Lou Bender, who guided five Delaware high schools to 470 boys basketball wins and built one of the most remarkable coaching trees in the state’s history, died Sept. 14 in Berlin, Md.
Bender, 78, coached for 35 years before retiring in 2004. He was inducted into the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Delaware Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.
He also mentored many players who went on to become coaches, and was so personable that even referees enjoyed his company.
“He was just the greatest guy in the world,” said Jim Mahoney, who is entering his 27th year as a Delaware high school basketball official. “Never disrespectful to anybody. I never heard one referee in all of my time that he was coaching say a bad word about him. Everyone respected him.”
Bender graduated from Chichester (Pa.) High, then went on to earn a master’s degree at West Chester State before getting started in coaching at Richardson Park Junior High in 1964.
He was head coach at Salesianum from 1968-70. One of his players there — Mike Gallagher — came back to coach the Sals for 23 seasons.
“He spent a great deal of time preparing us for what was going to happen most times in a game, rebounding, playing defense,” Gallagher said. “He got to know every player that he had. He knew them personally, he knew their families, he knew what made them tick.
“He spent a lot of time trying to understand high school-age kids. Part of my development as a coach was because of the way he treated his players. He treated everyone with respect, and he demanded excellence from everyone.”
Bender coached at Delcastle for 17 years, then went to Wilmington College from 1987-89. Then he turned around the A.I. du Pont basketball program from 1990-92, molding another future coach in the process.
“One of the reasons I got into coaching was because of the experience I had playing for him,” Ed Sobocinski said. “When I was at A.I. as a junior, we were a terrible basketball team. I think we were 5-15. The year he came, my senior year, we turned it around and went 15-5 and almost won Flight A. That experience really changed my life.”
Sobocinski became part of his Bender’s staff as he coached for two years at Caravel, then moved on to Hodgson for 10 seasons. Those were some of Bender’s best years, as he guided the Silver Eagles to a 183-65 mark and six 20-win seasons. When Bender retired, Sobocinski became Hodgson’s coach for the next 10 seasons.
“He really was the one who built Hodgson for the success we had,” Sobocinski said. “I was able to just take it over.”
Bender retired with a 470-294 record, a .615 winning percentage, according to noted Delaware high school basketball historian Chuck Durante. His success came from an organized approach that many of his coaching disciples still follow.
“He always had a plan,” Sobocinski said. “He told us, ‘This is what we’re going to do, and this is how we’re going to do it.’ You could be held accountable for what you were supposed to be doing, because you weren’t following the plan. If there is no plan, you don’t even know what you’re doing wrong.”
Bender’s teams went 6-1 in Blue Hen Conference championship games, and he was named Eastern Regional Coach of the Year by the National High School Coaches Association in 1990. Perhaps the only thing to elude him was a state title, as he lost in the championship game with Delcastle in 1982 and Hodgson in 2002.
Sanford coach Stan Waterman, who guided the Warriors to that 2002 title, admired Bender’s ability to adapt his coaching style over the long haul.
“I always had the utmost respect for him as a coach, and as a person,” Waterman said. “He’s certainly one of the best to ever do it in the state of Delaware.”
He even dispensed valuable advice to officials. Mahoney played against Bender’s Salesianum teams at Corpus Christi High School and worked for him as a scout at Delcastle and A.I. When he decided to become an official, Bender knew what to say.
“One of the things he said to me when I first started was, ‘If you can’t explain it, don’t call it,’” Mahoney said. “And I thought, ‘You know what, that really makes a lot of sense.’
“He said, ‘Most of the time when you make a call, a coach is just going to ask for an explanation. So you better be able to explain it to him.’”
In addition to Gallagher and Sobocinski, others who played for Bender and went into coaching included Angelo Rossi (Salesianum), Joe Thompson (Sanford and St. Mark’s), Randy Nowell (Glasgow and Delcastle), Jim Hagen (Delcastle) and Craig Browning (Hodgson).
“I felt honored to coach against him as well as play for him,” Gallagher said. “He had a long tenure at a lot of schools. And regardless of where he was, he built up players. He always had good things to say about them, and he stood up for his players.”
No information on a memorial service has been made available.
NOTE: This article has been changed to correctly reflect coach Bender’s won-loss record.
Contact Brad Myers at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ.