By Jim Carnett
(Jim was an Orange Coast College student in the early 1960s. Now in his 37th year as Director of Community Relations, he is editor of Coast-to-Coast. This is a regular column that focuses on OCC’s history and distinctive characteristics and characters.)
Some might label him the biggest loser in Orange Coast College history.
But those with the temerity to do so must also be obliged to accept the same mantle for themselves – Loser, with a capital L – because they’re playing fast and loose with the facts.
Herb Livsey has been a “Basketball Man” since he first started playing hoops in the fourth grade in New York.
Today, at 71, he is one of the premier skill-development people in the sport. Herb possesses that rare talent of being able to build a player – any player, of any age – from the ground up within a team concept. It’s been said by numerous basketball mavens that he can make an 80 percent free throw shooter out of almost anyone by instilling within him – or her – his “lock, load, look and lift” shooting technique.
Simply put, Herb is the epitome of a teacher and coach.
True, in seven years as head coach of Orange Coast College’s men’s basketball team Herb Livsey won just 37.8 percent of his games. That would be an excellent stat were he a Major League outfielder…batting .378. That’s sniffing the rarified air near the summit of Mount (Ted) Williams. No, Herb’s .378 was his Coast WINNING percentage which, in the world of team sports, actually translates into a LOSING percentage.
Herb lost 62.2 percent of his games at Coast. That’s not exactly lighting it up, but Herb was never about winning and losing…truly. He was always about teaching and molding young athletes. He believes strongly that athletics builds character. For 41 years he was owner and director of the legendary Snow Valley Basketball School, one of the nation’s largest basketball camps.
During his Coast tenure, the man with the piercing ice blue eyes, that seemed to look right through you, was often accused of not recruiting the most talented athletes. On that charge I’m afraid he must plead guilty.
Herb’s philosophy, at least according to my own personal – albeit flawed – observations, was to opt for less talented players who he felt would play hard and fit well into his team-first scheme of things. He hated ball-hogs and premadonnas. He ardently subscribed to – and taught – the principles of team play.
In 1973 he told a reporter that he liked the unselfish play of his OCC squad. “No one (on this team) ever wants to know how many points he scored (when he comes into) the locker room after a game,” Herb said.
Livsey coached OCC’s Pirates from the 1969-70 season through the 1975-76 campaign, and recorded four of the 12 worst basketball seasons – record-wise – in Orange Coast College history, including the absolute rock bottom worst. He was relieved of his coaching responsibilities in March of 1976 by OCC president, Robert B. Moore, after going 10-17 that year.
But, as you might suspect, there’s considerable subtext to this story that, in fairness, should be considered in its retelling.
An intense coach who demanded the best of his players, Herb was a perpetual-motion machine on OCC’s basketball sidelines. A veritable whirling-dervish, he was up and down the court, flailing his arms, stomping his feet and screaming.
He’d sometimes lean over in his courtside chair, put his knuckles on the floor, and bray. Other times he’d kick a foot high above his head as he slouched back in his chair, or he’d crouch on the floor in front of his seat – appearing ready to pounce – furrowing his brow and hollering commands. The body English that Herb exhibited during a 40-minute college basketball game was nothing short of chiro-practically impossible!
“Tommmeeeeeeeeeyyyyyyyyyyy!” he’d yell. Or, “Rodneeeeeeeeyyyyyyyyyy!” Or, “Reboooooouuuuuuuund!” He drew out his vowels until he was completely out of oxygen, then he’d suck in air like a compressor and finish off a sentence.
His voice was perpetually hoarse…thrashed would be a more apt description. The lower register was gone. It sounded as if he had a single badly scarred vocal chord that was hanging by a thread. He’d killed his voice after years of screaming at his charges in noisy gymnasiums (he rarely yelled at officials). He certainly never would have been hired to do a knockoff of Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe.” He might have landed a part in a Pixar Film production had they needed an actor to portray a New York City ferret – tripping on caffeine – who had a voice like sandpaper rubbing against a corroded aluminum shed.
Herb was OCC’s fifth basketball coach, sandwiched between Bob Wetzel and Tandy Gillis. Wetzel had won a pair of conference championships in his three years as head coach, and captured 60.4 percent of his games. Gillis won 51.7 percent of his games in 16 seasons, and garnered a state championship in just his third.
Livsey had only one winning year out of seven. In 1973-74, his Pirates went 22-8 and some said the performance saved his job, at least temporarily. During his other six seasons the Bucs were 52-114 for a .313 winning percentage.
Herb had his worst campaign during the 1970-71 season when the Pirates went 3-24, the nastiest single-season basketball record in OCC annals. Newspaper columnists used the Pirates as a punch line. Four years later, after going 22-8 and being named conference Coach of the Year (had he suddenly learned how to coach?), Herb’s Bucs reverted to 8-21 – after having been picked to contend for the conference title in preseason polls.
