A servant’s heart: the Chris Hess story

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This fall, women’s golf coach Christopher Hess reached his fiftieth national tournament appearance as a head coach and assistant coach at Bethel College.

Hess has coached teams in four Bethel sports since 1994: men’s basketball, women’s basketball, men’s golf and women’s golf. Since former Bethel men’s basketball coach Mike Lightfoot retired last year, he has become the longest tenured athletic coach at Bethel College. You could say that time has done wonders for the veteran coach, learning from Lightfoot and former women’s basketball coach Jody Martinez.

“The biggest thing I learned from both [Lightfoot and Martinez] is to establish relationships right away with my players,” Hess said. “Relationships that are built on trust and them knowing that I want what’s best for their life, not necessarily a good golf score or a performance on the court…that’s how they’re going to grow in their faith.”

Over the years, Hess has coached and mentored hundreds of players from all different walks of life, faith and talent. He says he hopes he’s impacted them all in some way, but the relationship he will always treasure is with Rico Swanson, former Bethel basketball player and Small College Basketball Hall of Fame member. Hess coached Swanson as an assistant coach under Lightfoot from 1995-1998.

“Relationships are a two-way deal,” Hess said. “Rico impacted me as well…Rico stands out the most because of who he is and what he’s done.”

Hess noted that he grows closer to some players more than others because some players are looking for more than others are. He emphasized that relationships are both player-to-coach and coach-to-player.

Hess recollected on 24 years as a coach at Bethel College. He mentioned the seven national championships he won and the few runner-up performances he wished would have gone their way. However, Hess said the performances were not the best times for him.

“It’s times in the van, times we travel, just being together, being a group, being a team [and] being a family,” Hess said. “It’s not necessarily moments - buzzer-beaters, winning rings and championships.”

Hess has worn many hats besides coaching in his time at Bethel College. He and his wife, Sheri Hess, once served as resident directors, ran the Acorn and served as the head of his intramurals. He now holds the assistant athletic director position under athletic director Tom Visker.

Visker has worked with Hess since arriving at Bethel in 2003 as a faculty member, but he’s gotten to know Hess as a friend since becoming athletic director four years ago.

“One word: Great,” Visker said when asked to describe Hess. “He has been a really dedicated member of our staff, he has a deep love for Bethel College and he’s willing to do whatever he can to make our department and the college flourish. He’s also our facilities director and he has such a strong commitment to building and maintaining our facilities to be as [attractive] as possible.”

Chelsea Thomas, a 2017 Bethel College graduate and current graduate student at the University of Michigan-Flint, played four years of golf under Hess. She noted the most important lesson he ever taught her was the importance of faith.

“Some of the best memories with Chris have been at his house,” Thomas said, “He used to have us over there all of the time.”

As for future endeavors, Hess’ next goal is to win the Crossroads League and compete at the NAIA tournament in May.“

”For the spring, we know our conference is going to be very competitive…we’ve got the talent,” Hess said. “We know the scores we need to shoot.”

Hess said he sees many student athletes come into college with nothing, and the most rewarding part of being a coach is watching his athletes grow in the four years they are there. He desires to have the same impact on his athletes that Bethel has had on him, an impact that’s almost 30 years in the making. It’s the reason he stayed at Bethel.

“I’ve had so many people ask me [why I stayed at Bethel] because I’ve seen so many of my friends leave through the years,” Hess said. “It really changed my life and I think the reason I’m still here is because God still allows me to [change lives].”

(Photo credit: Bethel College Athletics)
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