A new chapter
Heaps steps down as CMU men's hoops coach
Jim Heaps is trading 16 players for more than 700.
The Colorado Mesa University men’s basketball coach is leaving the sidelines to become the Mavericks’ assistant athletic director for student success, effective immediately.
Heaps, who has been the Mavericks’ head coach the past 17 years, said it was time for a new chapter in his career.
“There comes a point in your career that you know, when the wins become a relief,” Heaps said Monday in an exclusive interview with The Daily Sentinel. “We win a big game, your kids played great and you’re relieved. You’re not happy, it’s not joyful when you win a game, but you’re relieved that you don’t feel like you do when you lose.”
Heaps, 53, has always said he enjoyed practices, where he could teach the game, much more than stress-filled games.
“What really hit it for me this year was I started to drag in practice and that’s always been my favorite part of coaching,” he said. “My knees and my back, I had to sit down in practice. I just felt I was pulling back a little bit and then you feel like you’re not doing the job you were hired to do.”
The former Mesa forward (1980-82) became Doug Schakel’s assistant after he graduated, then left for Southern Illinois University, where he earned his master’s degree. He returned to Mesa in 1991 as Schakel’s assistant, and took over for his mentor in 1996.
Heaps is turning the program over to his longtime associate head coach, Andy Shantz.
“I’ll miss the kids, and Tom (Spicer, CMU’s athletic director) made a great point, you’re trading a relationship with 16 players to have a relationship with 700 athletes. I’ve still got that impact on kids,” Heaps said.
His new position is that of a liaison between the athletic department and the faculty and academic services at CMU.
He’ll work with the student-athletes on everything from freshmen knowing what they have to do to register for classes, helping determine their major field of study and making sure they’re on track to graduate.
“The majority come in and know what they’re doing,” Heaps said of incoming freshmen. “Just being able to direct students in this direction: This is what you need to do to graduate from college.
“You see your advisor, you go to class, you have people you can come to if you get into a situation. Should I drop this class? Can I drop this class? Who should I take for history?”
Keeping Heaps on campus after he retired from coaching was key, said CMU President Tim Foster.
“He could go off and do whatever else in a second career and we’ve lost someone with tremendous institutional knowledge,” Foster said. “He understands success, understands athletics, understands academics. Why not catch him before he makes that decision and try to repurpose him and say, ‘Stay here.’ “
Jeff Hart, who graduated from CMU in May with a degree in finance and was part of the basketball program for five years, said the move is a good one for Heaps.
“He got good kids first,” Hart said of Heaps’ recruiting philosophy. “If they get academic scholarships, that reflects well on the institution. Heaps is a guy of integrity and he would go after the kids who are honest and had integrity.”
Hart and Daniel Estes said during the past couple of years, the players wondered if Heaps was ready to retire.
“Being Coach Heaps he wouldn’t bring it up himself until the decision was final,” said Estes, who will be a junior point guard next season. “We always play hard, but we wanted to play as hard as we could for Coach Heaps just in case this was going to happen.”
Estes is glad Heaps will still be in the athletic department.
“It’s quite a relief to hear Heaps will still be around and we’ll be able to talk to him whenever we want to,” Estes said. “As tough as a coach as he was and everything he demanded on the court, the door was always open. You can be straight up with him about any situation and for better or worse, he’s going to help you out. He’ll still have that role and for us, that’s a big deal.”
Heaps just chuckled when his career record of 299-172 was brought up, when he was asked if he had any regrets about not reaching the 300-victory milestone.
“Gosh, I coached what, a hundred and some losses, a bunch of losses. If I wanted to get to 300, I should have won one of those games,” he deadpanned. “I had about 190 opportunities to win another game. I never worried about anything like that. We did the best we could all those years and that’s what we ended up with.”
He is proud of continuing the level of success of the basketball program — he had only two losing seasons, won two RMAC championships, seven RMAC West Division titles, reached the NCAA playoffs four times and was twice selected the RMAC coach of the year.
The 2009-2010 team was ranked No. 9 in the nation, its highest ranking in school history.
“I just felt like we continued the legacy of the basketball program here at Mesa, from (Wayne) Nelson to Bruce Haroldson to Doug Schakel ... just unbelievable success,” Heaps said. “I felt like we maintained it and I feel like it’s going to go to the next level now.”