Cary boys basketball coach Allan Gustafson Jr. has taken hours out of his week to return phone calls and reply to hundreds of emails, tweets and text messages from former players. Gustafson, in his 34th year of coaching and 18th leading the varsity team, calls it his “Mr. Holland’s Opus” moment.
At the end of that movie, the main character – a retiring music teacher of 30 years – walks into an auditorium filled with former students whose lives he touched, intent on giving him the sendoff he deserves.
“ ‘Are you making a difference?’ You have these existential questions you ask,” Gustafson said. “It’s been very heartwarming, very touching and very gratifying.”
The man they call “Coach Gus” has endeared himself to players and the community with his quirkiness and his dogged loyalty to the school and his players.
Never miss a local story.
Hours spent opening the gym on weekends and summer mornings – even if only one player asked for it – are paying him back. In one playoff run, former players are coming back to games in droves to support their former coach.
On Saturday, Cary has a chance at a state title, when they play at 7:30 p.m. in the Dean Smith Center against Charlotte Catholic.
“I look at the relationships he’s building with his players and I think he’s one of the best,” assistant coach Brian Pendergraft said. “The rewards he’s getting right now are all justified.”
Gustafson, 56, grew up on Pleasants Avenue, walking distance from Cary High. After graduating from N.C. State, he returned to Cary as a student teacher for a semester before becoming full-time.
Cary has a high number of alumni who teach at the school where “bleeding Kelly green” is part of the lingo. Gustafson (class of 1977), who also helped coach golf, track and field, cross country and baseball, is no different.
He stresses winning and losing with class because it reflects on the school; his school.
He never played basketball at Cary – he didn’t try out again after being cut as a sophomore – but basketball was always his passion. He coached recreation basketball in college and that helped steer him away from law school and into teaching, a profession shared by his mother.
He bends over backwards to help his players, once pouring hours into writing a daily 20/20 (as in hindsight) sheet that each player was to read before practice to know what to work on. The 20/20 sheet is no more, but he’s still opening up the gym anytime a player asks.
“If that means it’s inconvenient for me to get up early on a Saturday to open up the gym when I’d rather be sleeping or at the golf course, I’m going to open up the gym on a Saturday morning,” he said.
Springsteen and Camus
Passion is a word that comes up when former players talk about Gustafson.
He has a passion for history – the class he teaches – for metaphors (he coined “Fire and Ice” for Donte Tatum and Cory Gensler last season), great quotes and Bruce Springsteen.
“He is incredibly intelligent,” said former player Langdon Morris, class of 2004. “He had a way of letting you know that he loved you, yet you feared him, and not until I had him as a teacher did I know that that balance came from research. He would quote Machiavelli in class, and it would all make sense.”
He plays Springsteen less than he used to, acknowledging “Even though I think he’s amazing, I kind of get the fact that (the players) can’t stand him.”
But in January, he couldn’t resist.
He put together a 24-minute PowerPoint presentation, full of photos from previous games, with “Eyes on the Prize” playing in the background on a loop. It’s not the first time a season has been dedicated to a Springsteen song.
At the time, the prize was a conference championship, one that Cary won for the first time since Gustafson’s first season leading the varsity in 1998-99.
Before the season began, he gave Gensler a quote to remember by Albert Camus: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
Gustafson likes the quote because he dislikes society’s priority placed on wins and losses (even while going 49-8 over the last two seasons).
“It’s about the process and the journey; it’s not about the end result,” Gustafson said. “We cannot control the outcome, so our challenge is not to allow the outcome to define us as a winner or loser.”
“Coach Gus” and “Coach P”
On every game day, Gustafson picks up the phone and chats with his best friend since childhood, assistant coach Pendergraft (Cary class of 1980), or Coach P to his players.
“How you feeling about tonight?” Gustafson would ask.
“Terrible,” said Pendergraft, who grew up on Ralph Drive, close enough to where Gustafson could tell if there was a pick-up basketball game at Pendergraft’s house by the lights reflecting off the treetops.
When Gustafson started coaching basketball 27 years ago, Pendergraft was his assistant.
Perhaps no head coach-assistant combo in the state has been together as long as they have. Since 2000, Pendergraft, a straight-shooter with a stick of chewing gum always nearby, has made the drive from North Raleigh for Cary practices.
“He was always at Gus’s side,” said Noel Anderson, class of 2002. “He never said a lot, but when he did, boy, you better listen.”
In 2009, Gustafson was inducted into the Cary High Sports Hall of Fame. A year later, Pendergraft joined him.
Pendergraft shares in Gustafson’s belief in striving for more than wins.
“We’re in a society that only talks about wins and losses but for this program here, we’re not about that. We want to strive to get better, and we’ve done that even with teams that weren’t 31-1,” Pendergraft said. “So I couldn’t be more proud. The community is rallying behind (the team) because they love that man right there and so do I.”
The dream season
While other coaches have gotten out of the profession because they found it hard to relate to players, Gustafson has kept his approach simple.
He believes if he can show that he cares, the player will respond in positive ways. He builds relationships with the stars and benchwarmers alike. He adamantly believes in giving little-used seniors maximum playing time on Senior Night.
“Kids are smart. They’re perceptive. They can see if you’re genuine, they can see if you’re real. They can see if you’re superficial and artificial. So I’ve always tried to be genuine and real,” Gustafson said. “I wear my heart on my sleeve, I’m an emotional person and I think the players respect that.”
No matter the overall record, Cary is a tough out by the end of a season.
Fourth-quarter comebacks, fueled by Gustafson’s pleas to not give up, a full-court press and a well-executed Tom Davis flex offense, occur even in the lean years.
“We’ve had up and down years with teams but he’s always stayed true to himself,” Cary athletics director Mike Dunphy said. “You can’t ask for a greater guy.”
Cary has won four overtime games in its past 15 contests, including back-to-back playoff rounds.
Gensler’s game-winning 3 to defeat Garner 71-69 in overtime for the East final will live on in Imps lore. But if you look closely, so will Gustafson’s reaction.
When the shot went in, he just turned, raised his arms and pointed at the community he so proudly represents.
“It’s for them. That’s what we’re doing this for,” Gustafson said. “For this school, for this community. And that’s what has filled my heart, right there.”
On Saturday, win or lose – because those are not what Coach Gus focuses on anyway – there will be more than a few in the crowd pointing right back at their beloved coach.