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Tinker coach teaches character, points come second

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla., -- In a way it's not the points on the board that matter at all. It's not the wins or losses or even the championship ring at the end of the season that represents the final goal for the Tinker men's basketball team.

In the end, it's about something more difficult to master than all these outward measures of success combined.

But this challenge doesn't stop the coaching staff from making the pursuit of character their end goal. Now, as the Tinker hoopsters are taking to the court at the start of their season, they're being taught more than just basketball.

"Because I have a number of years on every player out here, I'm the person who's not the father, but the person who's there to lead them down the right path," said head basketball coach Clarence Griffin. "For me my coaching goes beyond basketball ... You're trying to help them grow."

And for the last 15 years, Griffin has been helping Tinker hoopsters down that road of development, molding them into more than just basketball players.

The retired Air Force master sergeant got his coaching start in 1983 where he helped lead a team at the RAF Greenham Common base near Berkshire, England, where he was stationed.

Griffin then spent nine years devoted to the Tinker women's team where he first appeared as an assistant before becoming the team's head coach.

But for the last six years, Griffin (or just "Griff" to everyone at the Gerrity Fitness and Sports Center) has been molding players on the men's team. It's a coaching job he holds with utmost dedication, and thankfully, he doesn't pursue his vision alone.

"You love to help people grow, become more than just basketball players," said assistant coach Gabe Scott. "It affects what they do at work, what they do at home. They have the discipline to see that things get done and they enjoy success. And when they have losses they learn from that, too. That's why we do it. I love watching people grow."

Scott signed on to help Griffin this season, as did assistant coach Frederick Tillman. Together the group represents a battery of basketball wisdom and they're all shooting for the same goal.

"I don't like to set goals, but what I like to see is for the guys to come together as a team and, win or lose, how they execute, how they perform, that's the bread and butter," Griffin said. "If they go out there and we see that they're doing what they're supposed to be doing and they're accountable to each other then you know you've reached that plateau.

"Whether that results in a win or not that's secondary. How they perform and walk off that court, if they've done everything they're supposed to do, to me the winning or losing is a side note." But while Griffin's responsibility is to the basketball team's success, he recognizes there are things that outweigh the players' obligation to the squad and supports his men whole-heartedly.

"I tell these guys there's four things that are far and above more important than this game," Griffin said. "How you perform your job determines whether or not you're going to be out here. Obviously the church is important and it should be. Family is important and you shouldn't be out here if you have problems with family. And the last one is school. Education is the most important, education is very important. (Basketball) is not as important as that."

And the players know that with Coach Griff there's nothing personal: business is business. If you're getting playing time, you earned your right to be in the game. Even Griffin's wife knows that.

"I was coaching women's softball and my wife was my third baseman," Griffin began a story to illustrate his point. "A girl came in who had a little bit better arm than she did, so I took my wife from the starting position and made her a backup. And I tell people, 'here's the person I lay down next to at night and close my eyes and go to sleep with. If I put her on the bench, you're not going to stand a chance.'"

Despite Tinker's season opening loss to the McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., team last weekend, Griffin expects exceptional things from his 12-man squad this season. Four new members made the cut this year, staking their claim among the 35 guys who tried out to bolster the returning eight players.

With the boost of Scott and Tillman on the sidelines, Griffin said the program has all the tools in place to make this season one to remember.

"We strengthened the coaching side, and the team we have this year is stronger than the team we had last year," Griffin said. "Our hiccup this weekend against McConnell is that we had some pieces missing. Once we get them back in the mix I think we'll be one of the teams to beat."

But season projections aside, Griffin won't stray from his ethos. He's going to do everything in his power to keep his players not only shooting straight, but also living their lives off the court in the same way.

"There are some people you can touch, but there are some people you can't, some people you can't reach," Griffin said. "But if you can sit there and see the fruits of your labor in one out of 12 or one out of 15 guys, that pays the bills."