Gary Ersnt doesn’t have as much to do these days. The Mesa Mountain View boys basketball coach retired from teaching last year.
But all that extra time on his hands hasn’t changed the intensity, desire and success the longtime Toros coach has been accustomed to over the last 35 seasons.
In fact, it may have supercharged a guy who didn’t need the power surge.
Ernst moved to within one win of very select company in Arizona basketball coaching annals last Thrusday night when the Toros defeated Mesa Westwood, 47-23, at Westwood. The victory was No. 699 in his career, which also covers seven varsity seasons at Chandler High, three at Aztec, N.M., and the last 25 years at Mountain View.
Win No. 700 could come Wednesday night when the 23-3 Toros host Mesa Westwood in the semifinals of the 5A-I East Valley Region Tournament. Another victory would make Ernst only the second coach in Arizona history to collect 700 wins or more. Retired Tucson Sahuaro coach Dick McConnell, the father of Dobson coach Rick McConnell, is the state leader with 770.
The Life of Riley, so to speak for Ernst, began in late May when he retired from teaching social studies at Mountain View. It was a move he looked forward to. One he’s relished more than he imagined.
“I think he’s really enjoyed it,” Susan Ernst, Gary’s wife, said. “He’s said it to me several times. He’s so much more fresh for basketball. He has time for more things, but he uses a good deal of his extra time on basketball.”
Ernst, 60, has traded school days that began with classroom preparation around 7 a.m. for three-mile walks at Mountain View. He often follows up with trips to a local fitness center to lift and stretch. He returns home to shower, and on Mondays and Wednesdays returns to Mountain View for free-throw shooting with players at lunch.
In between he relaxes, may surf the Internet for team power rankings, articles or to see how former players are doing at the collegiate level. At least one day a week he lunches on pizza or subs with several other retired coaching colleagues.
“It’s made my days a whole lot easier,” Ernst said with a smile. “I was envious of a few other coaches who retired from teaching and who were just coaching. Like Tom Bennett when he was at Gilbert. Jerry Conner at (Phoenix) Shadow Mountain did it for a while. I wondered what it would be like. I know now. I like it.”
Ernst is a stickler for practice. He loves the regimen involved in it and pays attention to fundamentals and detail. But when he also taught social studies, there were often days that getting through practice was tough given classroom demands of the day.
“The time just flies by now,” Ernst said of a 2 1/2-hour practice. “It’s a part of my life I really enjoy.”
The veteran coach is polite and affable. It’s rare he doesn’t seek out the opposing coach a few minutes before a game to chat or even on the road during a junior varsity game. Once the opening tip is complete, the focus and intensity burn bright.
“Gary is different when the game starts and he’s in coach-mode,” Susan Ernst said. “Our granddaughter Maddix thinks it’s hilarious. We sit four or five rows behind the bench. She doesn’t see him yell like he does sometimes. She’s used to seeing him in grandfather mode.”
The mounting wins this decade have allowed Ernst (699 wins and 277 losses) to pass many of the top coaches of the distant and not-so-distant past.
Former Tucson High and Miami High coach B.C. Bud Doolen, father of former Westwood coach Bud Doolen, piled up 641 wins. Ernst’s former high school coach, Tempe High and Tempe Corona del Sol’s Sam Duane Sr., won 663 games. Ernst went head-to-head many times with his mentor, Duane Sr., often with Bud Doolen at Westwood and even more often over the last 25 years with Rick McConnell at Dobson. Ernst recalls only one meeting with Dick McConnell.
“It was in 1976,” said Ernst, who was coaching at Chandler High at the time. “We played Sahuaro in the semifinals. That was back when the quarters were on Thursday, semifinals on Friday and championship on Saturday. We beat (Phoenix) East in four overtimes on Thursday. I was scared to death to play the next night. I substituted one time in the four-overtime game when one of our guys fouled out in the fourth overtime. All our guys played about 44 minutes that game and had to come back the next day and play. I wasn’t sure they’d have anything left. They played great against Sahuaro, and we won.”
Ernst won the next night, too, beating Tucson Rincon for the big-school state crown and giving Ernst the first of seven state titles (the other six came at Mountain View) in his career. That first title in his second year at Chandler affirmed what he knew since he was a sophomore in high school — coaching was a life goal.
Ernst never has had the itch to do anything but coach high school. He did leave Chandler for New Mexico in the early 1980s, but found his way back to Arizona and his current home, Mountain View, where he has notched 550 of his 699 victories.
“I like coaching and like high school kids,” Ernst said. “To just be coaching now is a treat.”