FARMINGTON — After battling cancer for more than a year, longtime basketball coach Kevin Holman died Wednesday at the age of 49.
Holman coached the Farmington High School girls' basketball team to a state championship in 2002 and the Kirtland Central girls' basketball team to the title in 2012.
Friends on Wednesday remembered Holman as both a fierce competitor on the basketball court and a great friend.
"On the court, he was always passionate about what he did," said one of Holman's closest friends, Rick Hoerner. "He was super competitive, but he left it on the floor. Whether you were the official he yelled at or the opposing coach he was mad at, you could always have dinner and a beer afterward."
Hoerner said his friend stayed optimistic he would beat the thyroid cancer that returned to his body four times.
"It was the same way he looked at the game," Hoerner said. "He didn't care how bad it ever looked, he knew he could do it. I loved that optimism. You would be hard pressed to meet a guy who had met Kevin Holman who didn't like Kevin Holman."
Holman waged his fight against cancer for nearly 12 years, having multiple tumor removed from his neck. He passed away at San Juan Regional Medical Center after months of declining health once the cancer reached his lungs and eventually his back.
Holman coached the Lady Broncos through the 2012-13 campaign after his cancer returned in December 2012. He coached just one game this season before turning over responsibilities to assistant coach Rochelle Curry.
Surgeries removed tumors in his neck, but Holman tried to fight his lung cancer via chemotherapy.
"He knew he didn't have many good options," said Mike Christie, another close friend. "It really choked everyone up to see him in that much constant pain. He was doing chemo and taking radiation pills that would both just zap him. Sometimes, he felt good and went right back to work, but the chemo hit him really hard and eventually made it so he couldn't coach."
Holman began his career at Wingate High School, coaching its boys basketball game. That is where he met Christie, who became both a coaching rival and lifelong friend.
"We were in the same district coaching Wingate and Thoreau. We were both 28- and 29-year-old guys getting our first head coaching jobs in New Mexico," Christie said. "We ended up being rivals for 20 years. ... When he first got cancer, I knew there was no way it was going to beat him. Nobody could beat him. He was a strong dude. The second time it hit him, there is just so much a body can take."
Holman coached at Shiprock High School for several seasons before joining Farmington High to lead the girls basketball team.
In 2002, he pulled off his greatest victory, coaching the Lady Scorpions past the Lady Broncos 71-63 in the state championship game. He lost several matchups earlier in the season to KCHS, and nobody gave his Lady Scorps a chance at beating coach Dan Scoggins' Lady Broncos at The Pit in Albuquerque in front of a crowd loaded with KCHS fans.
"It was amazing to watch a man as a coach who knew he had the ace up his sleeve," said Steve Bortstein, a local journalist who covered the 2002 state title game for The Daily Times. "He knew it all along. He waited and waited and waited like the best poker play you could imagine and, when he unloaded the hand, he did it on the grandest stage in front of a crowd that never saw it coming."
The Pit was Holman's cathedral. The stage fit his eccentric personality, which was better suited for the college level. Coaches in New Mexico strive for their basketball teams to reach the arena at the University of New Mexico, and Holman made sure all of his players knew the significance of walking down the long, steep ramp from the locker room to the court.
"It was something he always preached as a coach. The end goal was to walk down that ramp at The Pit, to sit in a college locker room and get ready for a big game and to walk onto that court. He belonged there," said Danny Hogue, an assistant to Holman on his Farmington High teams from 2001-2010.
Holman took over the Farmington boys team shortly after his success with the girls. He led the Scorpions to four district championships before leaving to coach the Kirtland Central girls in 2010.
"We always had a love-hate relationship as coaches because he is very intense in what he did. He drove me nuts sometimes, but we had some great experiences," said Phil Brummell, who was an assistant on Holman's staff when he coached the FHS boys. "What impressed me the most was his passion. Some kids responded to it and some kids didn't, but there wasn't a single player who didn't have the utmost admiration for him. We all admired him."
Holman reached the state championship game in his first season coaching the Lady Broncos to a 28-2 record. But Kirtland Central lost in the title game 60-46 to the Gallup Lady Bengals. He led his team back to the title game the next season when the Lady Broncos went 28-4 and beat the 20-8 Roswell Coyotes 42-41 to win Holman's second ring, 10 years after his first.
"He taught me a lot about passion and coaching with my whole heart. He was all about giving back to the girls," said Shiprock head coach Larenson Henderson, who was an assistant to Holman during his first two years at KCHS. "He loved coaching, and it showed. I am glad my two daughters got to play for him. He was like a brother to me and a great coach to my girls."
Holman was a prominent figure in Farmington and a familiar face at San Juan County sports events. He loved to golf and spent time coaching high school golf and softball and youth baseball.
"It is a big loss to the coaching fraternity in the community and the state," said Bloomfield Athletic Director Steve Scott, who met Holman coaching in Arizona against his Wingate teams. "There are a lot of people that would like to be part of that, but not everybody gets into that circle. Life isn't always wine and roses. Your true friends are the ones that take time to stop and do what it takes to help when others need it, or even when they don't. Kevin was one of those kind of guys."
Holman is survived by his daughter, Quinn, and son, Griff. Quinn is in eighth grade and Griff is in sixth grade at Hermosa Middle School.
In light of Holman's passing, Kirtland Central has canceled all athletic activities scheduled for today. People are asked to wear purple today to honor Holman's life.John Livingston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4648. Follow him on Twitter @jlivi2.