Hobson breaks coaching record, keeps Tiger basketball fans smiling

Artile Photo

By Diane Gasper-O’Brien
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. – Fans of Fort Hays State University women’s basketball won’t see Tony Hobson smile much on the sidelines.

On the court, Hobson is as intense as they come. He doesn’t often take a seat beside his assistant coaches, and when he does, he doesn’t stay sitting long. He paces back and forth past the Tigers’ bench with a look of total concentration on his face.

FHSU Athletic Director Curtis Hammeke did get a smile out of his record-setting women’s basketball coach Thursday night when they met at midcourt before the Tigers’ game with Northeastern State (Okla.).

Hammeke presented Hobson with a basketball imprinted with Hobson’s latest accomplishment – setting a new career coaching record for the FHSU women’s basketball program.

Even then, Hobson seemed a little antsy and appeared relieved to get back to his team’s bench – partly because he doesn’t like calling attention to himself and partly because he and the Tigers had a game to win.

That fierce passion for the game of basketball has paid off in a big way for Hobson and the Tigers.

FHSU, undefeated and ranked in the top four of two major NCAA Division II national polls, heads into Saturday’s home game against MIAA rival Central Oklahoma with a 14-0 record.

It’s the best start to a season in the history of the Tiger women’s program, which is on pace to set a lot of new marks this season.

One of those came on a road trip last week.

In a Jan. 3 victory over defending national champion Central Missouri on the Jennies’ home floor, Hobson tied Helen Miles for the most career coaching victories at Fort Hays State. Two days later, the Tigers beat Southwest Baptist (Mo.) to give Hobson his 218th victory at FHSU midway through his 11th season in Hays. Miles was 217-154 from 1971-86.

Hobson (now 219-92 at FHSU) shrugs his shoulders while talking about the record that has brought him a lot of praise since the turn of the new year, including a loud ovation at Thursday’s pregame presentation.

“All those things are nice, and I don’t want to make light of it because those things are important to the history of the program,” he said. “To get records like this, you have to have a good, solid program and have to sustain it. That’s a good thing.”

Then the normally serious Hobson said something that made him smile.

“What it took to get the record is more important,” he said.

What it took to get that record was a lot of hard work through his first nine seasons that has seen Hobson elevate Tiger women’s basketball to new heights.

FHSU won the NAIA national championship with a 34-2 record in 1990-91, then moved to NCAA Division II the next year.

The Tiger program was anything but lean over the next couple of decades, with just one losing season.

But when Hobson joined the Black and Gold in 2008, FHSU women’s basketball got a new spark.

A former standout athlete himself, Hobson had made a name for himself at Hastings College while guiding the Broncos to three NAIA national championships and a 211-40 overall record in seven years.

Before that, Hobson had played and coached at Barton Community College in Great Bend, Hammeke’s hometown.

“I’d known about Tony for a long time, and I knew of his strong work ethic,” Hammeke said.

Hobson also was impressed with Hammeke.

“I knew Fort Hays State’s athletic director was a really solid person,” Hobson said. “He was honest with me, and that’s so important. You have to feel comfortable with who you work with.”

Hammeke definitely was comfortable with Hobson.

“He’s a good recruiter and an excellent basketball coach,” Hammeke said. “We thought he was the right one for the job.”

Was he ever.

It didn’t take Hobson long to make a successful jump from NAIA to NCAA.

After a 39-43 record during Hobson’s first three years, the Tigers have strung together seven consecutive 20-win seasons. They are just six wins away from making that eight in a row. Before Hobson, FHSU posted only eight 20-win seasons in nearly 40 years.

The Tigers are also in the running for finishing near or at the top of the MIAA and making a fourth NCAA tournament appearance in five years.

Hobson points to the addition of two standout players – 6-foot guard Katelyn Edwards and 6-4 center Kate Lehman – during the 2011-12 season in helping get the program over the hump.

Edwards, who was from Crete, Neb., had transferred to FHSU after one year at the University of South Dakota, and Lehman joined the Tigers after a stellar high school career in Newton. Both went on to earn all-conference honors every year for the Tigers, and Lehman finished as the second-leading scorer and top rebounder in FHSU women’s history during her All-American senior year when the Tigers advanced to the top 16 of the playoffs.

“Then it was game on,” Hobson said.

Hobson learned early on at FHSU that the Hays area community likes watching good, competitive basketball.

