is a handful, but it’s hardly Hutchcraft’s only responsibility. He owns an auction house, which was once featured in an episode of the History Channel’s American Pickers. He also plays with the Arkansas Travelers basketball team, which has won gold in the Senior Olympic games three times.

Oh, and he’s the constable of his township.

“I do stay busy, Hutchcraft said. It makes it a lot of fun when you’re busy like that.”

Basketball acted as a bonding mechanism for the Hutchcraft family when his children were younger. He also coached AAU basketball, and during the summer travel tournaments would double as family vacations.

Hutchcraft calls coaching his children the highlight of his career. Nance insists her father wasn’t harder on her when compared to her teammates, but he did have high expectations. She said witnessing his work ethic and approach to the game made rubbed off on her, and when they got home at the end of the day basketball was pushed to the wayside.

“I feel a lot of coaches today that coach their kids are just so hard on them and it’s constant at home, Nance said. I appreciated when we got home it wasn’t about him being a coach and it wasn’t crammed down our throats. He did a really good job of that.”

Few coaches will ever match Hutchcraft’s résumé, and by the time he retires he’ll likely have more than 1 900 wins in his career, going down as one of Arkansas’s best prep coaches. Opponents know what’s coming when they face Guy-Perkins teams, but somehow most continue to be helpless against his style of play.

Hutchcraft said he learned the concept from his high school coach, who also took an up-tempo approach. Shooting and rebounding are priorities at Guy-Perkins, and Hutchcraft said he uses identical strategies with his girls and boys teams. He likes to average about 80 points per game.

Offensive freedom is a big part of Hutchcraft’s approach. He only has about five set plays he’ll ever call during a game, and because his model has worked for so long he has no plans to change it.

Hutchcraft knows he could slow things down, implement more strategy and place a premium on defense, but that’s just not his style. Scoring is fun, and he firmly believes a lot of his success comes from his ability to make the game exciting for his players.

Hutchcraft said his school holds the national scoring records for the most made 3-pointers in a game (33) and most attempted 3-pointers in a game (113).

“We live and die by the 3-point shot, he said.

“I see people win by controlling the game, they got players who shoot and they win low-scoring games, he added. I’ve been beat by coaches like that, but I don’t even like watching games like that and I’m sure not playing one of my teams like that.”

Rimmer agrees the up-tempo offense can cripple opponents, but he doesn’t believe that’s the only reason Hutchcraft has been so successful. He recalls their trip to the McDonald’s All American game, and watching Hutchcraft interact with the athletes reminded him that the long-time coach had a gift that all great leaders must have.

“There is something about him, he’s able to create confidence in kids in a way that I’ve never seen anyone be able to do, Rimmer said. It’s with his words, his mannerisms and his pats on the back.”

The fact that Rimmer and Nance have had such success could lead anyone to wonder about the secrets of the Hutchcraft coaching tree. They have five state championships between them, and now they’re positioning their respective schools as the powerhouses of the state’s largest class.

The on-the-court approach to the game is part of the equation, but Hutchcraft believes it’s also in the way they interact with the athletes.

“When you watch kids come to the gym for practice, they gotta be smiling and running because they know it’s going to be fun and it’s going to be competitive, he said. We do everything we can to make the basketball program fun for our kids. We think that’s important and we don’t want them to dread coming to practice.”

Rimmer is surprised Hutchcraft never left to coach someplace else, and there were opportunities. Hutchcraft said he gets asked a lot why he never climbed the career ladder, but Guy-Perkins High School is home, his family is close and coaching his kids was important.

“My philosophy is if you’re at a school and you’re happy, I don’t think there is any reason to leave, he said.

Hutchcraft’s free-spirited approach on the floor is one thing, but off the floor his future is scripted. His grandson was a freshman this year, and he plans to coach the young basketball player through his senior year before stepping away from the game after 41 years.

He joked that another one of his remaining goals is to have played against every school in the state of Arkansas. He believes he’s about 95 percent of the way there.

It’s oftentimes difficult for coaches to step away, especially those who have spent the majority of their lives standing on the sidelines of a basketball court. Hutchcraft has more than enough to keep him busy, so he insists his transition away from the sport won’t be as challenging as some might imagine.

“I honestly think he’s going to be able to step away, Nance said. He’s been at the same place for almost 40 years, and with me coaching he’ll be able to come to our games.

“He’ll be able to enjoy some of the things we don’t get to enjoy as coaches because we’re always so busy. He’s going to be able to slow down and do some of the things he missed out on.”