By TERRELL LESTER
Editor at Large
CELEBRATION: Union Head Basketball Coach Rudy Garcia and his team celebrate one of his team’s three state championships. He has guided the Union program to three Class 6A state championships while amassing 469 victories.
Back in 1995, Rudy Garcia found himself at a crossroads. He was facing a decision that would define his career. Would he coach basketball? Would he coach baseball?
The athletics director at Union High School, Benny Dixon, left the resolution in Garcia’s hands.
Either sport, either direction Garcia chose, would be fine with Dixon. He had faith that the 34-year-old assistant on the Union staff would make an informed decision that would benefit all sides. Garcia had a deeper background in baseball. He had played collegiately. He had served as an assistant under the retiring Larry Arrowood. Although he had played basketball in high school, Garcia’s resume was pretty much limited to junior-high work and a one-year turn as girls varsity assistant to Edie Allen. To the surprise of some, to the chagrin of others, Garcia elected to become the boys head basketball coach at Union. Dixon was pleased. It had been his hope that Garcia would go with basketball. “Sometimes you need a change in what you’re doing,” Garcia said recently, explaining his decision to reject baseball, a sport in which he had starred in junior college and at the University of Arkansas.
“The aspect of basketball, the strategy, the speed of the game, was a big lure,” he said.
He paused for a moment. Smiled. Then added: “It’s worked out pretty good for me.” Indeed. In March, Garcia wrapped up his 22nd season as Union’s head coach. Along the way, he has guided the Union program to three Class 6A state championships while amassing 469 victories. “When I got the job, a lot of people were kind of questioning Benny’s hire, being a baseball guy,” Garcia said. “Some parents were concerned whether I was the right guy.” Dixon, who has long since retired, had no such concerns over his selection of Garcia. “I had a lot of big-time, championship coaches apply,” he said. “I knew I wanted Rudy. “Of all the coaches in our system, from eighth grade to varsity, he was the only one who knew how to coach man-to-man defense. Everybody in the system ran zone.” Dixon’s affection for man defense was natural. He had played basketball for his father, Truman, who had a Hall of Fame career at Checotah while emphasizing man-to-man defense. “Rudy knows how to coach defense, and that’s what I wanted,” Dixon said. Garcia has proven Dixon to be a blue-ribbon judge of coaching talent. “I owe a lot to him for trusting me, for believing in me,” Garcia said. “Benny’s always been in my corner.” It is a corner illuminated by the glow of success. Garcia’s 2016-17 team completed the regular season with the third unbeaten record of his tenure, before losing in the state semifinals. In addition to the state titles (2004, 2002, 2014), he also has three runner-up finishes (1998, 2002. 2006). Union never has fallen below .500 under Garcia. His winning percentage of .792 reflects a won-loss record of 469-123. Only three times has Union failed to reach the state tournament. Under Garcia’s guiding hand, the basketball program has attained equal footing, in terms of respect and recognition, with Union’s football team. During the Redskins’ most recent run (24-1), they won the Tournament of Champions for the fourth time, remained at No. 1 in the Oklahoma coaches poll every week after the Christmas break and reached No. 16 in Today’s national rankings. “The perception of Union just being a football school has changed,” Garcia said. “The kids in the community, in our school district, recognize that and want to be a part of it, where, before (he arrived), it might have been that basketball was there, but it wasn’t that serious.” With a high school enrollment of 4,690 for the 2016-17 school year that places Union No. 2 in the state, Garcia has seen a rise in the number of athletes who seek to specialize in basketball, forsaking other sports. As an athlete who participated in football, basketball and baseball at Liberty High School, in southern Tulsa County, Garcia sees advantages for athletes who move from sport to sport, depending on the season. “We encourage them if they have the ability to play another sport,” he said. “I think it helps the kids just being in a competitive situation throughout the year. “As far as our basketball philosophy, we support those kids if they want to go to another sport,” he said. Garcia acknowledged that he did not have a particularly favorite sport, or one that he specialized in, while at Liberty. Baseball, though, offered more opportunities to compete, adding summer games in Jenks to his school’s spring schedule. Upon graduation in 1979, he followed baseball to Allen County (Kansas) Community College. As a pitcher, he compiled a two-year record of 18-1, earning him a scholarship to Arkansas and a 2016 induction into the junior college’s Hall of Fame.
It was at Arkansas, under the watchful eye of head coach Norm DeBriyn, that Garcia mapped out career plans that would lead to coaching.
Shoulder injuries and three operations curtailed his playing days while he was putting up a 9-1 record. He stayed with DeBriyn after his eligibility expired, serving as a graduate assistant in 1985 when Arkansas qualified for the College World Series. “There are some things that I took from him that I still use,” Garcia said. Perhaps most notable is DeBriyn’s emphasis on academics. “He would say, ‘If you’re going to class, and you’re taking care of business there, then I know you’re doing all the little things that, when it’s time to start crossing those lines (onto the field), I know I can count on you.’ “That’s one thing that’s always stuck with me that I still use today,” Garcia said. He stresses the classroom work. The everyday discipline. “It helps with their work ethic,” he said. “They’re going to make sure they’re doing the right thing. They’re going to be respectful to their teachers. “And then once it’s time to play, you can count on them,” he said. Through the years, the Union school district has counted on Garcia to oversee an efficient, successful, top-level program. He has not wavered. He has spent exactly half his life at Union, working at a series of assistant-level positions for six years before Dixon elevated him in 1995. His wife, Tammy, is a Union counselor and a Union graduate. Their two daughters, McKenzie and Kennedy, graduated from Union. Their son, Mo, will be a senior in the fall and will begin his fourth season as a starter on the basketball team. “I would have never dreamed that we would have this kind of run,” Garcia said. “When I got the job, I thought, if I can make this work for five years, maybe I’ll feel like I’ve done something. “Then we made it to the five-year mark, and then it got to 10, and I was like, wow! And now here we are 22 years later.” As he prepares for the 23rd year, and with his son entering his senior season, Garcia has one personal goal he is chasing in this team concept. He needs 31 victories to reach the 500 career total. Garcia is not an ego-driven individual. He speaks passionately and convincingly of directing the lives of young people. “But as a coach, we’re all competitive. We all want to have success,” he said. “Those milestones come along that you start looking at and you’re thinking, you know, if I could get to 500, personally it would be an accomplishment. “When I first started, I would have never even thought of 500 wins.” But now, with that number looming, he said: “I think it would be unique to do it at Union, since this is the only place I’ve been. I think that would be really special.” Quickly, Garcia interrupted the daydream and returned to the present. “It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about our kids and what we can do for them. “We talk a lot about life lessons that are learned just being on a team.” Being on Rudy Garcia’s team has produced plenty of success over the years.