How life, basketball brought Simmons to EIU

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Rob Le Cates

The Eastern men’s basketball head coach Marty Simmons (seated left) instructs players on what to do during a timeout during the Panthers’ game against Murray State on Jan. 17 at Lantz Arena. The Panthers lost 72-46 to the Racers.

Ryan Meyer, Men's Basketball Reporter

Marty Simmons has had an illustrious basketball career, from his days as Mr. Basketball in Lawrenceville, Ill. to an overall record of 287-272 as a college head coach.

About a year ago, he was named the fifteenth head coach of the Eastern Illinois men’s basketball team and would coach a team that was often shorthanded but never lacked toughness.

Simmons started his college basketball career as a player at Indiana under Bob Knight, but transferred to the University of Evansville to play for Jim Crews, a former assistant at Indiana.

Two years after finishing his collegiate playing career, Simmons would join Crews’ staff as an assistant, which would kickstart a coaching career that just recently entered its fourth decade.

“I really didn’t know what to expect, so there was some curiosity,” Marty Simmons said. “And then it was harder than I thought it would be, a lot more work to it that maybe I, as a player, you probably don’t fully respect all the things that a coach does. If you could coach first and play second, I think we’d all be better players.”

Simmons said his favorite thing about coaching and being a part of basketball teams is that it provides everyone with a supporting group of people.

“I think it’s just the camaraderie, the brotherhood,” Marty Simmons said. “I’m going to be down one day, and you’ll be there to pick me up, and when you’re down I’ll be there.”

Marty Simmons’ practices are tough, but he prepares the team for upcoming matchups so that when it comes time to take the floor in a matchup against a team like Murray State, they’ll be ready for what’s thrown at them.

“I really have been brought up in a way that you really don’t want to face anything in a game that you haven’t already faced in practice, and have been able to build a confidence,” Marty Simmons said.

Sammy Friday IV, a veteran leader for the 2021-22 Panthers, said that he preferred practice to be just that, and said that by going hard in practice the team gets their conditioning in.

“It’s supposed to be very structured, very detail-oriented,” Friday said. “And he was like that, he pushed us 110 percent every day, Doug (Novsek), all the coaches did. So I liked that, it makes you work harder and then it translates over to the game, when you in the game flowing, that comes from practice.”

Marty Simmons’ competitiveness and commitment sometimes rear their heads at home, said his wife Angie Simmons, be it in Monopoly or during family meals.

“…Marty’s constantly like, ‘What can we do? How can we improve?’ It’s just like so many what, what, what,” Angie Simmons said. “He’ll talk in his head, when he’s eating dinner you can see his lips moving, and you know he’s trying to do basketball.”

Jimmy Elgas, Henderson State University’s men’s basketball coach, was part of the first coaching staff Simmons put together at Evansville. The two met up in Atlanta during the 2007 Final Four for an interview, and Elgas came prepared with recruiting notes and ways to compete with the powerhouses of the Missouri Valley Conference.

Rather than pepper Elgas with basketball questions, Simmons asked him two things: Are you a good father? Are you a good husband?

Elgas hesitated, then answered honestly: he could be doing better in both regards. Simmons told him that in working together, Elgas would learn the balance it takes to be both a coach and a husband and father.

“I’ll never forget that interview,” Elgas said. “Because if it wasn’t for Coach, I don’t think I would be the man I am today.”

Angie said that Marty’s family values were instilled in him by his parents and his time playing and working with Crews and that he is able to balance basketball and family.

“It’s hard in the coaching world to sometimes put your family first because you’re responsible for, in Marty’s case, young men,” Angie Simmons said. “And he’s told their parents, ‘I will look out for them in their best interest,’ and he remains true to that, and still is able to put our kids and our family first.”

Marty Simmons has had to balance family more in recent years after losing his father to COVID-19 in October of 2020. His daughter Brittany suffered brain trauma after going into cardiac arrest in her sleep in July of 2019 while Simmons was in Italy while an assistant at Clemson.

Angie said that Marty’s rush to get back to Indiana from Italy was “the most stressful time in Marty’s life.”

After waking up from a coma and nine months of traveling from rehab hospital to rehab hospital, Brittany is now receiving therapy at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center and at Eastern, which Angie said has been “excellent.”

After wrapping up his head coaching tenure at Evansville in 2018 with a 184-175 record, Marty Simmons headed to Clemson for an assistant role that would pit him against NCAA and ACC coaching legends like Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams.

The responsibilities that come with being a head coach drew Simmons back into a head coaching role and after getting the job at Eastern, he began preparing for the 2021-22 season.

“I kind of had the itch to be a head coach again,” Marty Simmons said. “There’s something to putting a staff together and putting a team together and all the things that go with that. Students on campus, your fans, your donors, I mean really everything, and I was excited about that and (I’m) still excited about it. I think we have a chance to really be successful.”

Every newcomer to Marty Simmons’ first Eastern team was recruited remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This would only be the beginning of the challenges Simmons would face in less than a calendar year in Charleston. A variety of issues would leave the Panthers with as little as seven players in conference play in multiple games.

Despite this, hope persisted. Eastern would win their first OVC game with only seven players at UT-Martin on Jan. 27 and followed up that weekend with a win at home against Tennessee State.

The dregs of the OVC were so crowded that these wins put Eastern in contention for the final tournament spot, which was to be played in Evansville, of all places.

A six-game losing streak to end the season with a 5-26 overall record would rule them out from postseason play.

“It’s frustrating, but you never let it consume you,” Marty Simmons said. “You got to move on to the next thing, you got to get prepared for the next meeting, the next game, whatever it may be.”

Elgas doesn’t doubt the success that the future of Eastern’s program under Simmons holds.

“He’s going to get it going,” Elgas said. “There’s zero doubt in my mind that there’s success on the horizon for Eastern Illinois, no question. That’s because of the man and character that Coach Simmons possesses. I believe that with all my heart.”

Marty Simmons, a basketball lifer, might never stop muttering to himself at the dinner table, but given his dedication and experience, it might turn optimistic sooner rather than later.

 

Ryan Meyer can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]