By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star
Larry Holley removes his glasses and runs his hands through his salt-and-pepper hair. He’s in thinking mode, looking for the right set of words, an analogy, an example, anything to help you understand.
Holley is trying to explain the two elephant-size holes in his life, the ones created on March 24 and Sept. 11 when he lost his wife and then his best friend.
"The thing I miss about both of them, they were so good at making decisions," says Holley, the men’s head basketball coach at William Jewell. "I still struggle at times making decisions. If a decision is close between one thing or the other, I could call Lee and he’d know the right thing. I could call my wife and she would know. Those are the two people I’d go to. I miss that. I miss a lot of things."
Ann Holley and Lee Kariker were a team. They made Larry look good -- literally. Before every home game, Ann would lay out Larry’s suit and tie. On the road, when she couldn’t be there, Lee filled in admirably, doing the same. Ann and Lee made little decisions for Larry so that he could concentrate on the big ones.
Now, they are gone. Ann, Larry’s wife of 31 years, went first, at the hands of acute respiratory distress syndrome. She was 53. Kariker, Larry’s top assistant for 19 years, soon followed, losing a courageous two-year battle with brain cancer.
Now, every decision is Larry’s: whether to order grapefruit or tomato juice at Waffle House, whether to have his team practice today on New Year’s Eve, whether to move out of the home Ann hand-picked in 1984. Every morning, Holley is met with an important decision.
"Every day you wake up," Holley says, "you can control your attitude. You might be sad, but you can wake up and decide you want to have a good attitude or a bad attitude. I choose the former."
He has chosen the latter only a few times, even with a black cloud seemingly following him around. Last month, Holley went to watch a recruit, Liberty senior Barrett Wepler. Two days later, Wepler collapsed at practice. He died Nov. 29.
Just last week, Holley discovered that his son-in-law, Michael Brett, has had a reoccurrence of testicular cancer. Brett is the father of Holley’s only grandchild, 1-year-old Reagan, and will start chemotherapy Jan. 2.
Ann always had called Larry a pessimist, and compared with her, he probably was. But nobody could make that claim now. The calendar is about to turn, leaving the toughest year of his life behind, and Holley describes himself as lucky. He means it.
If there’s been a constant in Larry Holley’s life, it’s the love and support of a strong woman. An only child, Holley’s mom guided him while he grew up in Jameson, Mo.
And for the last 31 years, Ann Holley made sure that when Larry came home from work, he didn’t have to think. She paid the bills, she did the laundry, she cooked the meals. When their three girls were living at home, all Ann asked of Larry was that each night, the TV would go off and they would have family time.
Larry never really got to see all the behind-the-scenes things Ann did. But after she went into the hospital on Jan. 29 for pneumonia and never came out, that changed.
Suddenly, the girls needed their dad in a totally different way from before. All of those phone calls that Ann used to take -- all three girls called her at least once a day -- were buzzing Larry’s cell phone.
And this time, Larry’s conversations with the girls weren’t about how the Cardinals were doing or how Larry’s basketball camps were going.
"I check in every day," says Lindsay Holley, the oldest daughter, "and he listens to me talk about the most boring things that a man would want to hear.
"We were close before, but not as close as I would have liked. I just know him better as a person. It’s almost like we’re just able to have more of an unguarded talk."
Before Ann died, Holley defaulted to her with the girls. He called them about once a week.
"I’m probably closer to my three daughters now than I would have been if my wife was still alive," Holley says. "That sounds awful for me to say that. I feel like I was close to them, but now all their contact is with me. We’re holding each other pretty close."
Lacey Holley, being the youngest daughter, had the most freedom to help her dad. She moved back home for three months after Ann died with the goal of helping Holley learn how to run a household. Lacey ate dinner with Larry every night and set up automatic pay for all of his bills.
"We were all very concerned for him," Lacey says. "I didn’t want him to depend on me. I wanted to slowly ease into what it was going to be like. I was worried when I moved out."
Lacey’s worries were well-placed. To this day, the hardest thing for Holley is coming home at night to an empty house. Ann would always have music or the TV playing, and she’d bombard him with questions about the day. Now, he arrives to quiet and darkness.
"My wife was full of life," Holley says. "I choose not to be at home by myself, ever, if there’s a place I can go and see a game."
The games don’t even matter as much as they used to. Ann’s death has made Larry reassess his life.
"I preach priorities to our players," Holley says. "God and family number one, education number two, basketball number three. I preached it to myself, but I’m not sure I always lived it the way I should have lived it. Sometimes, basketball got ahead of God and family for me."
Lee Kariker was the players’ coach. Larry preferred it that way. He grew up watching his father coach basketball, and in those days, there was supposed to be a divide between player and coach.
Larry carried on that tradition with his teams. He loved his players, of course, but they’d have to figure that out for themselves. Holley was pure old-school. No facial hair. Arrive to practice early. Tuck in those jerseys.
