For 40 years, he has been an icon on campus, a legendary coach with a remarkable record of achievement.
But on August 31, after four decades at Brandon University, former Bobcats men’s basketball coach Jerry Hemmings will leave work for the last time. It’s the end of an era as Hemmings has officially tendered his resignation at the school that he led into the national sports spotlight with four Canadian university championship titles and a record 734 career coaching victories. Hemmings’ tenure as Bobcats basketball coach ended a decade ago, but he never left the game, filling the mentor role on campus as Coach Emeritus, doing colour commentary on Bobcat broadcasts, working as a physical education professor and helping out coaching in the high school ranks. But at the age of 66, after 40 years of service, Hemmings says it’s time.
"How many people can say they get up looking forward to going to work every day?" Hemmings said as he looked back on his career. "For me, when you play basketball and that’s your passion and what you love and then you get an opportunity to coach it, how fortunate you are because it’s a job that you look forward to going to work every day. And definitely there’s a lot of stress and grind that goes with it, but at the same time, if you had to do it over all again, you would probably do the same thing. …
"I think sometimes people retire and they may look back and say I retired too soon and you get some people that stay around too long and they look back because their health may start going and they look back and say, well, I stayed too long. I feel in my situation, I feel it’s the right time."
A member of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and a CIS coach of the year award winner, Hemmings’ tenure as Bobcats coach officially ended back in 2004 when he was unceremoniously dumped while he out of the country on a BU-approved sabbatical coaching overseas.
The decision to remove Hemmings remains one of the most controversial moves in the history of Bobcat athletics. Doing it while he was on another continent was nothing short of insulting for someone who served as a tireless booster for BU throughout his career. And it’s that career that we celebrate today, an unmatched record of achievement filled with plenty of Hemmings highlights.
"It’s been a good ride, a few bumps along the way, but what do you expect in 40 years, right?" Hemmings said. "BU offered me a lot of opportunities to coach across the country and work with Basketball Canada, to work two world championships and the World University Games. … And the other thing I will always cherish is all the great relationships I have been able to have with players. Players like Jerry Abernathy called me on Father’s Day and Whitney Dabney, the same thing from New Orleans. … Twenty, twenty-five, thirty years later, that’s what’s special is when you see their appreciation."
Hemmings has a long list of favourite moments, but a few stand out, from a record-setting game, to his first and last national championship titles in 1987 and 1996, to a historic moment while coaching for Canada on the world stage.
"Internationally, when I coached the ’91 World University Games team and we defeated the Soviet Union to get into the gold-medal game, that was a big highlight because we basically became the last team to beat the Soviet Union because three weeks after that, that was mid-July of 91, … the country kind of folded," Hemmings recalled. "So a little bit of a trivia there because that was the last international competition that they were in in basketball as the Soviet Union."
During Hemmings’ tenure, the Bobcats won three straight national titles in 1987, 1988 and 1989, adding his fourth and final championship in Halifax in 1996.
"I had so many memories in university," Hemmings said. "I look back at 1980, we still hold the record when we beat Lakehead down there in five overtimes ... And I guess that first national championship, seeing a guy like John Carson, who was a five-time first-team all-Canadian — the only one in the history of CIS — seeing him lead us to a national championship by scoring 39 points and making a beautiful steal late in the game and finishing his career off with a slam dunk, that was special. …
"In ’96, that was a real special one, too, because we beat a real good Alberta team … and our local kid, Jason Scott, scored 16 points. We had six players in double figures and I don’t think that’s ever happened in a national championship game, and a local player led all players in scoring in that game."
While he has no immediate plans to coach, Hemmings’ legacy of helping shape young student-athletes will live on through the Jerry and Marnie Hemmings Scholarship Fund that he created with his wife last year. What his future holds, besides golfing, fishing and spending time with his family, is still up in the air.
"Our plans are not to move away, we’ve kind of lived here and this is home to us and my kids were born here and my wife likes it here," said Hemmings, a two-time winner of the Brandon Sun’s H.L. (Krug) Crawford Award for sports excellence in Westman.
"I feel good about it and … no real concrete plans. We’ll just kind of see how things go."