By Bob Kelley, retired RLC Sports Information Director and 2012 Hall of Fame inductee
INA, Ill. (April 12, 2019) - Individuals who are successful in life, more often than not, will admit timing is everything. Being in the right place at the right time can indeed be critical.
A perfect example: Darin Lee.
Talk about good timing and a successful person. Lee was nearing conclusion of a typical, 27-6 season when the 54-year-old veteran with 30 seasons to his credit was informed recently of his induction as an Alumni Coach into the Rend Lake College Sports Hall of Fame.
Long overdue, perhaps, considering he gained entrance into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2011.
But we can beat that. Lee was a first-year Assistant Coach with a 29-6 Warrior squad that claimed Great Rivers Athletic Conference and National Junior College Athletic Association Division I Region XXIV championships in 1988-89 and entered the RLC Sports HOF in November 2010.
Welcome back, Darin, who ranks No. 12 among active boys basketball coaches and in the Top 35 all-time of the Illinois High School Association boys ranks with 632 wins, a .694 winning percentage. He was the 40th boys mentor to attain 600 wins when he did so near the end of the 2017-18 season.
Induction ceremonies for the 20th Class to enter the RLC Sports Hall of Fame are planned Saturday, April 20, on the Ina campus for two former track and cross-country All-Americans, Boaz Lalang and Pasca Cheruiyot, the 2012-13 NJCAA D-II National Champion Men’s Basketball Team and Collinsville High School Assistant Principal/Head Coach Lee.
His incredible coaching resume, which would not include two years helping his father, David, at West Frankfort while he was attending Southern Illinois University-Carbondale followed by the season assisting his college mentor, Mitch Haskins, at RLC, has been compiled at three stops.
Lee’s teams dominated in the small-school ranks – two seasons (1989-91) at Vienna, 39-15, .722, and 18 seasons with the Nashville Hornets (1991-2009), where he boasted teams which frequented rankings near the top of Class A and reached the quarterfinals of five state tournaments, 426-128, .769.
When he made the switch to the challenge of the large-school ranks, he did it in a big way. Once-dominate Collinsville, the fourth-winningest prep program in the country at 2,087-869, had won only 24 games the three previous seasons when Lee made the move in 2009. The Kahoks went 20-10 in his first season.
Collinsville has been up-and-down since, having slipped to next-to-smallest enrollment status in the Southwestern Conference as other Metro-East schools around it have grown. Yet the Kahoks and Lee managed a 23-6 SWC championship campaign in 2011-12 and were 20-13 three years later.
With a young team this past winter and its 27-6 record in a league which featured defending IHSA Class 4A state champ Belleville West, which repeated its title recently, Lee would not be surprised to be the preseason conference favorite in ’19-20. Four of the six setbacks in ’18-19 were by three points or fewer. During his 10-year tenure (2009-19), CHS is 167-136, .551.
The Lees – Father David with 447 victories at McLeansboro (1975-85), 212-76, West Frankfort (1985-92 / 1995-97), Carbondale (1956-66), Carmi (1967-70) and Johnston City (1966-67) preceded him into the IBCA Hall of Fame in ’93 – represent the winningest Father-Son combo in state history . . . and counting.
Darin was not too shabby as a player, either, considering his freshman season playing for Rend Lake College included a game against Boys Club of St. Louis in which the 6-foot-2 guard scored 24 points and doled out 11 assists (with four rebounds); more impressively, he played 32 of 40 minutes and did not commit a turnover while directing the 102-90 victory. Zero turnovers, worth repeating.
Lee never experienced a losing record as a three-year varsity performer for the McLeansboro Foxes, who were 77-15, including a 31-4 senior mark which produced a third-place finish at state in Class A, two seasons with the Warriors from 1984-86 and his first 23 seasons as a head coach.
The Air Force Academy lured the pre-Engineering student initially, but by second semester he was a Rend Lake College transfer student practicing with the Warriors. As a freshman eligibility-wise he was joined by another transfer, HOF Inductee (2015) Michael Ayers, for the final 18 games of an 18-13 campaign, with Lee averaging 10.1 points per game and 5.7 assists. The point guard started every game, scored in double-figures in 16 outings and led the team in scoring three times. His two free throws with no time left forced overtime in a game at Mineral Area eventually won by RLC, 74-72, thanks also to his team-best 22-points; his offensive rebound and fadeaway jumper in the closing seconds won another by one point, and he had the winning assist in a buzzer-beating verdict over rival John A. Logan. The second meeting with Logan he netted 19 points (6-8 FG, 7-7 FT), dished off eight assists and again had no turnovers. Repeat, no turnovers.
He also served during the ’84-85 school year as the elected Student Representative on the RLC Board of Trustees.
After he was sidelined early by mononucleosis as a sophomore, he never was 100 per cent and his playing time and production reflected it.
