By Tom Kendra

MUSKEGON–The world has changed since Gene Gifford last coached at Muskegon Community College in 2007.

“Now, when I walk through the locker room after practice, it’s dead quiet,” explained Gifford, 72, who coached MCC from 1981 to 2007, and came back for a second tour of duty as the head men’s basketball coach this season.

“Everyone is sitting in front of their locker, looking at their phones.”

On the court, the changes are less dramatic; in fact, many of the challenges of winning at the junior college level have not changed since Gifford played for the Jayhawks after graduating from Shelby High School in 1968.

MCC is off to a 6-8 start this season, in spite of a roster that has been decimated by injuries, heading into their first game of Western Conference play on Jan. 14 against visiting Alpena.

Gifford, who has served as head coach at Olivet (2008-2012) and Mona Shores (2013-2016) and an assistant at Aquinas (2017-2022) over the past 15 years, returned to his familiar post at the intersection of Marquette and Quarterline in May after Jimmy Booth stepped down after 5 years as the men’s coach.

“I knew I would need something to do outside of the grandkids, and I kind of figured it would be basketball,” Gifford said with a laugh. “I still have the passion to coach and teach basketball. Then I got the call about this job in May.”

Muskegon Community College Mens Basketball Coach Gene Gifford (Photo/Tom Kendra)

After talking it over with his wife, Sue, a retired Muskegon Public Schools teacher who now works as the Muskegon Regional Coordinator for Girls on the Run, Gifford was again back home at MCC.

Gifford essentially took over in the summer and missed the main recruiting window, forcing him to play the hand he was dealt this season. Injuries have made that job even more difficult, with just eight healthy players for a recent game against the Alma College JV at Bartels-Rode Gymnasium.

In spite of those challenges, the veteran coach has started to work his magic – and make an impression on his players.

“I love playing for Coach Gifford,” said sophomore guard Vern Nash out of Muskegon High who scored 33 points in the Jayhawks’ 93-63 win over the Alma JV. “He’s a veteran and we have a lot of respect for him.

“He doesn’t have to yell and scream. He just gives me one little look and I know I did something wrong.”

Gifford is known for his organizational skills and in-game adjustments and is considered an outstanding bench coach. He boils all of his notes for each game onto a single piece of paper, which he rolls up into his pocket and refers to regularly throughout the game.

Against Alma, he had his team hold for the last shot of the first half, telling them to wait for his signal to run the play.

With 8 seconds left, he screamed: “GO NOW!”

On cue, point guard Jarvin Graham used a clear-out and nailed a layup with 2 seconds remaining, leaving no time for Alma to answer back.

“I think I’m more mild-mannered than I used to be,” said Gifford, who is assisted by Omar Jones. “Some of that comes from being older and some of it comes from being an assistant at Aquinas the past 5 years. One of my jobs was calming down Ryan (Bertoia), so it’s made me a little calmer myself.”

Not that he can’t let his players have it when they deserve it.

Alma opened the second half with a 12-5 scoring run, cutting a double-digit halftime lead down to just five points, before Gifford called a timeout.

“They came out hard and we came out soft,” Gifford said to his huddled-up team. “And now they’re back in the game.”

The Jayhawks responded to their coach’s words with a 30-8 run to put the game away.

Keith Guy talks with coach Gene Gifford (Photo/Jason Goorman)

Gifford has always encouraged his teams to be aggressive and push the ball up the court, but wants to be able to execute in the half-court when the break is not there. He traces his coaching philosophy back to Shelby coaches Jimmy Darrow and Ed Douma, who he lists as two of his biggest influences.

After Shelby, Gifford played basketball at MCC and then at Olivet. He later earned his Master’s degree from Central Michigan University.

His first head coaching job was at Ravenna from 1977 to 1981, before moving up to MCC.

Gifford led the Jayhawks to great heights in his first go-round, highlighted by a National Junior College runner-up finish in 1990 and an overall Western Conference championship in 2000. He also served as MCC’s athletic director for many years, being honored as the conference’s top AD in both 1996 and 2007.

Gifford, who has three daughters and five grandchildren, has spent his life in education and believes the basketball court is an extension of the classroom.

“To me, it’s not just about coaching the X’s and O’x of basketball, it’s about teaching life lessons,” said Gifford, before quickly rattling off some of the core values he tries to impart on all of his players – work ethic, accountability, teamwork, trust, respecting each other’s strengths and weaknesses, discipline, being on time.

“Sometimes you don’t know if they are getting any of that and maybe it won’t sink in until later. But it’s sure nice when I get a former player who tells me they remember something we did and now they’re using it in their job or their family.”

One former player who Gifford impacted in a big way is current Muskegon High coach Keith Guy.

Guy, who recently picked up his 400th win as a head coach in 9 years at Muskegon Heights and 11 years at Muskegon, graduated from Heights and was Gifford’s starting point guard at MCC in the early 1990s.

“Coach Gifford is a great basketball mind, but he’s an even better person,” said Guy, who went on to play at Ferris State. “He’s in this business to help others and that’s what he’s done his entire career.

“I’m happy to see him back in the area coaching again.”