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SHERIDAN — It’s the late 1940s. The war is over.
The University of Wyoming men’s basketball team is amid what would become the Cowboys’ most successful era. The UW men, guided by head coach Everett Shelton, had claimed the NCAA Championship in 1943 and continued to compete with the nation’s powerhouses.
Bruce Hoffman was 10, maybe 11, when he and his neighborhood buddies in Laramie paraded around the UW campus. They snuck into the locker room before home games, befriending John Pilch, an All-American forward and future NBA player. When the team broke for the court, Pilch was last in line. Hoffman and his cronies followed closely behind.
They entered into Half-Acre Gym and Pilch turned to the ticket-takers. “These are my friends,” he said. “Let ’em in.”
Hoffman sat in the stands, in awe of coach Shelton and his disciplined Cowboys.
“I knew following Ev Shelton around that I wanted to be a basketball coach,” said Hoffman, now 77. He smiles, sharing his childhood memory.
Hoffman, indeed, became a college coach. He capped an illustrious career at Sheridan College in 1999 and was elected as a trustee soon after. Hoffman is entering his 50th year with the college.
To celebrate, Sheridan College will host “Hoffman Days” this Aug. 1-2. Former players, coaches, assistants, colleagues, friends and fans are encouraged to attend.
Getting the gig
Hoffman sat in front of the Sheridan College Board of Trustees in 1965, interviewing for the basketball coaching vacancy.
“Bruce, what kind of car do you have?” one trustee asked.
“I just bought a Thunderbird, two-seater,” he replied.
“Bruce, if we give you this job would you be willing to sell your car and buy a big car to take on basketball trips since we have no motor pool? You have to provide a car and two players have to provide cars to go on trips,” Hoffman remembers one trustee saying.
He obliged. He wanted to be a college coach.
Hoffman had spent the previous four years coaching at Evanston High School, following one year as a graduate assistant with the UW men’s team.
Hoffman graduated from Laramie High and played college basketball at Valparaiso in Indiana. After one season, he transferred to Clark Community College near Portland, Oregon. One year there and Hoffman was off again. He finished his final two years at Wayne State in Nebraska, before assisting the Cowboys in 1960.
Former Wyoming coaches Moe Radovich and Bill Strannigan, both in the UW Athletics Hall of Fame, helped Hoffman land in Evanston and ultimately Sheridan.
“I owe a lot of my career to Moe Radovich and Bill Strannigan,” Hoffman said.
Building a team
Recruiting was an uphill battle, Hoffman realized early in his career at Sheridan College. He had 10 tuition waivers and $100 to give each student-athlete for room and board. The rivals, coach Swede Erickson and Casper College, offered full-rides. But Hoffman knew how to make it work. Win.
Hoffman’s Generals won 11 games and lost 14 in his inaugural season in 1965. They won 14, lost 11, the year after, and went 18-8 in his third year.
Of the nearly 50 total years Hoffman coached, 1968 remains one of the most vivid.
“That was probably the greatest year in junior college basketball in our region,” Hoffman said.
Five players in the Region IX conference went on to play professionally. Casper’s Ed Kemp, Northeastern’s (Colo.) Cliff Meely, Northwestern’s John Johnson, Trinidad’s (Colo.) Spencer Hayward and Sheridan College’s Joe Lewis all took the court in either the National Basketball Association or the American Basketball Association. The NBA and ABA merged in 1976.
“Basketball turned around right then,” Hoffman said.
Hayward, Hoffman said, was the first junior college basketball player to ever play in the Olympics, leading the U.S. to gold in the 1968 Games in Mexico City.
“They have him listed here at 6-8; he was more like 6-9,” Hoffman recalls, scanning a 1968 roster with uncanny memory.
Johnson won a title with the Seattle SuperSonics in 1979. Lewis was the first Sheridan College player drafted and remains part of the SC Hall of Fame.
“Nowadays, we couldn’t get these kids,” Hoffman said. “All of the big schools would have recruited them.”
Record of success
Hoffman always had a prowess when it came to recruiting. In the mid-1980s, an elite 6-foot-7 forward from Los Angeles named Victor Malbrough joined Hoffman’s Generals. This caught the eye of the L.A. Times. A reporter called Hoffman and wrote a story in July 1986, titled: “Tiny Sheridan College Is a Big Hit With College Cage Recruits.”
“They were just dumbfounded that a kid would leave L.A. to come to Wyoming,” Hoffman said. “So they called and interviewed me.”
Hoffman’s track record of producing Division I-bound athletes, not to mention his multiple trips to the NJCAA national tournament in Hutchison, Kan., spoke for itself. Athletes from across the country flocked to Sheridan to play for Hoffman.
Of the many highlights in his career, Hoffman cherishes the memories of getting to know each player. And, of course, his trips to the NJCAAs, in 1975 and 1977, after claiming the Region IX championship.
“One of the biggest things that I really learned to appreciate is anyone that wins a championship — I don’t care what level it is — it is really hard to do,” Hoffman said. “The bounce of the ball will kill you.”
Hoffman’s 651 wins at Sheridan College still rank in the top 30 in NJCAA coaching history.
He received coaching offers from other colleges, yet Sheridan was home. The NJCAA inducted him into the Hall of Fame in 1995. He retired in 1999, before being asked to assist the Sheridan High School boys’ team and coach the freshmen.
“I enjoyed that,” he said. “I was retired. It was something to do.”
Hoffman is a warm, inviting man, full of stories and life. Like his icon Ev Shelton, Hoffman built Sheridan College into a powerhouse in the NJCAA lore. His legacy abounds at Sheridan College, with his name adorned across the Bruce Hoffman Golden Dome, home of Generals’ athletics.
Hoffman has embraced the transition from coach to trustee. He had been retired for one year before being asked to run for a seat on the Sheridan College board. He’s been often reelected and is currently in his 14th year as a trustee.
“I just missed the college,” Hoffman said. “It’s a good way to still be connected.”
Hoffman coached All-Americans and shaped the lives of countless young men. He hopes to see many of them — and supporters — at “Hoffman Days” this August.
“We had big-time athletics, with no pressure,” he said. “It is a part of me, the college, next to my family.”
This article is from Sheridan College Reports.