CINCINNATI -- Mary Jo Huismann routinely downplays any mention of her numerous coaching accomplishments.
Those close to her understand that. In fact, they've come to expect it.
But this winter is different. It is a celebration of not only Huismann’s success in athletics, but also the impact she’s made on countless young lives in four-plus decades in positions that have included a coach, athletic director and teacher at Mother of Mercy High School.
“I think it seems pretty clear,” former Mercy volleyball coach Rose Koch said. “Her drive was always to establish something for the athlete. It wasn’t about her. It was what could be established for young women to be successful.”
Huismann can’t help but be reflective in this final school year of the storied Catholic all-girls high school in Westwood. In fact, she has a little extra pep in her step in what could be her final season coaching high school basketball.
Huismann is also five wins (695-336 career record) from becoming the third Ohio high school girls’ basketball coach to win 700 career games.
“She is what we refer to as the guru of basketball here in Cincinnati,” said former Wyoming coach Deb Gentile, who played for Huismann at the University of Cincinnati in the 1970s.
With the final Mercy home basketball game Feb. 5, sentimentality is palpable. Mercy will host a special recognition ceremony for past players, coaches and Huismann in a final toast in the gymnasium in the game versus Lakota East.
Huismann, a 1965 Mercy graduate, is grateful about a basketball program, athletics department and a school that has been interwoven into her life as an educator and coach.
“She is coaching with a greater sense of what it all means,” Mercy Athletic Director and volleyball coach Denise Harvey said.
Mercy and McAuley high schools will close their doors at the end of the school year and merge to form a new school this fall. It will become Mercy McAuley High School, located on the current McAuley campus on Oakwood Avenue in College Hill.
Huismann, 70, has coached the Mercy basketball program since the 1972-73 season. She was also the track and volleyball coach for six years starting in 1972. Huismann was the school’s athletic director for 39 years before she stepped down from that position in 2011.
“Mercy was a splendid place,” Huismann said. “It’s always been a place that grew with the world.”
She doesn’t know if this is her final season coaching high school basketball.
Mercy McAuley won’t announce any new coaches until later this year.
“This is probably my last year,” Huismann said in January. “The love is still there. Whether or not I have the energy or will is another thing.”
The love of competition still resonates this winter. Whether that’s arguing a call with the referee or urging her players to give extra effort, this has been an enjoyable final season at Mercy.
It's only fitting this year’s team chemistry coincides with Huismann’s enthusiasm on the sideline. The players understand the significance of these final games and what it means for a coach who has meant so much to the Greater Cincinnati high school sports community.
Mercy coach Mary Jo Huismann has coached over 1,000 basketball games in her career. (Tony Tribble/WCPO Contributor)
“It is our last chance to prove what Mercy basketball is and I think we are doing our best to leave it out on the court one last time,” senior forward Olivia Bouchard said.
A true pioneer
Those who know the West Harrison, Indiana resident say Huismann always has the bigger picture in mind.
She has conducted her own basketball camps for 40-plus years for grade-school girls. She organized and directed the first girls summer leagues in the city in the 1980s. She has always been a strong proponent for female athletics.
“She never made it about herself,” former standout Mercy center/forward Jackie Kemper said. “I feel like she is such a humble person. It was always about the team.”
Huismann has coached over 1,000 games in her high school coaching career. She was selected to coach in the second annual McDonald’s All American Girls’ Game in 2003 in Cleveland.
She helped establish the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) girls’ basketball program in Cincinnati with Gentile in the 1980s and 1990s.
She has been named a national and state coach of the year along with several league and city honors.
Huismann will be inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in May.
“The reality of her impact is being realized and celebrated,” Harvey said. “It’s a reminder of what she has built.”
In 1996, Huismann was in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” to commemorate her 400th win. Mercy was state runner-up three times (1980, 1989 and 1990).
“Mary Jo is the girls basketball pioneer for Greater Cincinnati,” said Andy Fishman, who has coached Lakota West since 1997. “As a young coach moving here, her program was the model. Her teams played with fundamentals, togetherness and discipline.”
Circumstances weren’t always convenient for Huismann’s efforts to coach or participate in athletics.
