Ray Shovlain has won his share of basketball games in 30 seasons as the coach at St. Ambrose University.
Working with championship teams and all-American players, he has won 567 games, to be exact, but many of Shovlain’s biggest victories have taken place away from the confines of a basketball court.
It’s the life lessons he teaches that separate Shovlain from many of his peers, lessons that prepare his students on the court and in the classroom to compete in the game of life.
“That’s what we’re here for," Shovlain said. “Basketball is a great game, and it’s been very good to me, but my main job is to prepare young people to be good citizens who care about those around them and are prepared to be productive members of society. That’s what my job really is."
Those objectives remained unchanged since the day Shovlain was hired in 1983 as the basketball coach at his alma mater, and they guide him in the role of athletic director he has filled since 1994.
“That’s who Coach Ray is," said Jim Hornacek, a third-team all-American for the Fighting Bees in 1991. “He has a passion for the game of basketball and a passion for the game of life. The intensity he approaches both with is unmatched. It’s a part of the fabric of his being."
That passion, be it in the heat of a close game or in an 8 a.m. business class he teaches, are among the reasons Shovlain will be inducted into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame on May 8, along with volleyball standout Cathy Noth and Augustana College track coach Paul Olsen.
“Any success I’ve had has been the result of being around good people,'' Shovlain said. "I’ve been fortunate to have good assistants, good players and good support from my family and St. Ambrose over the years. I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to be part of this community for a long time."
There was a time when Shovlain flirted with the notion of coaching at a higher level, but something always brought him back to St. Ambrose.
“This is where I’m meant to be," he said.
All six children of Jim and Marcella Shovlain graduated from St. Ambrose, a place where Ray Shovlain set school career, season and single-game assist records that have stood since he established them in the late 1970s.
“When you think of Ambrose, you think of Coach Ray," said Duffy Conroy, an honorable mention all-American for the Fighting Bees in 2000 and an assistant basketball coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “He’s an icon on that campus because of the way he goes about things, the difference he has made in the lives of people he has worked with in the classroom and on the court."
His main game
Shovlain grew up around the game he now coaches.
His father, Jim, played basketball for a team in the tiny Monroe County town of Melrose, which reached the Iowa state high school tournament in 1950, and it was no surprise his children developed a passion for the game.
“We grew up playing basketball, and my two sisters, Mary Ann and Kathleen, were good players as were my brothers Mike, Joe and David. It was something we all did," Shovlain said. “My dad worked two jobs and along with my mother, they provided strong examples of a work ethic and a faith in God which if applied to everyday life will eventually lead to things working out."
The family moved from Ottumwa to Clinton before Shovlain’s junior year of high school, and he played football and baseball in addition to basketball at Clinton St. Mary’s High School. He earned all-state honors as part of a team that won the Iowa Class A state title in his senior season, 1975.
“For a small school, we had a large number of exceptional athletes at that time and a coach in John Lingle who put all the pieces together," Shovlain said.
At St. Ambrose, Shovlain recorded 712 assists over four seasons, including 276 as a senior in 1978-79. He owns the top five single-game assist performances in school history and his younger brother, Dave, shares the sixth spot.
“I wanted to be a counselor and coach when I came here to school, but everybody was majoring in accounting, and eventually I figured that would be a good way to make a living," Shovlain said.
The desk job
Following graduation, Shovlain accepted a job as a general accountant at Bandag in Muscatine.
It didn’t take him long to return to the game.
“It was a good job, a great company to work for, and the people were good, but 9-to-5 behind a desk, that wasn’t me," Shovlain said.
Soon after, basketball came calling again. His former coach, Leo Kilfoy, offered Shovlain $500 a year to work as an assistant at St. Ambrose.
The money was enough to cover the cost of graduate courses, and it provided him an opportunity to return to the gym.
He worked as part of a staff headed by Kilfoy and later Dean Brunson before being named the head coach at St. Ambrose in 1983 at age 26.
“Once I started to coach, there was no turning back. It was what I wanted to do," Shovlain said.