Despite the wins-to-losses ratio, on numerous occasions I watched Herb completely out-coach the opposition. He got more from his players than almost anyone else in the game.
“I really don’t place a lot of emphasis on win-loss records,” he admitted to a reporter in February of 1976, a month before he was fired. “Oh sure, everyone wants to win, myself included. But there are other indications of being successful.”
He wasn’t alibiing; he was absolutely sincere in that observation. Herb never evaluated success based on wins and losses. He was all about helping players achieve their potential. And he truly cared about his athletes.
“If a player is giving all he’s got by performing to the best of his ability, then we have been successful,” he said.
And, what about recruiting good players? “I go after the best players in our area,” he once said while defending his recruiting techniques. “I just don’t believe in recruiting coast to coast.”
For seven seasons, a local sports editor fired cannon fusillade after cannon fusillade at Herb, and continually beat the drum for his dismissal.
Herb had been the boys’ varsity basketball coach at Costa Mesa High School for three years when he was named OCC’s head basketball coach in 1969, at the age of 33. His record at Costa Mesa had been less than spectacular, but that was attributed to the fact that the program lacked talented players. He ran a clean, first-class program. It was obvious to anyone who could see beyond the end of his nose that Herb was an enthusiastic and passionate teacher, who could flat out coach youngsters.
Well, the local sports editor wanted Moore and athletic director Wendell Pickens to select his favorite local high school coach when it came time to fill the OCC post. The high school coach had produced numerous league championships at his school. The reporter’s heavy-handed lobbying went for naught, however, and Herb was hired.
The writer proceeded to pound Livsey relentlessly…especially after losses. Many of the attacks were outright cheap shots. Moore, to his credit, refused to listen to the assaults. In fact, Dr. Bob would frequently laugh them off with a wave of his hand.
Livsey, who hadn’t done anything to deserve the insults, tried to mend fences with the editor. He reached out with an olive branch. The sports editor would have none of it, however, so Livsey concentrated on doing the thing he did best – and what he was hired to do – coach basketball. He never allowed it to become a distraction to his players. The fact that he ignored the sports editor galled the editor no end.
I, on the other hand, as the college’s new public relations director, couldn’t ignore it. I winced every time I saw a negative mention in the sports editor’s column. I felt that Herb and the college were being unfairly pummeled.
Each time the sports editor called me on the telephone he’d begin the conversation with the same sneer, “Has Livsey been fired, yet?”
“Why are you so down on Herb?” I’d ask, plaintively trying to reason with the detractor. “Because he isn’t qualified for the job,” was the sports editor’s response.
School newspaper reporter, Rich Tullio, was a big Livsey fan.
“What coach Livsey does,” Tullio wrote just weeks before Livsey’s firing in 1976, “is take good players and make them better. They may not learn more skills but they learn more about themselves.
“No, he’s not a miracle worker like his critics expect. He’s a coach (who) lives up to his convictions; a coach (who) puts more pressure on himself than anyone could imagine. Coach Herb Livsey is a man dedicated to pleasing his biggest critic, himself. Anyone else involved in the process wins, not loses.”
Born in White Plains, N.Y., Herb earned his B.A. degree in English and a B.S. in physical education at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Fla. He picked up a Master’s of Education in English and physical education from the University of Nevada. Known for his sober and cerebral manner, Herb was an avid reader and writer, and completed advanced composition coursework at the University of Hawaii.
Herb’s first teaching and coaching assignment was in 1958-59 at Frostproof High School in Florida. He was the head basketball and baseball coach, and chair of the English Department. Herb was assistant basketball coach at the University of Nevada for a year, then became the head basketball coach, and a football and baseball assistant, at Humboldt County High School in Winnemucca, Nev. He was also English Department chair.
Herb worked for five years as head basketball coach at Del Oro High School in Loomis, Calif. In addition to teaching English, he also taught speech and drama. In 1966, Herb became head basketball coach at Costa Mesa High School, directly across the street from Orange Coast College.
In 1969 he was hired as OCC’s head basketball coach and an assistant professor of English. His first year in the saddle the Pirates went 10-18. The second season they were 3-24, and after three years they were a combined 22-59. In 1972-73, with a freshman-dominated outfit, they went 12-17. In 1973-74, with the previous year’s freshmen now seasoned sophomores, they were an impressive 22-8.
Herb closed out his OCC coaching career with 8-21 and 10-17 records during the 1974-75 and 1975-76 seasons.