“I really did not know what I wanted to do (as a career),” recalled the future coach, “but I was starting to go in that direction toward the end of my playing career. “When I was at Carbondale – at SIU, studying Math – I started helping my dad at West Frankfort. Then I was able to spend the season after that helping Mitch.”
“I was very fortunate to get the start (coaching) at Vienna,” Lee said. “That college experience playing at Rend Lake College and then coming back one year as an assistant definitely helped me get that first job. We had two pretty good years at Vienna (19-9 and 20-6).
“I was very fortunate, also, at age 26 to get the job at Nashville, where we had a tremendous run . . . and then to have this opportunity at a storied program like Collinsville. I have had good fortune, good health and I’m still going. I am hoping to have some good years ahead of me. I have had a lot of fun with it all, no doubt.”
Even with all the deserving accolades that have come his way, Lee was “shocked” to get the call from RLC Athletic Director Tim Wills. “I was very flattered. I was shocked, because I didn’t think about even being considered for something like this.
“Rend Lake College has played a big part in my life. If it had not been for Rend Lake College, I don’t think I would be where I am today. I truly am flattered by this honor. I’m looking forward to it.”
Sharing the evening with Darin will be his wife, Gina, successful in her own right as a civilian employee with the Department of Defense at Scott Air Force Base; his children, high school sophomore Jackson and seventh-grader Danielle, and a proud father, the “other” Coach Lee. Jackson played the past winter for the Kahoks Jr. Varsity.
Darin Lee recalled his move from Nashville to Collinsville “as a tough decision.” “It was a chance to try something new, obviously at a different level. Another challenge.” In addition to coaching, he served as Assistant Athletic Director at Collinsville, then A.D. for five years before being promoted to one of four Assistant Principal positions.
Accepting the Collinsville position was not the difficult part. Leaving Nashville had to be considering his unbelievable success there.
Start with the worst-case scenarios. His lowest victory total in 18 seasons was 17-11 in ’95-96. Only two other seasons produced fewer than 20 wins. His teams lost as many as 10-13 games only six times.
The 2006-07 Hornets, led by Northern Iowa signee Lucas O’Rear, were 33-0 before losing to Teutopolis in the IHSA Class A State Tournament quarterfinals, 43-38. Unfortunately, it was not the first time. The T-Town Wooden Shoes eliminated 24-10 Nashville in the 2000 quarterfinals, 48-41 in overtime.
In back-to-back seasons, ’97-98 and ’98-99, Lee & Co. posted records of 30-2 and 28-2. The Hornets fell 57-54 to Farmington in the quarterfinals in the first of those. The next year, the team was Ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Final Regular Season Class A Poll before being upset in its second post-season outing.
Elite Eight heartbreakers also befelled Lee’s quintets in ’96-97 (27-6) in a 57-55 loss to Spring Valley Hall, when a last-second attempt rimmed out, and in ’04-05 (29-5), by eight to a Chicago Hales Franciscans which would go on to claim the state title before having to forfeit all of its wins for using an ineligible player.
His final season at Nashville in ’08-09 ended at 27-3 at the hands of Breese Central in the Sectional opener. And there was a 27-5 record in ’03-04.
In typical coach-talk, Lee admitted, “You never get over those close losses. They stick with you, especially the tough ones you thought you should have won. You don’t forget any of those.
“You see how tough it is on your kids, too. The more they put into something, the tougher the losses. The good teams put in a lot of time by the end of each season.”
That elusive state championship remains a goal, “but I think it is for anybody who coaches. I just think everything has to fall in place just right for that to happen. Right now, just to get Collinsville back (challenging for a state crown) would be great. The program has had no state trophies since Kevin Stallings played here (third in 1978). I would love to do that next year.”
Of his career to-date, Lee commented, “It is hard to believe, because when you first get started you never think about coaching this many years. That means a lot of times to be re-hired.”
How would he define his coaching style?
“I’ve changed. I think I have adapted a lot over the years. Defensively, my teams have always played man-to-man, but I think we have mixed in a few more zones in recent seasons. And I think you have to adapt more to the players (talent) you have that year.
“We’ve been disciplined offensively,” he continued, “but that doesn’t mean we don’t get it up and down the floor. We definitely do that more. With the team we had this year, we played at a pretty fast pace. We scored a lot of points.”
To date, the only other former Warrior to gain entrance into the RLC Sports HOF under the designation of Alumni Coach is Benton product Brad Weathers in 2013, and their connection is uncanny. Weathers was 391-288 in 23 seasons at Carlyle, topped by the 32-3 Indians during a Class A State Championship effort in 1988-89.
He left his coaching days behind in 2004 to become Principal at Nashville Community H.S. When Lee departed for CHS in ’09, Weathers returned to the bench, coaching four more years prior to his RLC recognition and four more afterward. He retired a second time in 2017 with a record of 571-360 in 31 seasons. Inducted previously into the IBCA Hall of Fame, Weathers is the 2019 recipient of that organization’s Rich and Ron Herrin Award.