Success was not immediate. It was not until his fifth season that the Fighting Bees were able to enjoy a winning record, a modest 17-12 mark in 1987-88. That was followed by a 26-8 record and the program’s first appearance in the NAIA national tournament in 35 years. It also was the first of 17 20-win seasons under Shovlain.
“To get to nationals, that was a big deal. It was real step forward and a sign that the program had arrived," said Bobby Sturms, who arrived at St. Ambrose in 1987.
Just a beginning
Sturms, an elementary school instructor and freshman basketball coach in Bettendorf, believes the Bees were successful because of the way Shovlain’s teams played.
“He coaches the type of game that players want to play," Sturms said. “Ray let us play. We pressed a lot, we ran up and down the court and we scored in the 80s and 90s a lot. It was fun, and the more we wanted it, the more he wanted it."
Beginning in the 1993-94 season, St. Ambrose reached the 20-win plateau in seven consecutive years.
Shovlain credits the success with the work of his players and assistant coaches and a recruiting effort that started close to home.
“We built our program then the same way we build it now," Shovlain said. “We’ve had great Quad-Cities talent over the years and we’ve been able to go into Chicago and Peoria and find players who complement what we are able to recruit from the local area. We’ve been fortunate to have them select St. Ambrose for an education and an opportunity to continue their basketball careers."
Always a competitor
Shovlain has never shied away from competition.
He has taken St. Ambrose teams on the road to face a number of NCAA Division-I programs, competing against Creighton, Loyola Marymount, St. Louis, DePaul, Notre Dame, Bradley and Western Illinois in either regular season or exhibition games.
“They are part of the experience we try to provide for our guys," he said. "We’ll compete against anybody, always have. We’ve been fortunate to take teams into some great venues and great environments over the years, and that is something those guys will remember forever."
That passion for competition carries over to the intensity with which he coaches, intensity that occasionally spills over from the court to the locker room.
Hornacek and Sturms recall a game against in-town rival Marycrest when Shovlain was unhappy with the way his team was pursuing loose balls. Hoping to provide an example at halftime, Shovlain grabbed a ball and tossed it across the locker room floor, diving after it at full speed.
It was minutes into the second half when the players noticed blood stains on both elbows of a new white dress shirt that had been sacrificed to make a point.
“That kind of passion, that kind of intensity, it motivated us all to play as hard as we could," said Hornacek, who works as a branch manager for an international logistics firm. "He was willing to get a little bloody for us, so how could we respond with anything less?"
Conroy recalls a similar scenario in which the coach took out his halftime frustrations on a chalkboard.
“We were down 10 at the time, won by 15, and when we got back in the locker room after the game, coach noticed a hole in the chalkboard and said, ‘How’d that happen?’ That’s coach Ray and why players love playing for him," Conroy said.
Conroy, who arrived at St. Ambrose from Assumption High School in 1996, said that before the start of practice each year, Shovlain had his players pen a letter to someone who had been influential in their lives.
“It helped us all keep that bigger picture in perspective," Conroy said.
That always has been important to Shovlain, who still teaches business classes at St. Ambrose. He regularly has one at 8 a.m. and even after a long trip home over icy highways following a tough loss or a big win, Shovlain is there.
“I never miss. If I expect my student-athletes to be there at 8 o’clock, I should expect the same of myself," he said.
Hornacek is among the players who benefited from the academic courses taught by Shovlain.
“He related business to life and two decades later, I still find myself using things that I learned in his classroom in my work," Hornacek said.
Former St. Ambrose administrators and his predecessor as director of athletics, Jim Fox, helped Shovlain develop an effective managerial style and he continues to enjoy the coaching he does in the classroom as much as the work he does on the court.
“I’m thankful for that opportunity to teach," Shovlain said. "I enjoy the interaction with the students and like coaching, it’s something I want to continue as long as I can."
For many years, Shovlain also oversaw the National Youth Sports Program that provided summer camp opportunities at St. Ambrose for economically disadvantaged youths ages 10-16.
He still has people come up to him and tell him how they benefited from being part of the program.
“Those types of the things, things like having former players stop by after they’ve gone to enjoy success in life, those are the things that make this all worthwhile," he said. "They are the reason I still look forward to coming into work every morning at St. Ambrose. It’s always been a special place for me and it always will be."