Humble Beginnings: The story of Carey Leech and the beginnings of the UMHB men’s basketball program

Editor’s Note: Above image of Leech from the Belton Journal, Oct. 25, 1979 edition.

BELTON, Texas- There always has to be a first.

Someone willing to undertake a challenge that looks insurmountable to most. Someone willing to sacrifice for the good of a goal that may span past his tenure. Someone willing to lay it all on the line because of passion and pride. Carey Leech was that “someone” for the UMHB men’s basketball program 42 years ago in 1979.

His connection to UMHB runs deep. When he and his wife Ronda moved to Belton in 1974, they lived within walking distance of the school. While he did not attend the university, his wife graduated from UMHB, as did two of his two children later on. And of course, his name became pretty familiar on the Belton campus as he took on the role of being the men’s basketball program’s first ever head coach. 

When he took the job at UMHB, he might as well have been walking onto another campus. The school looked nothing like it does today, especially when it comes to athletics. Crusader Stadium was over four decades from construction. In fact, current head football coach Pete Fredenburg, who started the program in 1999, had just graduated from Texas State University.

It would be an understatement to say that the odds were stacked against Leech in those early years. An officer in the Army, Leech had coached the basketball team at Fort Hood for two seasons, leading the soldiers to a record of somewhere around 40 or 50 wins and a mere two or three losses. Though his coaching may have been frowned upon by some, considering he was an officer, it set Leech up for his career path several years down the road. After taking a job at a sporting goods store in Killeen, he heard one day that UMHB was seeking out a basketball coach, as the small Baptist university had the goal of starting a men’s basketball program. Sensing a big opportunity, the young man quickly reached out, but was turned away. He was told he needed a master’s degree, as he would be teaching physical education classes in addition to his role as a coach. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and Leech earned a master’s degree in just one year from Baylor, getting hired before he even graduated.

“I heard about Mary Hardin-Baylor, and that they were wanting to start a men’s basketball program,” recalls Leech. “I figured I was qualified for that. I was living in Belton. So in 1977, I put my application in. But they said, ‘Uh, you don’t have a master’s. You need to get a master’s because you have to teach also.’ So I got the grad assistant job at Baylor, and got into the physical education program. It took me a year to get the master’s and while I was getting the master’s, they went ahead and hired me.”

Article from Belton Journal (Oct. 25, 1979), Leech pictured on left

But getting back to the early challenges that faced Leech. Where to start? A school already struggling financially, with a large focus on academics, had little room in the budget for sports. His starting salary was a mere 14,500 dollars. And as mentioned above, that was not just to coach men’s hoops. It was to serve as the Sports Information Director, trainer, bus driver for the team, take care of the gym and work as a professor in the Physical Education department. For all his expenses, 3,000 dollars was all he’d get. 3,000 was also given to cover the cost of all the equipment. And as he notes, he stretched every bit of it, as he attempted to get the program up and running. There were also the things that made life just a little bit harder. For instance, the gym the Cru played in (Leech refers to it as “the old gym”)had both water and termite damage and no locker room, two things that were eventually corrected after the first season. They had just two backboards for the first year or so. At games, the max seating capacity was likely around 50; the only bleachers were on the side of the gym. Fans then had to either stand or bring folding chairs. In fact, Leech remembers many of his players remarking, “My high school gym was bigger than this one”.

It is not hard to make the comparison of Leech to famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. Back in the late 1940s, Wooden took on a very similar situation. A fledgling basketball program at an academic-minded institution, little pay, a small gym that was shared between the men’s and women’s basketball teams, the volleyball team, and PE classes. Then comes the big similarity. Despite all of this, both turned the programs towards success.

“Basically, it was started on a shoestring,” said Leech of the basketball program’s beginning. “I don’t blame them at all. They started that way and did their best.”

They certainly did. As mentioned above, UMHB was then a world of difference in comparison to today. With a population of just over 1,000 students, the school struggled to stay afloat. In those days, Dr. Bobby Parker served as UMHB’s president, and is often credited with keeping the university running despite several challenges. In fact, it was his vision for UMHB to field successful athletic programs, especially a football team. 

In an NAIA schedule that included contests against current ASC teams such as East Texas Baptist, Hardin-Simmons who was a D1 program at the time, as well as in-state rivals like St. Edwards, Texas Lutheran, St. Mary’s, Southwestern, Howard Payne, McMurry and Dallas Baptist, the Cru quickly began to compete.

