This a story of which America is made.
Two years ago Joe McKinstry was out of coaching and out of a job. Today, he's the NJCAA Division II women's basketball Coach of the Year after leading Kansas City Kansas Community College to its first national basketball championship.
"I'm still pretty numb," says McKinstry. "It's been 3½ weeks (since winning national championship) now and it all still seems so surreal. It was the long culmination of what you hope will be but to see it work out and then grasp the situation, it's so surreal."
Since the championship, the Lady Blue Devils have been introduced on both floors of the Kansas Legislature, attended a student rally in their honor, shot a commercial for the College, been recognized at a Rotary Club breakfast and next Monday, the national championship trophy will be on display at the annual Kansas City Sports Commission recognition banquet.
"It's nice to be recognized and I told the girls we're going to ride the waves as long as we can. But what this award (Coach of the Year) really is, is a team award," says McKinstry. "Those kids put in the hard work and did what they needed. That's what I'm most proud. From an X and O or game planning standpoint, I'm no better than anyone else but to have this team believe in themselves and as a group that they could be better is what I get out of it."
But back to being out of a job. A 1999 graduate of Oak Park High School, McKinstry played four years of basketball at William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa, and then stayed on as assistant coach for eight years. But with daughters Addalyn, 9, and Macey, 8, in the Kansas City area starting to grow up, he didn't want to miss out on their lives and decided to return to the area and leave coaching.
"I loved every moment of my time at William Penn but it was hard not to be around my daughters," he said. "I was going to get out of coaching to be closer to family. My intention in coming to Kansas City was to use my education (Masters) to get a foot in the door. I felt my coaching experience had provided me experience in such areas as management, leadership and recruitment but it seemed like all people think a coach does is walk around with a whistle around his neck. There were just no opportunities."
After a few frustrating months of job searching, he came across an ad for an assistant men's coaching job at KCKCC, applied, was hired and helped head coach Kelley Newton and the Blue Devils go 23-9. "I was lucky to be Kelley's assistant and extremely grateful for the opportunity he and (Athletic Director) Tony Tompkins gave me." When 16-year women's coach Valerie Stambersky resigned last July to move to Warrensburg, Mo., where her husband is an assistant baseball coach, McKinstry was hired as women's head coach. With it came a 33-3 record and the national championship.
"From the first day he took over the position, he set a standard of expectations for our players and never wavered," says Tompkins. "He also grew as a coach in terms of building relationships with his players and how he prepared his team for the post-season and peaking at the right time. Without a doubt, Joe is one of the best coaches in the nation and I'm excited about the future of KCKCC women's basketball."
Assistant coach Chamissa Anderson said working with McKinstry was a great learning experience. "I love his passion for the game and expecting the best from the girls," said Anderson. "His willingness to be open and honest about what he expected from the girls is an inspiration for me and all others to hear his story to never give up on yourself on the court or in the classroom. His 'hard work' mentality always kept me on my toes to be the best assistant coach I could possibly be."
All-American sophomore Cheyenne North said it best about McKinstry's impact on the Blue Devils. "Us winning the national tournament had nothing to do with talent. It was everything with how hard he pushed us and made us tougher," said North, whose admitted love-hate relationship with McKinstry almost cost her a place on the team before a late season visit. "We talked and things got better. It was the turning point in our relationship. He made me into the player I thought I was and I thought I could be. He was harder on me than any other coach. He asked me every night to be the best player on the court. Coach Mac is going to grow into a great, great coach."
McKinstry's biggest adjustment in switching from men's basketball to the women's game was not gender but age. "For me personally coming from coaching at a four-year university was adjusting to dealing with 18 and 19-year-olds instead of 21 and 22-year-olds. You need more patience, repeat yourself more, explain more because they are so young. There's no upperclassmen to help and many of the players are out on their own for the first time."
To get to the national tournament, KCKCC use spectacular finishes to beat No. 4 Highland 54-50 and then unbeaten and No. 1 ranked Johnson County 63-56. Highland managed only one field goal in the final quarter after leading by 11 points; JCCC scored just one free throw in the final five minutes.
However, that didn't see to impress many people. "I felt people treated us like we were a .500 team, that we were lucky to be there, some kind of Cinderella story or we had got caught up in March Madness," said McKinstry. "I just felt teams kind of discredited what we had done over the course of the season."
It was a motivational tool too good to pass up. "I may have embellished it a little bit this team needed to be motivated," said McKinstry. "We were not a team that could get away with not playing hard."
By tournament's end, the Blue Devils had won four games in four days by an average of 19 points including 22-point wins over No. 1 ranked Monroe in the semifinals and No. 2 Illinois Central in the finals. "Over the course of the season, we defeated two teams ranked No. 1 and the No. 2, No. 4 and No. 6 teams in the county," said KCKCC's first ever NJCAA Coach of the Year.
Head Coach Joe McKinstry celebrated KCKCC's first women's national basketball championship by cutting down the net following back-to-back 22-point Blue Devil wins over the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the national tournament.