Adam Frederick “Fred” Pohlman Jr., born in Natoma, Kansas on October 4, 1928, the son of Adam Frederick Sr. and Irene Pohlman. He graduated from Fort Hays State College in 1950 and from there he moved on to the University of Missouri, where he received his masters degree in 1956, interrupted by four years in the United States Navy during the Korean War. Fred was later a member of both American Legion Post 21 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1000. He was a member of the Raytown Optimist and the Greater Kansas City Basketball Coaches Association, a charter member of the Family Life Center of Ascension Lutheran Church.
Pohlman’s coaching career began in Vandalia, Missouri in September of 1956, where he coached high school baseball, basketball and track. From Vandalia, in 1959 he taught and coached basketball and cross country at Westport and Northeast high schools in Kansas City Missouri, until 1967 when he was hired to start the Penn Valley Community College men’s basketball program.
Fred remained the Penn Valley head coach for the next 32 years. After two personal wins over cancer, a 67-year-old Pohlman took his underdog team to the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II tournament in 1996 and won the national title. In other years his teams also placed 2nd, 3rd, and 5th in the national tournament. Coach Pohlman’s teams won six Regional titles out of the last seven years he coached.
Fred passed away on December 8, 1999 at the Research Medical Center in Kansas City after a long battle with cancer. He was laid to rest in the Floral Hills Cemetery in Kansas City.
* * * * *
Coach Fred Pohlman
© .Copyright Steve Ray January 21, 2000
(Penn Valley Community College player 1996-1997)
The music blared Queen’s “We are the Champions,” jovial players embraced and rejoiced as excited fans and family members spilled on to the floor, and Penn Valley Community College’s basketball coach Fred Pohlman stood in the middle of it all, a heavy dose of joy, relief, and exhaustion running through his veins after his team had captured the 1996 Junior College Division II National Championship. The following minutes were filled with congratulatory handshakes and pats on the back for the man who had dedicated so much of his life to meet this ultimate goal. In the midst of the euphoria, he triumphantly pointed to his wife Carol; after 34 years of close calls and near misses, on and off the floor, they tearfully realized that they had finally reached the summit. This was what they had been tirelessly working for since he started the program from scratch in metropolitan Kansas City in 1961. If it had simply been about winning a basketball game, it would have been a moment to celebrate, but the path that the 66 year-old Pohlman and his family had traveled to get here made the night something to cherish.
“It was such an emotional point for all of us. I was excited for him, but I was worried that it was all too much,” said his wife of 40 years, Carol. “I knew that this experience had been a long time in the making. It was his moment.”
“It is only when you have been through the valley that you can appreciate the top of the mountain.”
It was Carol’s nature to worry about her husband. He was too high-strung, too stubborn, and too competitive for his own good. But with all her loving concern all she could manage was an exasperated sigh of relief and amazement over what fate had offered her and her family. It had been almost seven months since Fred had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For her, the cold clinical term of cancer equated to a death sentence for the father of her children and her life partner. While those thoughts filled her mind, she suddenly realized that the job he loved so much at PennValley might have come to an end in this doctor’s office. Carol had known Fred for well over 50 years, and throughout that time she came to discover that she may be his wife, but his passion was truly satisfied between 1 and 4 PM when the Scouts took the practice floor. Fred admits when he heard the news he was scared too, but leaving PennValley was never an option in his mind. So as he prepared himself for the battle of his lifetime not knowing what to expect, but he did make sure that the battleground didn’t interfere with the Scouts’ 1995-96 basketball campaign. Coach Pohlman scheduled chemotherapy treatments around practice times. He lost weight, couldn’t sleep, felt fatigued, and physically ached after the long, late night bus trips, but he refused to surrender to those who told him to take some time off.
