Breaking News Bar

Coaching legend, icon, Rich Herrin passes away

  • Rich Herrin, the longtime Southern Illinois University head coach, who also had stops at Benton and Marion High School, passed away over the weekend.

    Rich Herrin, the longtime Southern Illinois University head coach, who also had stops at Benton and Marion High School, passed away over the weekend.

By Spyder Dann
updated: 1/4/2021 6:07 AM

For the better part of 10 years, Rodney Watson had one of the best seats in college basketball.
Not only was he an assistant coach for Rich Herrin at Southern Illinois University, but the Paris native was part of three straight Missouri Valley Conference championships under Herrin at SIU and helped coach a handful of talent that included the likes of local stars like Pinckneyville's Shane Hawkins, Carbondale's Troy Hudson, Centralia's Rick Shipley and Sesser-Valier's Scott Burzynski, just to name a few.
Herrin passed away Friday at the age of 87 and left behind a legacy that Watson said will never fully be understood.
"How many lives do you think he touched?" Watson questioned in an exclusive interview Saturday. "From the time he was at Okawville and Benton High School, then Southern and Marion and Morthland, I bet he touched thousands of lives. And then you think, no, he touched tens of thousands of lives, but again no, it's gotta be more like hundreds of thousands of lives."
A native of Benton, Herrin coached SIU men's basketball from 1985 to 1998, transforming the Salukis into a high-energy program that produced seven straight trips to the postseason, including three-straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 1993 to 1995. He was inducted in the Saluki Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Missouri Valley Conference Hall of Fame in 2010.
Herrin began his coaching career at Okawville High School in 1956 (95-17 in four years). At Benton High School (521-192 in 25 years) the gymnasium is named in his honor. Then it was Marion High School, where he had a tougher five years, going 61-84.
By the time he arrived on campus at SIU, Herrin had amassed 677 career high school wins in 29 seasons.
After leaving Marion in 2007, Herrin was the first basketball coach for the upstart Morthland College and in two years went 19-30.
The outpouring of love and support for Herrin ran rampant on social media over the weekend. Watson recalls a text from a former player that just said: "coach Herrin saved my life."
Rod Shurtz, who took over for Rich and his brother Ron at Benton High School in the 1990 season, was a point guard for the Rangers for his junior and senior seasons (1976-1978). The news of Herrin's passing left Shurtz reflecting on many things, but the biggest was the passion Herrin had for the game.
"If you practiced hard, you worked hard and you compete hard, you were going to have success," Shurtz said. "And it wasn't just on the basketball court, it could have been on the track or baseball diamond, but also in life.
"I know this much, Rich didn't look at coaching as job or work -- it's what he loved and when you love something as much as he loved basketball, he didn't want to do anything but coach."
Watson added that two words come to mind for him when thinking about Herrin -- loyalty and fun.
"He was fiercely loyal to his family. He loved Sue. He loved Rodney, Kyle, Randy and Kristy (his kids). He loved his players and his coaches.
"It was a brotherhood, I can tell you that much," Watson said. "You know how you can say something bad about you brother, but you better hope you don't catch someone else saying something bad about your brother? We were all a very tight-knit group, but at the same time, everyone that he was connected with had that same feeling."
The SIU program Herrin inherited needed a complete rebuild. The program had won a total of 30 league games over a six-year span before his arrival in Carbondale in 1985.
After an 8-20 mark in year one, his teams posted back-to-back 12-win seasons, before a breakout campaign in 1988-89 that featured the first of six 20-victory seasons and a trip to the NIT. In 1989-90, the Salukis posted 26 victories, captured the MVC regular-season title and advanced to the NIT.
The 1990-91 season featured 18 wins and postseason victories over Boise State and Missouri State before a loss to eventual NIT champion Stanford. Herrin's Salukis won their second MVC regular-season crown in 1991-92 and advanced to the NIT.
Years of NCAA Selection Sunday frustration ended in 1992-93, as SIU posted a 14-4 league record, good for second place, and defeated Illinois State in the finals of the State Farm MVC Men's Basketball Championship for SIU's first NCAA Division I Tournament trip since the 1976-77 campaign.
The Salukis would also finish second in the MVC standings in 1994 and 1995, but competing as the second seed in Arch Madness, SIU took State Farm MVC Men's Basketball Championship titles, making Herrin the first coach in league tournament history to win three-consecutive postseason championship crowns.
In all, Herrin coached 13 seasons with the Salukis, registering a 225-174 record and 111 league victories. His players included Larry Bird MVC Player of the Year selections Ashraf Amaya (1992) and Chris Carr (1995) and eight Saluki Hall of Famers -- Chris Lowery, Sterling Mahan, Steve Middleton, Marcus Timmons, Amaya, Carr, Hudson and Shipley. He sent a total of four players on to the NBA (Amaya, Carr, Hudson and Tony Harvey).
After Herrin's departure at Southern, Watson stayed as an assistant another 11 seasons, before taking over the head coach at Southern Indiana in 2009. Watson retired just prior to the 2020 season.
As far as Herrin's legacy, Watson admits his greatest accomplishment will forever be the 3-peat at SIU, but in reality, the places he coached and the impact he had will be far bigger than the awards.
"He taught all of us -- basketball players, coaches, managers -- he taught us all how to be a man, love God and respect your wife and your family," Watson said. "Basketball was huge to us, but never were we to question what was most important. If you were associated with Rich, you were associated with a good person, a good man and someone that cared about God.
"I mean this genuinely, I don't think many people get invited to Jesus Christ's birthday. I really don't think that's a coincidence. Only the really good people get to go to that party and I can't think of anyone better than Rich Herrin."

• Spyder Dann covers prep and college sports for the Southern Illinois LOCAL Media Group. Follow him on Twitter: @spydieshooter.