To my best recollection, Herb Livsey was fired as OCC’s men’s basketball coach in the following manner:
Shortly after the close of the 1975-76 basketball season, President Moore called me into his office. Also sitting there was founding athletic director, Wendell Pickens.
“Jim,” Moore uttered in somber tones, “we’re going to ask Herb Livsey to step down as basketball coach.”
Even with Herb’s poor win-loss percentage, I was surprised at the pronouncement. I expected Dr. Bob to keep Livsey in place for at least as long as the sports editor remained in place and continued to harp on his sacking. Bob was an easy-going, even-tempered administrator, but he bristled at bullying tactics. Surprisingly, he could exhibit a stubborn streak…and I’m certain he felt no compulsion to cave to the reporter’s demands. But Bob decided to put an end to the pain. He took no pleasure in the decision. I truly believe his biggest concern was for Livsey.
“Herb just can’t be expected to keep taking this criticism that’s being heaped on him,” Moore continued. “It’s not fair. He may not appreciate this, but I’m going to get him out from underneath it.”
Bob was preparing to speak with Herb. He told me to draft an announcement for the media.
I wrote a press release. As soon as Herb had been notified I called the sports editors at the two metropolitan dailies in Orange County, and then called the local sports editor – IN THAT ORDER.
When I got the local editor on the phone he cheered the news.
“Now, Jim,” he said when he’d composed himself. “I’m going to ask you not to give this story to the (two metropolitan dailies) until tomorrow morning. We want to break the story to the public, and the other two papers really don’t care as much about it as we do, anyway.”
What he wanted, of course, was to banner the story at the top of the sports page. His was an afternoon paper. My waiting to tell the two morning dailies the next morning meant he would be able to trump them by running the story the next afternoon. They’d have been forced to carry it the following morning.
“Too late,” I said, “I’ve already contacted the other two papers. They have the story.”
“WHAT!” He literally exploded; calling me every name in the book…and some I’d never seen in print before.
“You’ve stabbed me in the back,” he howled. “How could you do this to me.”
I’d, of course, stabbed no one in the back. I’d handled a campus personnel issue in as evenhanded a manner as I possibly could. I was absolutely fair with the media. Everybody got the story within minutes of everyone else, and they’d all be running it the next day. As a result, the three newspapers ran relatively modest accounts the following day, and the local paper was foiled from breaking the exclusive with a banner headline. Herb was spared the indignity.
Herb, I’m sure, was never aware of my behind-the-scenes maneuvers. I never told him about them. As a matter of fact, I noticed a decided chill in our relationship following the announcement. And the relationship never fully recovered. I think he somehow believed that the messenger (me) had something to do with the message. I didn’t, but I understood his antipathy.
President Moore had the following comment in the school newspaper – under the headline “Livsey Ousted!”: “Herb is a very fine English teacher and will be asked to accept a full-time teaching position.”
That he did.
Moore also stated that Livsey was more than welcome to remain on as an assistant basketball coach “if that is his wish.” It wasn’t, at least not for the next decade or so.
Rumors flew about Livsey’s successor. One name that came up frequently in on- and off-campus discussions was John Vallely. Vallely had been a JC All-American at OCC eight years earlier, and starred for two UCLA national championship squads. He had played for the Wizard of Westwood, John Wooden. Vallely’s name was pure magic on OCC’s campus, but he wasn’t interested.
Successful Corona del Mar High School coach, Tandy Gillis, was announced as the new OCC head coach during the summer of ’76.
After Herb was fired, he took a two-year leave of absence to serve as an assistant coach at Arizona State University. He returned to teach English full-time at Coast, and worked for five seasons as an assistant to coach Bill Mulligan at UC Irvine.
“If he’s teaching English, he’s ready every day and he walks into the classroom excited, just like he walks into the gym excited,” said Mark Warkentien, who coached with Herb at UCI. “You can’t find any ‘old-school’ guy in the game nationally who doesn’t hold Herb in the highest reverence.”
Current OCC president, Robert Dees, served as Herb’s division dean (Literature and Languages) for many years.
“Herb was an energetic and passionate teacher,” Dees remembers. “Students loved him, especially the athletes, who needed to have someone who understood the difficulties they had at balancing academics and sports. He ‘coached’ writing and literature, meaning that he set up goals and expectations and then trained the whole ‘team’ to meet them.
“He was also an active department member, always doing his share of committee work and helping adjunct faculty. He was a real plus to have as a faculty member.”
A student in Livsey’s sports psychology class in the early 1980s was current OCC track and field head coach, and assistant athletic director, John Knox.
“Herb was a great teacher – one of the best I had in college,” Knox says. “His lectures were always fascinating and motivating. His enthusiasm was infectious, and he took a personal interest in his students. He understood athletes.”