In his younger days he would have been more maverick about the whole experience, refusing to admit that he hurt or was nervous. A younger Fred Pohlman would have simply and quietly endured and hoped that he could outwork the whole ordeal. But something had changed in him since his early days in coaching. He had mellowed, knew he wasn’t invincible and didn’t want to battle this disease alone. So coach Pohlman made sure he always had his friends and family close at hand, allowing them to travel with the team. He even made sure to appreciate his team more. He had coached over a thousand kids in his career, but none were more important to him than these 14. He stood before them as a coach and example of what fighting real adversity was all about. Carol stood by him the whole time and prayed that the team that was so special to him would keep him young forever. Now, in the afterglow of a championship, one fact is crystal clear. Fred and Carol Pohlman are proud parents of three children–a son Chuck, a daughter Diane, and a way of life called PennValley basketball.
“I think everyone who has ever been associated with PennValley could not have been happier for their achievement. There is a real stigma to junior colleges that the students here are somehow inferior. Fred never bought into that belief. He always taught his players to make the most of the opportunities in front of you. Coach has given so many opportunities to kids who may never get another chance. It was so nice to see that come full circle with the championship,” said former player and current Penn Valley Athletic Director Marcus Harvey.
“The only good excuse is the one not used.” The message is embroidered on a wooden paperweight that sits on the corner of his desk. He has built the PennValley program on these quotes and proverbs of morals and hard work. Everyday before practice, for over twenty-five years, his teams have heard these same stories and phrases, their coach determined to teach that the same skills that carry them on the basketball court can be translated to their everyday lives. This is coach Pohlman’s gift; he is a storyteller at heart, and he weaves these stories and sayings together into a cohesive lesson. His players muse that he is a walking, talking folktale.
“In 1974 we were on our way back from getting drubbed by 20 points down at Moberly Junior College. I was mad and frustrated, but on the way home I came upon a Reader’s Digest story about a boy’s determination after he lost a leg in a sledding accident. It put a lot of what I was feeling in perspective. The next day I read the story to the team,” said Pohlman. “The point I was trying to make is, no matter how bad we believe we have it, there are always those who have had to persevere through more.”
“Today’s preparations determine tomorrow’s achievements.”
“Coach Pohlman would never say a bad word about a player that he wouldn’t say to his face. Players really appreciate that about him. He demands a lot of respect just by walking in a room, but he is also willing to give that respect back. I just found that he was the type of person you wanted to work hard for,” said former player Brett Howell. “The whole time I played for him I never thought of him as some sort of legend or coaching genius, but I knew nobody wanted to win more than he did. I want to coach some day and I only hope that I can earn that kind of respect from my players.”
“Success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”
The enrollment at PennValley in those early days of the program was just over 800 students, a far cry from the 7,000 students of today. Along the way he has convinced kids from all over the Kansas City area and beyond to join his quest for a title. It has never been an easy sell, to convince players that their best choice for higher education is a practically anonymous small community college they have never heard of on the west side of Kansas City. When he was offered the job, he had just been fired as head high school coach of WestportHigh school. PennValley’s Gabe Brown convinced him to take the job. When he arrived, the college didn’t have a gym, and the team practiced at a local high school. He would state that, in those early days, “I was coach, manager, and team trainer. It was a real struggle early on. We had to have car washes just to afford uniforms. But it was worth the effort. We just kept working; eventually, it just became a part of my life.”
In the winter, he stalked the sidelines of cold, half-empty gyms in Missouri and Kansas, imploring his team to keep their hands up on defense. But in the spring, that intensity turned into a quieter but still determined tone, looking to secure his sophomores a spot in a four-year university.
“I tell these kids, when they come to play for me, that if they take care of business on and off the court, I will make sure they have a chance to continue their playing career,” said Pohlman. “I take that promise seriously; my kids sacrifice a lot. Whenever you have been around as long as I have, you get to know about every basketball coach in the country, and I will call them all if that is what it takes to make sure my guys get an opportunity.”
“Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the conquest of it.”