There were limited opportunities to play sports when she was in high school and college. Mercy had some basketball and volleyball teams in the 1950s and again starting in 1969, but not when Huismann was there as a student.
In high school, she coached a grade-school softball team to a national title. She also played third base in recreational leagues as a 14-year-old high school freshman.
"There were no girls teams in Harrison before that time," Huismann said.
She learned basketball through pickup games as a freshman and sophomore at Briar Cliff College (now university) in Sioux City, Iowa in the 1960s.
Her best sport may have been badminton. She took third-place honors in a state competition in Iowa during college.
The love of competition was evident. Huismann's path was athletics.
'What can we do better?'
As a high school basketball coach, Huismann argued for the best referees, the ability to host state tournaments and receiving the same representation for girls’ basketball on state committees.
“That’s what is so impressive about Mary Jo,” Harvey said. “She doesn’t take no for an answer.”
When Huismann took over the University of Cincinnati women’s basketball program in 1969, the regulations had just changed from six players to five on a team on the court.
Three years before Title IX required that women and men be provided equal opportunities to participate in sports, the UC women's players had to sell jars of candy in order to buy uniforms.
Huismann said it was a different world.
She coached the University of Cincinnati for two seasons before she became the Capital University head coach in 1971-72. She returned to UC for two additional seasons through 1974.
During her second stint at UC, she was also the Mercy basketball coach. UC scheduled its 12 games around Mercy’s nine games and UC players often helped with the high school team.
“She was a good coach,” said Gentile, who played guard at UC. “She is a disciplinarian. She is a fundamentalist. She teaches tons and tons of fundamentals.”
By 1976, Huismann was coaching varsity basketball, volleyball and track while being the athletic director along with teaching duties.
“Mary Jo always looked forward to what our athletes would benefit with next,” Koch said. “As an AD she would say, ‘what can we do better?’”
Huismann fulfilled her own mantra. She eagerly attended coaching clinics. She read books. She followed what the likes of John Wooden and Bob Knight had to say about the game. She used Dick Bennett’s defensive principles.
When Huismann attended one of Knight's coaching clinics in the 1970s, she and a few other female coaches hid from view on the side of the gym. Huismann said she was afraid Knight would be upset if he knew female coaches were in attendance.
But it didn't deter her efforts.
A passion for shaping lives
Dick Bley was an assistant coach on Huismann’s staff for 34 years. The two were good friends away from basketball. Bley always emphasized fundamentals, just like Huismann.
They enjoyed attending coaching seminars. Huismann’s intensity on the sidelines was evident but she could also offer a does of levity.
“Mary Jo had an ability to bring things together,” Bley said. “The kids were always willing to play better.”
Not every player has liked Huismann’s style or decisions over the years. She understands that. But at the end of the day, Huismann was motivated to impact the lives of young women.
Sometimes the thank you notes from the players arrive five years later with a different perspective.
“Last season, I was scouting and saw a player from the 1980 team,” Huismann said. “She made room for me in the seats. She told her daughter, ‘this lady saved me’ (from trouble). That was kind of nice. I think deep down players appreciate the experience.”
Huismann’s leadership within the high school basketball experience has produced several hundred wins, but also significant respect from her peers.
Huismann -- inducted into the Greater Cincinnati Basketball Hall of Fame, the Buddy LaRosa High School Sports Hall of Fame and Mother of Mercy Hall of Fame -- received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Sports Foundation among her numerous honors.
“Mary Jo advanced the game of basketball,” Fishman said. “She has always advocated for female athletics and her impact will continue to be felt for years to come.”
The Girls’ Greater Cincinnati League also has an annual honor -- the Huismann Award -- given each year to a student manager who is an excellent example of service to the school.
It’s a fitting tribute. Whether or not Huismann decides to coach again, her legacy is clear. Her impact is an indelible part of the high school sports fabric.
"While Coach Huismann has had a great deal of success on the court, the impact she's made on her hundreds of players off the court is immeasurable," Ohio Girls' Basketball Report Associate Director Bryce McKey said. "Coach Huismann is a selfless coach who has given everything she has to her players, program and community."