Beloved basketball coach Russ Lewis Reilly passes away at 74

By JAMES FINN

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Russ Lewis Reilly, a beloved assistant men’s basketball coach and former athletic director at Middlebury College, died surrounded by family at his New Haven home on July 24.

As a “pillar of the community” who drove the athletic department’s success, in the words of Athletic Director Erin Quinn, Reilly worked for Middlebury athletics for more than 40 years. He served as the head men’s basketball coach from 1977 to 1996, then as athletic director from 1997 until his retirement in 2006. After retiring, he spent 13 years as a volunteer assistant coach for the men’s basketball team.

Those who interacted with Reilly within the sphere of Middlebury athletics saw him as an exceptionally considerate and thoughtful presence, known as much for the kindness he showed players and colleagues as for his sincere love for sports. He pushed for equality between men’s and women’s athletics, was a lead caretaker for Butch Varno (a longtime Middlebury resident and Panthers fan who suffers from cerebral palsy), and was a regular attendee of other sports games as a spectator and announcer. 

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“Having Russ on staff was truly a blessing for me and the program,” said Head Men’s Basketball Coach Jeff Brown. “I will miss his wisdom, kindness, generosity and humor, but his positive spirit will remain with the many people that call him a friend.”

As a player for the men’s basketball team, I had the honor of being coached by Reilly for two years. Like everyone else on our team, what I will remember most about Coach Russ is the infectious positivity he brought to our practices every day. As players would stretch during warmups before each practice, he was fond of checking in with each of us individually. He always did so with thoughtfulness and sincerity, asking about families, classes and local sports teams. 

“He would always ask how I was doing, and I would answer with a ‘Good, how are you?’,’’ said Jack Farrell ’21, a member of the team. “Every single day he would respond, ‘that’s the only way to be’. It wouldn’t matter what was happening that day — nothing could get in the way of his ability to spread positivity.”

Reilly was unrelentingly upbeat, though never overpoweringly so, which was perhaps part of the reason his optimism was so appreciated by his players; he was always understanding when the frustrations that come with a grueling four-month season reared their heads. But when we became frustrated, he was there to offer gentle and genuine reminders of the gift we’ve been given in having the opportunity to play a game we love, and one that was so dear to him. 

“I could truly talk to him about everything and anything and I always admired the positive attitude he had every day,” said Eric McCord ’19, a captain of last year’s team.

As an assistant, Reilly developed an affinity for working with the team’s post players, referred to sometimes as “bigs” — centers and power forwards, positions where physicality and hard work are calling cards. He ran position-breakdown workouts for big men in practice that quickly became “one of the most important parts” of practice, Brown said. 

“Our approach was to have Russ coach a team within a team,” Brown said. “He developed our post players masterfully, but he also impacted all the players in our program.”  

After our 15-minute workout we would huddle up, and Reilly would deliver his favorite mantra: “Good, better, best, never ever rest, till the good gets better and the better gets best.” Every Middlebury big man who plays on the team now has a shirt with that slogan written down the back. 

Matt Folger ’20, a three-year starter and captain for the men’s basketball team this upcoming season, remembers designing a shirt emblazoned with the “good, better, best” slogan and preparing to gift it to Reilly, only to find that Reilly had been one step ahead.  

“Just a few days before it was scheduled to arrive, we walked on the bus to go to an away game, and he was sitting on the bus with a large box,” Folger said. “He called us over and gave us all t-shirts with that exact quote on it. We were shocked that he had beat us to our own idea, but we gave our own shirt to him a few days later and he still loved what we had done. I laugh about it to this day.” 

Fiercely loyal to his players and fellow coaches, Coach Russ also had a fiery side. 

“I think sometimes he took it personally when I would criticize in our coaches meetings how one of the bigs played the day before, which I always thought was funny,” said Kyle Dudley ’09, who joined the men’s basketball as Brown’s lead assistant in 2013 after spending his college years playing for Reilly and Brown.

“There is something special about a veteran coach questioning the toughness of a 20-year-old or expressing his dislike of the color purple, like he did in 2011 when we beat Amherst and Williams in a weekend to win the Nescac Championship,” Brown said. 

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Mostly, though, the men’s basketball program and athletic community will remember Coach Russ for his penchant for fostering close, caring relationships with those who played the game he loved. Coach Russ was fond of inviting players to his home for dinner — he hosted an annual “bigs’ dinner” each February, an occasion where freshmen big men are first given their “good, better, best” shirts. 

Some of my best college memories were made on Thanksgiving with Coach Reilly’s family. As one of the few players on our team not from New England, I’m not able to make it home for Thanksgiving and be back in time for post-Thanksgiving practices. In November of 2017, when I was a freshman on the team, Coach Reilly realized this before I did, and invited me to his family’s Thanksgiving dinner after the very first practice of our season. 

Last Thanksgiving I was invited back to the Reillys’ home where I was joined by Will Ingram ’21, from Dallas, and Matt Folger. We played Monopoly with Coach Russ’ grandkids, Russell and William, and ate some of the best Thanksgiving food imaginable in front of a window that looked out on the Adirondack mountains. 

Coach Reilly and his wife, Jane, welcomed us like family. The kindness they showed me those two Thanksgivings turned what easily could have been dark holidays away from home into some of my fondest college memories. 

My teammates and I were recipients of Coach Reilly’s kindness every day, and got to see it more up-close and personal than most. But the impression he made on the broader Middlebury community was still personal and profound for all he interacted with. 

“Russ’ impact cannot be defined by any particular role or job he held over his long tenure at Middlebury,” Quinn said. “It is defined more by his sense of humor, sense of service, and his integrity, regardless of his role.”

A celebration of life for Russ Reilly will be held on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 at 3 p.m. at Mead Chapel, followed by a reception in Pepin Gymnasium. 

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