His way worked. Heading into this season, Holley had wracked up 715 career victories, 26th on the all-time list at all collegiate levels. It may not have worked so well without Kariker there the last 19 years to lighten the mood. When the Cardinals were losing, Kariker was quick with a joke.
"Well that was a creative turnover," he’d say sarcastically.
Kariker’s death was not a surprise. By the time the school year began, it was only a matter of when. Still, the news crushed Holley. He’d called Kariker the brother he’d never had. The Karikers asked Larry to speak at the funeral. He didn’t know if he could do it. Larry worried that if he started crying, he wouldn’t be able to stop, his stored-up tears spilling out all at once.
But Holley got through it. Beautifully. He looked up once to see his three girls bawling in their seats, but kept right on reading his speech. He stayed strong. He may be the mom, but he’s still the dad, too.
After the funeral, though, he had a rare emotional moment with his girls. He did what he would have done with Ann, showing a chink in the armor. He recalled a conversation with Ann about how he would be if she died before him. "You’d be just fine," she had told him.
"Well," he told the girls, "I’m not just fine."
But basketball season was on the way. What would it be like without Lee? Similar to his home, it would be much quieter. But there have been other changes, too, ones that Holley’s players have noticed more than he has. Their coach is just plain nicer. He laughs at jokes he wouldn’t have laughed at last year. His door, whether it’s true or not, seems to be cracked just a little bit more open.
"He’s like a person," says senior guard John Davenport. "He’s easier to talk to, easier to consider a friend. We get along a lot better."
The players know what he’s been through this year. They’ve reached out to Holley. Davenport now feels comfortable calling Holley on his cell phone, and he did so on Thanksgiving, just to see how Holley was doing. Davenport’s first stop after returning to campus on Tuesday was to stop by Holley’s office.
"I was just reluctant, nervous to come to him," Davenport says, "but now I don’t hesitate."
Holley has used recruiting to make his home life easier. He’s already made three trips to Springfield and two to St. Louis. Every night there’s a game locally, he’s there.
"Send me wherever," Holley instructed assistant coach Sean Dooley, who’s in charge of recruiting. "I just don’t want to be home alone in that empty house."
Says Dooley, "he never should have said that to me."
When he’s not on the road, someone from the program is asking him to dinner or trying to keep him company. First-year assistant coach Kyle Lower, who played the last four years for Holley, stayed after and talked with Holley for half an hour recently.
"That was probably my best moment with him," Lower says. "He’s been a completely different guy the last two years."
A few days ago, Holley gave Lower a hug and said, "I love you, man." Holley has been spreading the love everywhere these days.
"He tells my husband he loves him," daughter Lindsay says. "That wasn’t who he was before."
Larry Holley’s priorities may have changed, but the losses still hurt. The Cardinals are off to a 9-6 start, which is slow for Holley’s program. Larry could use a Lee Kariker one-liner right about now.
Ann didn’t know it, but she was the best at saying the right thing after a tough loss. Now, Larry counts on his three girls. Like their mom, they aren’t so sure they’re helping. But at least one of them is in the stands at every game, and if they aren’t there, they get the coach’s phone call.
"There’s not really much you can say to him," Lacey says. "I’ve come to know, if they lost the game, I need to get off the phone real fast. It’s not going to be a good conversation if I let him go on about it."
This year has been a constant give-and-take, each member of the Holley family taking on a role that Ann used to play. Nobody really knew what Christmas would be like without her. She had been the one to put up all the decorations, buy all the presents and spread all the cheer.
But this year, Lacey helped Larry decorate the house and put up a tree. And Larry, for the first time in his adult life, went Christmas shopping.
"I wanted to do something that Ann would have done for them," Larry says.
On Christmas Eve, Holley gave each of his daughters a present to open early. They each found a new pair of pajamas, continuing a tradition Ann started when they were kids. The girls were blown away.
"I done good," Larry thought to himself.
"He bought sweaters for me!" Lindsay says. "It’s bizarre. He’s never bought anything in his whole life. It’s just a neat deal to watch him after seeing him in one routine for 31 years. He just thinks outside of himself."
The holiday joy could have disappeared the moment Lindsay told Larry the news about Michael’s cancer. But Larry wouldn’t let that happen. He fielded the call Ann would have gotten, and he nailed it.
"My dad’s a champ," Lindsay says. "He said: ‘Hey, we’re going to get through this. Do you hear me? Your husband is not going anywhere. He’s healthy as a horse.’
"The thing about us, we have to stay strong for each other. If he was falling apart, I don’t know what I would do."
But Holley doesn’t fall apart. That was never an option when his world came crashing down around him this year. There were simply two big holes that he had to plug, like spots in a starting lineup, and when Larry Holley went recruiting, a funny thing happened. He found himself.