Houston Fancher gets it.
He knows what he’s up against as the Charlotte 49ers’ interim men’s basketball coach: attempting a quick fix of an under-performing team that took a seismic hit in December when former coach Mark Price was – seemingly out of nowhere – fired.
But it’s a task Fancher might be as well suited for as anybody. A 30-year coaching veteran who has deep roots throughout the Carolinas, Fancher, 51, has plenty of Division I head-coaching experience and actually done the “interim” thing before.
The season continues Thursday for Fancher and the 49ers (5-9, 1-2 Conference USA) when they face Marshall (11-5, 2-1) at 7 p.m. in Halton Arena.
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“Look, ultimately I know what I’ll be judged for,” Fancher said. “We want to win basketball games. That’s how we keep our jobs.”
But coaching goes beyond on-court results for Fancher. Growing up the youngest of four sons in a service-oriented family in east Tennessee, he’s come to value even more his relationships with former and current players, some through tragedy, some through triumph.
“I don’t see why he shouldn’t keep this job,” 49ers junior point guard Jon Davis said. “Because he’s shown in his career that he’s a coach that any player would love to play for.”
Sacrifices by parents
Fancher didn’t become a coach because he was a great basketball player, but rather almost in spite of it.
He was far the youngest of Eugene and Edna Fancher’s four sons. Oldest-brother Ray is 17 years older; middle-brother Terry is 12 years older; and third-brother Jeff eight years older. Growing up in Newport, Tenn., the Fancher boys and their father were all athletic. Houston Fancher, however, was an average – and short – high school basketball player.
“He had the mentality of a rattlesnake, though,” said Jeff. “But he was undersized. When they took him for his driver’s license test, they had to use two stadium-seat cushions so he could see over the dashboard.”
By that time, Houston – who would top out at 5-foot-11 - knew his best shot at staying involved in basketball would be as a coach. That was also one way he could have a positive impact on people’s lives, a lesson ingrained from his parents.
“Our family had always seen people and tried to help as best we could,” said Ray Fancher. “Our mother would help people in need, seeing their good traits, not the negative. She would make lunch every day and anything left over she took around the neighborhood to feed people who were in need of a good meal. We kind of semi-adopted three kids over the years and took care of them. Nobody knew about that, but our parents did what they could.”
Houston was also influenced by another kind of sacrifice made by his father.
In 1944, Eugene Fancher was captured by the Germans in World War II after the Battle of the Bulge. Eugene, who played football at Lees-McRae in Banner Elk and Tusculum (Tenn.) before he was drafted, spent six months in captivity, subsisting for long stretches only on melted snow. His job while imprisoned was to carry dead soldiers off to be buried.
“Every time somebody died, it would be ‘Fancher! Take care of him,’ “ Houston said. “So he’d carry them off on his back. He was a shorter guy and had back issues for the rest of life because of that.”
With Buzz to Boone
Houston Fancher went on to Middle Tennessee, where he was the basketball team’s student manager. By then, he realized he wanted to coach.
Fancher started in 1988 as an assistant at Division III Maryville (Tenn.), before going to North Greenville (S.C.), then a junior college, as head coach in 1993.
It was there that Fancher caught the eye of Buzz Peterson, then an assistant at N.C. State, who was scouting a North Greenville game. Peterson liked Fancher’s coaching style and the way he commanded a timeout huddle. When Peterson left to become an assistant at Vanderbilt, he recommended Fancher to Commodores coach Jan Van Breda Kolff to be the team’s director of basketball operations.
After one season at Vanderbilt, Peterson was named head coach at Appalachian State. He took Fancher with him.
Fancher was at Peterson’s side as associate head coach when the Mountaineers won the 2000 Southern Conference tournament and played in the NCAA tournament for the second time in school history. After Peterson left for Tulsa in 2000, Fancher was promoted to head coach.
Fancher had a nine-year record of 137-136. That included a school-record 25 victories and a National Invitation Tournament berth in 2007. But he was fired in two seasons later after the Mountaineers went 13-18.
Fancher then went to Tennessee, where he was the Volunteers’ director of basketball operations under Bruce Pearl and Cuonzo Martin. He briefly served as the team’s interim head coach – without coaching a game – after Pearl was fired.
Fancher rejoined Peterson at UNC Wilmington for the 2013-14 season. After Peterson was fired by the Seahawks, Fancher joined Price in Charlotte.
Attention on the players
Fancher’s latest career turn came in December when Price was unexpectedly fired after the 49ers began the season 3-6. In explaining her decision, athletics director Judy Rose said Price had “lost the team.”
Rose’s appraisal came as a surprise to some players.
“I didn’t quite agree with her,” said junior guard Andrien White, the 49ers’ leading scorer. “But she’s our leader and we go with what she says. We respected her decision. There’s no hard feelings. It’s a business and that’s how it goes.”
Davis, a preseason All-Conference USA selection who has struggled for much of the season, was also caught by surprise.
“I wouldn’t say (Price) lost the team,” Davis said. “We were losing games to teams we shouldn’t lose to. It wasn’t anything that he did. It was the whole team’s psyche. If anything, I’d take a lot of the blame, where I didn’t do a better job of being a leader.”
That might seem a harsh self-assessment, but having a player like Davis feel that way is why Fancher set aside his loyalty to Price to stay and see the 49ers through this season.
“I hope everybody understands that somebody needed to be here for the team, for these kids,” Fancher said at the time. “I decided to do it for the players. The attention needs to be turned toward them, not me getting a job.”
Fancher speaks unabashedly about how much he cares for his players. He carries the memories of two who died – Maryville’s Kenyon Lacy and Appalachian’s Rufus Leach. Lacy, the first player Fancher recruited, died of a heart ailment playing pickup basketball in 1992. Leach, a dynamic guard, drowned after the 2000 season.
“When Kenyon died, I started learning about the reality of relationships with kids,” Fancher said. “Then it happened again with Rufus. We get caught up so much with winning and losing ball games. It taught me that I will never want to be judged by that. It’s not what matters.
“These kids have been put in my life, for whatever reason. They’ve changed my life.”
A confidence boost
Rose said in December there was time for Fancher to turn the season around. That’s happening slowly, if at all. The 49ers are 2-3 under Fancher, all five games coming on the road. But the players have noticed a change.
“I think we needed a little bit of confidence,” said White. “He’s made some changes in areas we needed. He’s trying to find five guys who are out there with confidence.”
The 49ers have also taken to Fancher’s coaching style, which is more aggressive than how the mild-mannered Price dealt with players.
“Coach Fancher will dig into people,” Davis said. “He knows how to get the best out of players. I’m not saying coach Price didn’t, but they have different ways. Coach Price would talk to you individually to build you up. Coach Fancher doesn’t mind calling you out in front of the entire team. Not to degrade you in any way, but to motivate you.”
Fancher isn’t afraid to show that enthusiasm. After both of Charlotte’s two victories since he’s taken over (against East Carolina and North Texas), he led raucous locker-room celebrations.
“It felt like we’d won a championship both times,” Davis said. “He was right in the middle of it.”
Fancher said he’d like to keep the 49ers’ job permanently. But that whole issue became more complicated when Rose announced last week that she will retire June 30. Who will make the decision – and when it will be made -- on whether the 49ers retain Fancher or find someone else is uncertain.
“That doesn’t change anything for us,” Fancher said. “I have no idea about that. What we’ve decided is to coach every day like it’s our job now, which it is. Let’s not talk about Marshall (two days) before we play them. Let’s talk about our team today; not tomorrow, but today. Let’s stay in that moment. Because once you raise your heads and look at the future, you lose focus on today.”
David Scott: @davidscott14