EAST PEORIA – The phones buzzed for days in the office of Illinois Central College president Tom Thomas.
Civic dignitaries on Line 1. Business leaders on Line 2. Basketball legends on Line 3.
They were all calling to pitch a men's basketball coaching candidate: Tony Wysinger.
"He had everybody in the community call me," Thomas said.
Thomas started to get a grasp on Wysinger's popularity when he heard from the head coach at New Mexico State, Lou Henson.
"I said, 'I didn't know you were applying for the job,' " Thomas said. "He (Henson) said of all the kids that he ever coached, he always felt Tony was one of the best."
The recommendations convinced Thomas he'd found his man. Not that he needed much prodding.
Thomas knew of Wysinger from his playing days at Peoria Central and as a starter for Henson's Illini in the mid-1980s.
When Carroll Herman retired after 20 years, Thomas encouraged Wysinger to apply. The Division II junior college had a stack of resumes from more experienced candidates. But Thomas liked Wysinger's ideas and his background.
"He believes that winning is important, but more important is building character in kids," Thomas said. "He's done that."
Success on the court hasn't been quite so easy. The Cougars got off to a 3-7 start before winning five of their next eight. Wysinger brought his team to Champaign Jan. 5 for an 86-81 win at Parkland.
Winning is going to take time, Wysinger said. He didn't have a chance to recruit any of the scholarship players on the team. Next summer, the team will be more one of his creation.
Sure, he'll be looking for athletes. But if they don't work hard, study and follow the fundamentals, Wysinger doesn't want them.
"A lot of these young kids, and I call them the new-age player, they would rather look good than be good," Wysinger said. "I'd rather have a guy who doesn't care if he dunks the ball."
The selfish, stylish players of today irk the one-time point guard. He thinks back to his time at Peoria Central and Illinois.
"I used to do some of the nerdiest things you could do as far as working on my game," Wysinger said. "When everybody else was out swimming, I was in the gym working on my free throws or practicing the game-winning shot. No one works on the basic moves anymore."
One night, Wysinger watched ESPN's basketball segment with his team. The players cheered each of the dunks, which made up 75 percent of the plays.
"The guys were going crazy," Wysinger said. "I said, 'How many highlights have you seen of a guy hitting 10 of 10 free throws?' No one shows the small aspects of the guy blocking out. Everything is catered to the spectacular play."
The me-first attitude of today's players made Wysinger interested in being a coach. Put him in charge of 18 year olds, Wysinger figured, and he might be able to teach the fundamentals.
Now 34, Wysinger had been coaching various teams at the Peoria Boys and Girls Club. During the summers, he organized clinics and helped run Gus Macker tournaments across the state.
Henson always thought Wysinger had a coach inside him.
"He was such a leader on the floor," Henson said.
The old coach was more than happy to help Wysinger with a phone call.
"I think they got a gem in Tony," Henson said.
Much of what he learned about the game came from Henson, Wysinger said. If not Henson, then Peoria Central coach Chuck Buescher.
"Coach Henson taught me the value of the basketball," Wysinger said. "No one really talks about that. You never understand that while you're playing. When you get to the coaching aspect of that, you realize how big that is."
Wysinger and Henson start to separate when it comes to coaching style. Henson is old school, using negative reinforcement in practice. Wysinger didn't like it much during his playing days, but teammate George Montgomery told him to listen.
In retrospect, Wysinger said, Henson's style worked on him. As a senior, Wysinger set the school record for assists in a game with 16. He's seventh on the career assist list.
Wysinger wishes he would have been closer to Henson. Off the court, Wysinger and Buescher became friends. He never had that relationship with the Illinois coach.
"I want my players to be able to come to me with any problem," Wysinger said.
Some coaches might see Illinois Central College as a steppingstone to four-year jobs. Not Wysinger. Born and raised in the area, the 34 year old plans to stay awhile.
"I am extremely happy where I'm at," Wysinger said. "I don't have any aspirations of being at a Division I program in a certain period of time."
In the early '90s, Wysinger worked as a Bradley assistant coach. That experience gives him an easy comparison to junior college basketball.
"Bradley as just an assistant would be a lot easier," Wysinger said. "Here, you're doing it all. You're driving the vans, you're getting everybody paid. Put your budget in. Schedule your own games. I'm enjoying a lot of it."
And, sometimes, Wysinger even becomes a player. The current Cougars were barely in grade school when Wysinger's Illinois career ended in '87. Not all of them believed he had any game.
He played them in one-on-one. And beat 9 of 10.
"I told them I'll never play them again," Wysinger said.
Former Illini Tony Wysinger is in his first year as head coach at Illinois Central College. Someday, members of the current team might join him in the profession. Here are the most likely Illinois coaching prospects:
Player, First job, Comment
Robert Archibald, British Nationals, Who knows, maybe his experience in the U.S. can translate into an Olympic gold medal
Cory Bradford, Memphis, His hometown school has been a mess. First, Larry Finch. Then, Tic Price. Ought to be an opening when Bradford's ready
Joe Cross, Southern Illinois, After two-plus years with Lon Kruger, walk-on should be able to fulfill another dream. He's the first of this group to land a job
Lucas Johnson, Maine West, Talks brother Brian Johnson out of cushy job to serve as co-coach
Sergio McClain, Peoria Manual, Dad can't coach forever. He can talk about the glory days and state titles