A Basketball Coach For The Ages: Coach Robert Stretch Gillam

Long-Time Vermont Coach Gets 600th Win

CHESTER, VERMONT - This article originally appeared in The Message For The Week, November, 2007

There is a coach at Green Mountain Union High School in Chester, by the name of Robert "Stretch" Gillam, who has been a positive influence on young athlete's lives for nearly 50 years. Yes, he is truly a coach for the ages. Currently in his 48th season as a high school basketball head coach, and his fourth with the Chieftains of the Marble Valley League, Gillam recently notched his 600th career win with a thrilling, 2-point road victory over Leland & Gray High School in Townshend, Vermont.

Article and photos by Joe Milliken

To put this achievement in proper perspective, 600 wins enters Gillam into a very elite club. In fact, a club so exclusive that it has only one other member. Gillam joins Essex High School girls' coach and Windsor native, Jean Robinson, who recorded an incredible 628 wins, as the only other Vermont high school coach to reach this remarkable plateau.

A native of Rutland, Gillam was a Mount St. Joseph graduate in 1954, took his first coaching position at Meriden, New Hampshire's Kimball Union Academy (KUA) in 1959, and has been coaching boys' basketball ever since. That's right, 48 consecutive seasons of coaching and teaching young high school athletes.

After 17 successful seasons at KUA, and with the need to devote more time to his restaurant business, Gillam would take over the coaching duties at Hartford High School in White River Jct. for 18 more years, before spending another eight at Oxbow. Which leads us to his current coaching position at Green Mountain, which presented a different kind of challenge for Gillam, when he took over the Chieftain-hoop reins three seasons ago.

Where as Gillam's previous coaching experiences were with high schools more noted for their basketball programs, Green Mountain is more recognized for it's baseball and softball programs. After a 10-win season in his first campaign with the Chiefs, the last two seasons have been a little more difficult, after having to deal with having a very small varsity roster and an assortment of student ineligibility issues.

However, after covering many Chieftain games over the last two seasons, while also witnessing several team practices from the Nason Gym weight room high above court side, it is easy to see why Gillam has coached for so long, and is so well liked by his players, and respected by his peers.

"I can't imagine coaching high school basketball for that long," Black River High School (Ludlow) coach Don Phelps said before a recent match up against the rival Chieftains. "It's an amazing achievement just to coach that long, never mind being consistent enough to get 600 wins in the process."

Gillam's love of coaching and enthusiasm for the game remain clearly evident after all these years, as he barks at his players during a ball-handling drill at practice. However upon even closer examination, you also notice something unique in the way Gillam teaches his players, seemingly walking that very fine line between stern mentor and the coach who cares. He may yell at his players and make them run a particular drill until they get it right, but then cap it off with a one-liner that gets the troops chuckling.

So how does Gillam manage to coach hoops for so long and still maintain the enthusiasm required to teach high school basketball for so long? "You got me on that one," Burr & Burton Academy (Manchester, VT) coach Seth Rice recently stated. "To be coaching for that many years, it shows just how much he loves it. It also shows that he not only loves the game, but he loves the kids as well."

Coach Gillam's 600 wins not only represents his dedication to high school sports, but also consistency and a winning tradition that is very nearly unmatched. "I've coached a lot of good young men and players over the years," Coach Gillam said after practice. "You can't win 600 games withought coaching a lot of good kids along the way. I've been very lucky."