Ask anyone who has covered college basketball down in the Delta for years who Steve Rives is, and unfair comparisons to Bobby Knight might come up.
Ask Arkansas-Monticello fans about Rives, and arguably the greatest moment in Boll Weevils basketball history comes to mind.
For every 10 times Rives had his Delta State team in a huddle, his voice was louder than the crowd nine times. He was constantly in the players’ faces. He pushed for perfection on each possession. His stoic face was a trademark in Division II basketball. You could just sit in the bleachers or on press row, and the sight of how he communicated might scare the heck out of you.
Unless you got to know the man.
Rives is a family man and loves his community of Cleveland, Mississippi. As a coach, he was more than that dean of the Gulf South Conference that other coaches might struggle to beat. He held high standards for each of his student-athletes as students … and as athletes. Oh, and as citizens, as well.
To say he was passionate about basketball and he truly cared about each player was an understatement.
That’s a fair comparison to Knight. A positive one, at that.
But one thing about Rives — his passion could never be mistaken for any classless, over-the-top antic “The General” is known for.
If you come to admire Rives like I have over the years, you’ll know that his air of confidence and straightforwardness should be a prime example for every man in every walk of life to follow. Catch him away from the gym and just shake his hand, and his firm way of communication will rub off on you.
Nine years after I covered my last Delta State basketball game — and eight years after his last game — Rives reminded me of that.
One sunny Sunday earlier this month, I was just walking slowly out of the local Red Lobster with my girlfriend, her mom and my family after we celebrated my birthday. We got done snapping a few shots outside the restaurant and headed to our cars when this guy with a “Delta State Statesmen: 2006 Gulf South Conference Champions” T-shirt exited with his clan.
I looked at the shirt and then his eyes. I knew that was him.
I stopped and spoke to him, reminded him that I’m Ivy Murrell, that guy who used to cover his team for the Delta Democrat Times. I had never been so amazed to see someone again from my professional past.
“Great to see you again,” Rives said, with a wide smile. “What are you doing for yourself?”
“Oh, I’m here in my hometown, writing for The Commercial,” I responded.
I think he was trying to remember the season I covered the Statesmen. Aside from all those wars with the Weevils I witnessed during my college days, it was 2004-05. Central Arkansas was still in the conference, Mike Newell was coaching UAM, and Delta State clinched the GSC Western Division championship.
But 2005-06? I can’t forget that season … not that I was there in Cleveland.
I had settled in another gig in Pendleton, Oregon, my old high school basketball team won the state championship and UAM pulled off its greatest victory as a Division II program — defeating No. 1 and unbeaten Delta State 83-68 in the second round of the NCAA South Regional — held at Delta State.
“I will forever hate UAM for that,” Rives joked.
And in a rare moment of partiality, I — a UAM alumnus — will always smile about that.
Rives probably smiled two days later when the Weevils blew a big lead and lost to Montevallo (Alabama) 89-86 in the regional final. Rives retired the next month, and UAM hasn’t been to the NCAAs since.
Now, what was Rives doing in Pine Bluff on my birthday? The day before, his son Dan was coaching Hinds Community College in the championship game of the NJCAA Division II World Series in Enid, Oklahoma, on the same baseball field where UAM finished second in the Great American Conference tournament. Mesa (Arizona) beat Hinds 9-7 in 11 innings.
So, Steve Rives’ road back home to Cleveland took him through Southeast Arkansas, just as the road to GSC glory often did in his 20 years at Delta State. And that one night in 2006 — sort of.
Not that he needs to be reminded.
I.C. Murrell is the sports editor of The Commercial. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.