By Maurice Patton
Jason Loveless took a moment to reflect after Richland defeated Loretto to earn a berth in this week’s TSSAA Class A boys basketball state tournament.
“Leaving the gym after the substate game, I was the last one out,” he said. “I looked up at the rim. It was empty, no net. I looked down at the far end where it said ‘Dwight Clark Gymnasium’, and I felt a lot of pride – pride in Richland and the kids here and what they’ve done.”
Loveless didn’t just feel that pride as a coach, but also as an alumnus, and as a protégé of the gym’s namesake.
Clark won 867 games over a 20-year coaching career at Richland and at Campbellsville prior to that, leading his teams to 13 state tourney berths prior to his death in 1993 (Loveless’ senior year). He was inducted into the TSSAA Hall of Fame the following year.
“I played for a legendary coach. I played for Dwight Clark,” Loveless said as he and the Raiders prepared for Wednesday’s 10 a.m. state quarterfinal matchup with North Greene at Middle Tennessee State University’s Murphy Center.
Having that grasp and appreciation for the significance of Richland basketball, it was inevitable that Loveless would one day return to lead the program he’d represented as a player. In 2006, he did.
“I was in Murfreesboro for eight years – at Riverdale for four and at Roy Waldron for four,” he said. “I knew eventually I wanted to get back to the roots, so to speak. I didn’t know when that would happen.
“I got to follow Richland a little bit. They’d had some down years, fallen off a little bit. Honestly, I was young and stupid. I thought I could change the world. Mr. (Wayne) Hobbs and Mrs. (Bobbi) McMasters were good enough to give me a chance to come back to my hometown and my home school, give me a chance to try to change the culture and the climate, and I’ve got great kids that have helped me do that.”
Also helping has been Stephen Gordon, a Richland assistant who – like Loveless – is also a graduate.
“We played together and battled together on the floor, we battle together coaching,” Loveless said. “He’s a guy that is not afraid to tell me what he thinks. We get into some heated exchanges over there, but it’s all in the good of our team and our love (of the program).
“It’s a lot of pride, a lot of tradition. It’s just embedded.”
Richland principal Micah Landers has seen the value of Loveless’ presence, in the school and at the helm of the basketball program.
“Jason would be successful wherever Jason is at,” Landers said. “He’s that kind of coach, that caliber of coach. So I feel like we’re fortunate that he came home, that he wanted to make ‘home’ where he grew up. He’s got an opportunity to pay stuff forward by impressing some stuff on these young men before they get to college and get out into the real world.
“The ‘tradition’ side of it, he got to experience. I came here after Coach Clark passed. I didn’t know the legacy of Coach Clark, but I know it now. He left it; it’s something that’s real. So Jason lived that, and I think he probably feels a certain amount of passion to continue that.”
Coaching in his hometown hasn’t been without its challenges – “It has its awkward moments; I’m coaching kids that their parents are people I went to school with,” Loveless said – but those are minimal by comparison.
“My kids that come here and want to play know that they’re going to get coached hard,” he said. “But they also know I’m going to love ‘em. The relationship I have with my players grows from freshman (year) to senior. The freshmen that come in here are scared to death, but by the time they’re juniors and seniors and we’ve shared sweat and ups and downs and blood – literally blood – all those things, it really grows into a friendship.
“I try to coach ‘em hard and I try to love ‘em hard. I tell my players all the time, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I wouldn’t trade a single guy in that locker room for anybody else in any other locker room. That’s not a knock on any other kids on any other teams. It’s just I’m invested in them and they’re invested in us. This is where I want to be.”
The result for the 44-year-old coach and his 15th Raider squad is the second state tourney appearance of his coaching tenure, following a semifinal berth in 2013, and the fifth in school history – including a 1990 quarterfinal loss to North Greene.
“It’s a business trip,” he said. “I’ve always felt some teams were just happy to get there. We’re fortunate. We feel blessed to be where we’re at, but we also know we’ve earned it.
“I just think you’ve got to treat it, to the best you can, as the next 32 minutes. It’s a big stage, but so far this year my guys have stepped up to every challenge. This is no different.”