In the fall of 1999, the Penn Valley Scouts are again tracking up and down the court in the newly renamed Fred Pohlman auditorium in pre-season conditioning drills. The players desperately reach for the final line as the scoreboard clock races toward zero. In the background, seven crimson National Championship tournament banners hang from the rafters. There is little that has changed from previous years; players are hard at work and hopes are high to add a new banner to the collection. But for the first time in the 37-year life span of this program, Fred Pohlman is not on the sidelines imploring his players to push harder. In the early summer, weeks after he was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, doctors found that he had a cancerous growth on his brain. He has lost weight and his hair has fallen out from the chemotherapy. The outlook is not optimistic, but he again puts his faith in God and readies himself for another round with the imposing foe of disease. This time though, he knew it was finally time to pass the program on to someone else, so he put it in the only hands he could probably ever truly feel comfortable with, his assistant coach and son Chuck. He always thought of PennValley as a family business; now it has been passed down a generation.
“PennValley has been a part of our family. It is one reason why I never wanted another job, because I knew I could incorporate my family in the program. Chuck played for me, my daughter has helped out with stats for 15 years, and Carol has been there through it all,” said Pohlman.
“Even if you are on the right track, if you don’t keep moving you are bound to get run over.”
Pohlman has been credited for over 700 wins in his 37-year career, but that doesn’t begin to account for the influence he has had on a multitude of young men. He has coached for nearly four decades, and he has seen a number of changes in the game of basketball and the players he coached. But he still stands for the same ideals as the first day he took the job as a young coach. His coaching style has a lot less to do with strategy and much more to do with work ethic. It is a message that has translated to generations of players. Pohlman cringes at the popular notion that players today don’t want discipline; he sees them as craving it. He has continually preached that his athletes must believe in the principle that success is a fragile thing. In 1997, after his team had secured a return trip to the National Championship tournament with a victory in the State Regional, they loaded back on the bus to head home back to Kansas City. Upset by some disruptive behavior by his players in the back of the bus, he demanded the bus driver pull over on the side of the road. It was nearly midnight and they were still an hour from home. But there was a lesson to be taught; so, in the late night, the 14 members of Region 16 and defending National Championship team quietly began to run around an Amoco gas station. Nearly an hour later, the same group collapsed back into their seats. Sweaty and exhausted, they started back on the highway home with coach’s lesson securely understood; success is a process and not a destination.
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Junior college basketball is a transitional brand of basketball. For many it is simply a collection of rejected kids who are not good enough or smart enough to make it in a four-year university. But it is in this bus-stop existence that coach Pohlman has built a livelihood. The impact he has had on the lives of so many young men in the span of two years they spend with him is in no small way remarkable. His joy is not in watching them go on to great basketball careers, but to see them become successful graduates and parents.
Followup notes: Fred Pohlman died of complications in response to the chemotherapy used to treat his brain cancer. One of coach Pohlman’s final coaching requests was to bring back the members of the 1996 National Championship team for a benefit game to honor the renaming of Penn Valley Auditorium to A. Fred Pohlman Fieldhouse . . . the game was a sell-out.
In 2005 Fred Pohlman was inducted posthumously into the National Junior Collegiate Athletic Association Hall of Fame. Fred’s coaching record at Penn Valley Community College over 32 years was 614-400. A member of the Kansas City Coaches Association Hall of Fame and the Missouri State Sports Hall of Fame, Pohlman was the National Coach of the Year in 1995-1996 and the Region XVI Coach of the Year six times. The A. Fred Pohlman Sportsmanship Award is presented at the NJCAA Men’s Division II National Championship to the individual demonstrating the best sportsmanship. A. Fred Pohlman will be remembered for his passion for the game and his contribution to Penn Valley.
“Fred had a passion for the game of Junior College basketball. He helped so many youngsters succeed on the court at Penn Valley and in life in general,” said former coaching opponent Francis Flax. “His ability to relate to the players that he coached helped so many of them become successful in life.”