Still going strong on verge of No. 500

Lin James, Lin James tried to keep the secret.

Sure, a lot of people knew the North Harford girls basketball coach was close to her 500th career victory. They just didn't know how close.


James didn't want them to know. She didn't want extra pressure on her players to deliver anything more than their best effort.

Then two weeks ago on her way to work, James noticed the marquee sign in front of the Pylesville school: "When will Mrs. James get 500?"


Right then, James knew she would not mark the next milestone in her illustrious coaching career in private.

By the time the Hawks defeated Chesapeake of Anne Arundel County on Wednesday night to give James her 499th victory, word had spread around Harford County and beyond.

James could hit the 500 mark tonight at 7 at home against Aberdeen. If that game is postponed, she has another chance Thursday at home at 7 p.m. vs. C. Milton Wright.

After 35 years of coaching at North Harford and two early years at Langford High in Augusta, Ga., James' career record stands at 499-226.

"Longevity is the key thing and a little bit of success," James said. "A lot of coaches have been to states more than I have, but we've been lucky. There've been very few seasons when we haven't been .500 in all those years. Some seasons, we've been almost undefeated."

That's as close as James will come to taking credit for those soon-to-be 500 wins. Never mind that her teams are always fundamentally sound and well-disciplined. Never mind that opposing coaches are always wary of being outcoached.

"If I was in her shoes, I think it would mean a lot to me. I'm not so sure with her," said Walt Bogarty, James' assistant coach since the early 1990s. "All these years, she's never mentioned to me how many more [wins] she needed. She's very modest. She realizes she's had some good teams over the years, and she wants to give the credit to her players, which they deserve. But she's the backbone of that program up there."

James has compiled more wins than any other Baltimore metro area girls basketball coach.


She kept quiet when she hit 400 during the 1997-98 season, celebrating only by enjoying a cake with her team. She also kept mum when she passed former Western coach Breezy Bishop to become the area's all-time career wins leader during the 1998-99 season.

However, 500 has been harder for her to keep under wraps since James finally shared her career record with The Sun a few months after she passed Bishop's mark. It has been easy to track her wins since then.

"It's wonderful that somebody can get to 500," said Towson coach Bev (Snyder) Simpson, who stands second on the local all-time list with 457. Simpson's teams have had several regional-playoff battles with James' Hawks over her 33 years of coaching.

"Obviously, it takes perseverance. It takes a lot of work, but it's fun. I'm sure she would say the same thing. You wouldn't do it unless you loved it."

For James, 60, her passion for the sport has never waned.

"After 37 years, she's still fiery. She's always been fiery," said Fallston coach Alice Puckett. "That's what I love about her and Lil Shelton [who has 405 wins in 28 years as Severna Park's field hockey coach]. You can tell that the love of coaching permeates everything they do. There's no loss of intensity as they age. It might get worse. They might get even more competitive."


As a high school player, James helped Elbert County High near Athens, Ga., win 100 straight basketball games and play in three state championships. She went on to play at Anderson College and then at the University of Tennessee, on basketball assistance, an early form of athletic scholarship.

After two years of teaching and coaching in Georgia, James came north with her husband, Jim James. She walked into North Harford High School in 1968 and never left.

"She loves, loves basketball. It's her thing, and she loves the kids. That's pretty much the criteria," said athletic director Fran Mathews, who has been at North Harford for 34 years. "When you hire a coach, you want someone who's good to kids and for kids, and it's really handy if they had a knowledge of the sport and she does."

Team pictures line the walls of James' office, including those of the 1985 state finalist team and the 1983 state semifinalist. Many photos and mementos around the room evoke memories just as fond, none more than those of coaching her daughter Carie, now 29.

James has coached whole families of girls from northern Harford County, including Ford sisters Marcia Joines and Sheree Gross, their sister-in-law Renee Ford and Marcia Joines' daughters Monica, now a junior playing lacrosse at Syracuse, and Meghan, a junior on this year's Hawks team.

"She doesn't seem any older to me as far as her spunk," said Marcia Joines. "I remember she was always upbeat."


While James has always brought an inherent competitiveness to the coaching box, she also brings a lot of fun.

"She would have surprises a lot of times when we would come to practice," said Monica Joines. "It might be a cool drill or a game, something challenging that would make the team close. One time, she went to a meeting and when she came back to practice, she brought us all ice cream sundaes."

Though James also coaches the junior varsity field hockey team, she has had to give up coaching gymnastics. The Hawks were the only Maryland public school team still participating north of Anne Arundel County, but James said aging equipment and her physical inability to spot the athletes forced her to fold the program a few years ago.

For now, however, there are no serious thoughts of retiring from teaching physical education or coaching basketball. Last season, with her team on a downswing, James acknowledges having entertained the first thoughts of retirement, but this year's team is 6-6 against a tough schedule and she's still enjoying coaching.

The national record for career coaching wins in girls high school basketball - 1,217 set by Jim Smiddy, of Cleveland Bradley Central High in Charleston, Tenn., between 1948 and 1993 - may be out of her reach. But for someone who doesn't put much stock in such milestones anyway, staying active and working with the girls is incentive enough to keep James coaching for a while longer.

"I love working with the kids," said James. "It's fun to motivate kids to come together and work for a common goal and to see them enjoy the game. And basketball is my love. I'd play right now if I physically could."


James said she was born 30 years too early. She could see herself playing point guard for Tennessee's women's basketball dynasty. Still, many of her former players remain thankful that perhaps the best years she has given to basketball have been as a coach.

"She's a role model for all of the kids she's coached," said Monica Joines. "It goes beyond her team to other girls in the school and the males find her amazing, too. She's just an icon in the Harford County community, and I'm proud to have played for her."