With the local sports editor long gone, and Moore and Pickens retired, Herb returned to coaching Orange Coast College basketball in 1988. He worked as an OCC assistant for nine years, through the 1996-97 campaign. He worked alongside head coaches Tandy Gillis and Tim O’Brien. And, frankly, it was good to see him back on the Pirate bench.
As an OCC assistant, he’d mellowed considerably. He loved coaching players, and also seemed to appreciate being out of the limelight. He didn’t have to worry about newspaper criticism, administrator interference, fan backlash, or squabbles with parents or players about playing time. That was the head coach’s problem. He could work hard on drills during practice sessions, and coach with intensity during games.
He also didn’t have to field dimwitted post-game questions from the media.
In 1990, Herb was honored at the Final Four NCAA Basketball Tournament in Denver. The National Association of Basketball Coaches presented him with a merit award for more than 30 years of high school and college coaching.
During his coaching career Herb was twice named “Coach of the Year” at the high school level, and was “Coach of the Year” one season at Coast. He enjoyed teaching OCC composition classes, and for many years served as a lecturer with the college’s Health and Physical Education Division. He initiated and taught the popular “Psychology in Sport” class.
“With all of his connections, Herb brought lots of great guest speakers into his ‘Psychology in Sport’ class,” says Lee Bradley, a retired OCC counselor and vice president of instruction. “I remember walking out of the Counseling and Admissions Building one day and seeing USC basketball coach, George Raveling, walking across the quad. He was on his way to speak to Herb’s class.”
Dr. Thomas Tutko, the father of sports psychology, spoke to his classes often.
Though an absolute basketball zealot, Herb always managed to temper things during his discussions with student-athletes. He never foolishly promised the moon. Once, while teaching his popular OCC “Sports Literature” class, he asked his students – most of whom were Pirate athletes – how many expected to make it in professional sports. Nearly every hand in the room went up.
“The reality is,” Livsey soberly advised, “that maybe one of you will make it. The rest of you won’t, so take advantage of your education.”
Herb retired from OCC in 1997 – after 27 remarkable years. He was inducted a year later into the California Community College Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame. Was he inducted for his .378 “batting average?” No. The coaches recognized his many contributions to community college athletes and athletics.
Livsey served for two years as director of player development for the Continental Basketball Association, a feeder league to the NBA. He was also a part-time NBA scout for three franchises, the Minnesota Timberwolves, Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs. In 1998 he began a stint as a full-time scout for the Portland Trailblazers. He combed the western portion of the United States looking for potential draft picks.
He also traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe as a teacher for the Nike All-American Camps.
“Herb has an absolute passion for what he does, whether it’s teaching, scouting or advance preparation,” Mark Warkentien, who was then serving as Portland’s assistant general manager, told a reporter in 1999. “When he puts his name on a report, it’s like a self-portrait. It’s his being. He goes to sleep at night consumed with it.
“There’s nothing he can’t do. He can teach, coach, and he’s the most organized guy I’ve been around.”
Livsey adheres to an interesting philosophy when it comes to evaluating basketball talent.
“The best way to evaluate a player is to do it in practice,” he once observed, “or, evaluate a player – not in the big game – but in the game following the big game. That’s when you find out how he responds.”
Having just entered the eighth decade of his life, Herb is far from retired and remains deeply involved in the sport that he loves. To date he has put in more than 50 years with basketball, and currently works as a scout for the Atlanta Hawks.
Guess the old sports editor would choke on his wildly irresponsible words uttered three decades ago: “he isn’t qualified.” Buddy, if Herb Livsey isn’t qualified to teach the finer points of the game of basketball…NO ONE IS!
And what about his Orange Coast College winning percentage?
What about it? Get over it!
As Rick said to Ilsa at the end of “Casablanca,”…it doesn’t “amount to a hill of beans.” English professor Livsey will tell you that “a hill of beans” is “colloquial American” for something of trifling value.
His OCC wins and losses record? A trifle. Inconsequential. What he did for students…that’s something special.
Herb Livsey is one heck of a hoops coach…a darned fine English professor…and an exemplary human being.
You can quote me on that.
WE GET LETTERS…
Enjoyed your wonderful article on “Gentleman George” (“George Mattias: Just Call Him ‘Coach,’” Orange Slices, Oct. 4), a really great man, but of course I already knew that from working in OCC PE for 12 years.
I truly enjoyed Dennis Kelly's incredible accomplishments (“Thirty-Three Years at OCC and Dennis Kelly is Still Making Waves!” Orange Slices, Nov. 1). Indeed, OCC is fortunate to be able to share in his splendid career!
Congrats Jim on your many wonderful awards, you're the best and we'll miss you!
OCC Class of 1958
Retired Staff Member