By Jim Moyes
Former Muskegon Big Red and Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Famer Gene Visscher passed away at the age of 81 on Saturday, August 6, 2022, from complications from a fall and other health issues.
The former basketball star at Weber State University, and Division I head basketball coach at both his alma mater and Northern Arizona, was inducted into our local sports hall of fame in 1995, one year after his induction into Weber State’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Visscher had an outstanding career as one of this area’s all-time best at the round ball game, but to say Gene was a late bloomer would be a huge understatement. Visscher was a plodding b-ball player for the 1957-58 Big Reds where he spent much of his time of the bench.
One of Visscher’s teammates from his Big Red days was 1958 grad Dave Cooke, longtime area coach. Cooke remembers Visscher as a fast-growing youngster who quickly outgrew his clothes.
“Gene grew up in a family where he had four sisters,” recalled Cooke. “He played very little basketball until about his 11th grade year at Muskegon High. Our coach at the time was Lloyd Hartman and he asked Gene to go out for basketball simply because he was the biggest kid in school. He did come out for basketball his junior year, but he was very raw. He was much better his senior year and although he didn’t start, he would see action as a reserve. What I do remember was that Gene was the first kid we had on the team who could dunk a basketball. Although dunking was illegal at the time, Gene could dunk in practice,” recalled Cooke.
A decision to volunteer his service in the US Army shortly after graduating from Muskegon High would prove to be one a good one for the gangly 6-6 Visscher. A three-year stint in the service was where he attained the skills that would propel him into a future basketball star. A now physically fully developed athlete, who drew zero college feelers following his Big Red High School days, Visscher enrolled at Muskegon Community College. Visscher quickly became a star for the Jayhawks and thanks to the prodding of his very good friend Gene Young, Visscher followed Young to Weber State where he would have two years of eligibility.
Before making the journey to the Rocky Mountains, Visscher would not make the journey alone. Joining Gene back to Provo, Utah would be his recent bride, and high school sweetheart, the former Barb Heneveld.
Playing for legendary coach Dick Motta, Visscher was an immediate success for the Wildcats. He averaged 18.4 points per game as a junior while pulling down 11.3 rebounds. It got even better in his final season. Visscher tallied more than 21 points per game for Weber State. More than a half century has gone by since Visscher left Weber State but his 14.3 rebounds per game during the 1965-66 campaign still stands second in school history. Visscher’s presence was so significant that he led Motta’s Wildcats to conference championships in both of his years on the hardwoods and twice was selected to the All Big-Big Sky first team.
Following his playing days at Weber State, Gene shunned a possible spot in the NBA after being drafted by the Baltimore Bullets to pursue his passion of a coaching career. He was immediately chosen in his hometown of Muskegon as the head coach of the Muskegon Community College Jayhawks, where he was assisted by our great friend Gene Young, the same guy who recruited him to Weber State. Muskegon Panther fans may well recall his basketball skills from those days of yore on his return back to the Port City.
After a year at MCC, Visscher returned to Weber State where he served as an assistant coach for three years. He was appointed head coach at Weber State in 1971 after Weber State coach Phil Johnson left to accept a head coaching position in the NBA.
Visscher’s team were Big Sky champions in each of his first two seasons and advanced into the NCAA tournament each season. In 1972, Weber State won their first NCAA tournament game with a first-round 91-64 trouncing of Hawaii before being ousted in their next game by the eventual NCAA champs from UCLA.
Visscher coached 3 1/2 years for the Wildcats where he posted an overall record of 58 wins against 38 losses.
I saw Weber State play one game under Visscher’s tenure, and it was one I’ll not soon forget.
I was visiting out in California in the Los Angeles area in December of 1974 when I noticed that Weber State was scheduled to play a game at nearby Long Beach State in a Holiday tournament. Gene set me up with a pass to the game and I was just thrilled to have a seat in the stands. But No! Gene said you’re not sitting in the stands, but I was going to sit with him ON THE BENCH!
It was during the action of this game with Loyola Marymount where I first became aware of how stressful a job it was to be a big-time college coach. I believe I spent most of the time on the bench attempting to keep Gene from getting a technical foul.
Fortunately, Weber State won the game by a narrow three points and I was so happy for my good friend Gene. Gene stepped away from coaching Weber State shortly thereafter to return back to Michigan but the urge to get back into coaching got him back into the game.
Visscher served a year as an assistant for the University of Wyoming and followed up as the head coach at Northern Arizona for a couple of years before taking a much less stressful position as a teacher and athletic director in Charlotte, Michigan.
Visscher was much sought after for his basketball knowledge and spent many of his later years as an advisor to many in all levels of basketball. One of his opponents during his days at Weber State was the University of Montana, coached by Jud Heathcote.
During his first two years as the head coach at Weber State, Visscher won three of his four games against the future MSU coaching legend. After Visscher took up residence at nearby Charlotte, it was easy for the two former foes to become good friends. Visscher became a fixture at numerous MSU practices, first during the Heathcote era, and later when a guy by the name of Tom Izzo took over the Spartan head coaching duties.
Visscher also was called upon to help with former West Michigan Christian prep standout Ed Douma after Douma became the head coach at Hillsdale. There were also others who sought Visscher’s advice.
Among the many who have been saddened with his passing was his longtime friend Gene Gifford. “Gene was a mentor for me over the years,” said Gifford. “He would come to many of my practices during my coaching days at both Olivet and Aquinas College and I would always seek his advice from his incredible knowledge and passion for the game. He would even pass along many drills that I could use including a rebounding drill that I found so useful.”
Gifford, who was a ball boy for those Panther teams from yesteryear, recently spoke with Visscher when an area coaching position became available. Gifford was asked to take the job but before accepting he needed somebody he respected and admired for advice before he took the job. After talks with Visscher and family, Gene Gifford will return to Muskegon Community College and will once again take over a previous position he once held for 25 years, the head basketball coach for the Jayhawks.
Eugene Charles Visscher is survived by his wife of 58 years Barb, as well as son Jerry and daughter Traci and will be sorely missed by many friends, coaches, players, students and one very old announcer.