“People want a winner,” he said. “If you give them something good to watch, they will come.”

Consequently, the Tiger women’s program has ranked second in the nation in attendance for NCAA D-II the past four years with an average of more than 2,000 fans per game.

Even though students have not yet returned to campus for the second semester, more than 2,200 fans showed up for Thursday’s game.

Gradually through the years, Hobson started to notice a shift in the recruiting landscape, too.

“I had a lot of players from Nebraska early on, because I couldn’t recruit against Emporia State and Washburn,” he said.

Hobson paused, an ever-so-slight smile crossing his face.

“It’s not like that anymore,” he said.

Hobson and the Tigers have enjoyed a bumper crop of top-notch recruits the past few years, so much so that this year’s team is so deep that bench players lead the team in various categories on any given night. Six different players have led the Tigers in scoring. No one averages more than 11.6 points a game, but six players average at least eight points a game, and the team puts up more than 80 points per contest.

“We’re pretty deep at every position,” he said. “You always have plenty of players. Do you always have plenty of players who can play at the level you need them to? This year, we do.”

Two or three of FHSU’s starters surely could score, but the Tigers have bought into the team-first philosophy.

“We’ve had the most unselfish group of people I’ve ever been around,” Hobson said. “They sacrifice for each other for the good of the team; they all play their role. They want to win.”

Assembling that type of team starts long before the first tipoff in November.

“A lot of it is recruiting the right type of kids – high character kids,” Hobson said. “We do a better job of accomplishing that than some. Those type of kids are easier to get the point across to.”

Now, the Tigers’ roster features the daughter of a Division I coach and a former D-I player.

Sophomore Madison Mittie, part of that super-sub group for Fort Hays State, is the daughter of Kansas State University head coach Jeff Mittie, one of the winningest active coaches in NCAA Division I with more than 500 career wins.

“I’d never coached a college coach’s daughter,” Hobson said. “When you have a coach take a look at your program and think ‘That’s a good program for my daughter to be in,’ that’s an ultimate compliment when parents feel good about their daughter being in your program.”

Junior Lanie Page, a former prep standout from Wamego whose dad was the coach for the Raiders, had decided to concentrate on academics when she stepped away from the K-State basketball program two years ago.

But senior Tatyana Legette, who knew Page from high school all-star games, talked Page into visiting FHSU.

When Page was in Hays for a Tiger football game in the fall of 2017, she watched a Tiger basketball practice, and she immediately liked what she saw.

“Coach is a lot like my dad in his coaching style and just his personality, honestly,” she said. “He cares about his team a lot and would do anything for them, but he also knows when to be tough and when to push us so that we can see what we're capable of.”

Talia Kahrs, Hobson’s top assistant coach, agreed.

Kahrs played for Hobson at Hastings, then followed him to Fort Hays State. Following her playing career, Kahrs served as a student assistant for the Tigers for a season, then became the head assistant in 2012.

Kahrs said she has learned a lot from Hobson after so many years of being around him on the court. One thing has never changed.

“He just likes to win,” Kahrs said. “Losing is not an option.”

Hobson admitted he is not happy with losing but does accept getting beat by a better team.

“We could play a really good game, and if someone plays better, they’re going to beat you,” he said. “Losing is playing less than what you are capable of, and that bothers me. Losing is different than getting beat.”

Kahrs is well aware of what her job is.

“I think I do a good job of balancing him out,” she said. “I’m more mellow, so I’m the calm to his intensity.”

That intensity barometer will raise a notch or two next week when the Tigers take to the road for two huge road games with intrastate rivals Emporia State (Jan. 16) and Washburn (Jan. 19).

But for now, Hobson is concentrating on Saturday’s home game with Central Oklahoma.

“People live too much in the past or too much in the future,” he said. “You can’t dwell on last year, or the last game even. And you can’t look too far ahead.”

A win over UCO would help keep alive No. 1 and 2 on the Tigers’ long-term list of goals for this year – “MIAA champs and go undefeated at home.”

The final goal on that list is “to host and win regionals.”

“That means you have to be the No. 1 team in the region,” he said, “and that’s 42 teams.”

“We set our goals pretty high,” admitted Hobson, who then broke one of his own rules of looking ahead.

“We’d like to make the elite eight and give it a run,” he said.

Now, that would make a lot of people smile, including Hobson.

Cutline: Coach Tony Hobson and his players watch action on the court during a home game earlier this season. Photo by Bob Duffy

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