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Creating 'Helpers' is in Coach Ray's DNA

November 2012 | by Craig DeVrieze


Back when sports pages were animated and language was lively, old-time scribes called them "helpers."

Today, the basketball statistic credited to the player who makes a pass that leads to a basket is better known as an assist.

By any name, Ray Shovlain '79, '82 MBA dished a still-school-record 968 of them as a gritty St. Ambrose point guard from 1975 through 1979.

"I couldn't shoot very well," Shovlain said of his propensity for putting the ball in the hands of more capable scorers. "I just kind of dribbled around and passed guys the ball when they were open. It worked out well that way."

The old point guard wasn't finished assisting St. Ambrose when he hung up his No. 14 jersey. And the number of Fighting Bees "helpers" he has created in the ensuing three decades cannot be contained by a record book.

Shovlain has been an instructor in the College of Business since 1982 and head basketball coach since 1983. After he was named athletic director in the spring of 1993, he and his coaching staffs began requiring Bees athletes to participate in four service projects each year while also attending a pair of personal growth seminars.

Athletes contributed 7,850 hours to a record total of 61,425 service hours amassed by SAU students, faculty, staff and administrators in 2011-12. By the most conservative of estimates, SAU sports teams have put in more than 75,000 hours of service since 1993.

The athletes' service reflects not just the core of the St. Ambrose University mission, but also the heart of Ray Shovlain.

"It all starts at the top, and the example we are given by our athletic director is one of service," said Dan Tomlin '05, '10 MBA, a former St. Ambrose athlete who now leads the track and field teams. "I mean, I can't tell you the number of times he has shoveled someone's sidewalk or helped them move.

"It's always ‘yes' with Ray. That really sets the stage for the expectations of us as coaches, as Ambrosians, and then what we expect of our student athletes as well."

When he joined the SAU basketball team in 2009, Justin Tiner certainly never expected to put up Christmas lights at a senior center, swing a hammer for Habitat for Humanity or distribute meals to the hungry at Thanksgiving.

"It's good," Tiner said of the expectation to serve. "It makes you grow as a person. That's one thing Coach Ray taught me. It's a great gift to play ball and all, but the gift of giving back is even more special."

Teaching is what Shovlain dreamed of doing as a boy, but instead he majored in accounting. After a year of crunching numbers for a Muscatine business, he hurried "home" to St. Ambrose for a $500 per year job as an assistant basketball coach in 1980.

Once he found his way to the front of a classroom, Shovlain never looked back.

Voted Faculty Member of the Year by students in 1989 and 1993, Shovlain has made a choice to continue teaching one to two classes per semester, even while amassing 557 wins over his first 28 seasons as basketball coach and while supervising the university's expanding athletic program.

The combination works. Shovlain coaches his students and teaches his athletes.

"We have to develop people at their highest level,'' he said. "Challenging athletes outside of the gym is really what I think the focus of college athletics should be."

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