Leech, as pictured in the Belton Journal (Dec. 3, 1981)

Once they got to the games, the team looked smooth. Of course, the ride to and from the games was another story. Leech and his squad would often set out for distant Texas cities like Marshall, Abilene, and Brownwood early in the day and not return until early the next morning. The pregame meal, typically eaten on the bus, were sandwiches. And the bus? It was an old, retired school bus.

“It ran on gasoline, not diesel, ” remembers Leech, who has more than one story about breaking down coming home from a game. “It had a 20 gallon tank and got five miles to the gallon.”

In going about assembling his first team, Leech was without the modern day luxuries of recruiting websites and high school games broadcast on the internet, adding to the challenge of putting together a competitive roster. He did have six athletic scholarships to offer, which helped out greatly. Those scholarships were often spread pretty thin amongst the team, which often featured a roster between 12 and 15 players. 

“I had to do a lot of calls on telephones, sent out a lot of letters,” says Leech when asked what recruiting looked like for him. “I got some recruiting books that basically told about the different players. Back then, with NAIA, you could have tryouts. I had some tryouts, a bunch of kids came down and I talked with them, and tried to get them to come on half a scholarship, even sometimes on a quarter of a scholarship, or as a walk-on .”

In 1990, UMHB men’s basketball saw the end of an era, with Leech taking a job in the business world. He loved the job, but with his wife staying at home with their kids and him still making very little money, Leech decided to work for a guy he knew at McLane Foodserve. Sure, the work paid much more, but he never had the same kind of passion for the industry that he had for coaching. So just three years later, he got on with Moody high school, head coaching volleyball, boys basketball and boys and girls golf, while assistant coaching football for one season. He would go onto take jobs with Belton High and Harker Heights High before retiring in 2014.

He has not stayed away from the game since his retirement, taking on a new role back in 2014 as UMHB men’s and women’s basketball’s color commentator, for broadcasts on cruathletics.com. Working alongside play-by-play man Jordan Cox, you’ll often hear Leech offering his insight, or talking about things in the world of basketball. But don’t be mistaken, he is not a Bill Walton, someone who talks nonsense for 40 minutes. He truly understands not just the game of basketball, but UMHB basketball, though times have certainly changed since he ran the program.

“They said, ‘hey, we need somebody to come in and do the color,'” said Leech. “I thought, ‘This is sweet’. We went to all the out-of-town conference games back then. That’s how I got into color. I need to go back to some streaming and listen to myself, but I’m afraid to”.

That’s not all the former coach does in his free time. In fact, he runs a successful business, selling his “Grumpy’s Jams and Peppered Jellies”, which he started back in 2010. He had gone on a mission trip with the high school kids from First Baptist Belton, and came across some peppered jelly that he took a liking to. He had made salsa in the past, but never peppered jelly.

“I started playing around with the recipes and my wife signed me up for a farmer’s market,” recalls Leech. “I went from two kinds to 25 kinds of peppered jelly, 25 kinds of jam, honey, and salsa.”

Head over to a local farmer’s market, and there’s a good chance you’ll find Leech there, selling his 24 kinds of jellies and jams, often a crowd of people around. There is one misconception about the name “Grumpy’s”. It is not because Leech is grumpy. In fact, he is much the opposite. It actually started when his grandkids started calling him “Grumpy”. When he started his new business, his grandson said, “It’s Grumpy’s peppered jelly”. Needless to say, the name stuck. And it drives business.

“The name actually sells me five or six jars,” says Leech with a chuckle.

What drives Leech, what has always driven Leech, the son of a preacher, is his strong faith in Christ. When he and his wife first moved to Belton in ‘74, they soon found First Baptist Church Belton, and it became their “home away from home”, as Leech puts it. They have both served the church in a variety of roles over the years. 

Leech and his wife Ronda (Image provided by Leech)

Carey Leech’s impact on the UMHB men’s basketball program will forever be remembered. No official records from that time are still on file, so it is hard to know Leech’s record as a coach at UMHB. That does not mean there is a question as to whether he achieved success or not. Heading up a collegiate athletics program is harder than most think, whether you look at it from recruiting, fan base, or facilities. Add in the fact that he had such a limited budget, worked for a minimal salary, and still got the program off the ground. That takes a special person.

2 comments

  1. Fantastic story RIley. Coach Leech is a wonderful Christian man with a grand heart. You captured and shared his journey well! Thanks for letting even more people know him.

    -Jordan Cox

    1. Thanks Coach Cox! Yes, he certainly is. I’m glad I was able to highlight that part of UMHB history and shine some light on the work Coach Leech did to get the program off the ground. He is a great guy.

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