by nathan oster
When Jim Prather arrived in Greybull to teach at the high school and lead the boys basketball program, he didn’t expect to stay much longer than five years. That was 17 years — and a lot of wins — ago.
“I had joked with friends and colleagues at the time that my wife and I were on a five-year plan … that when Jordan was done with school, we were going to travel the world on our motorcycles,” he said. “As I’ve run into those same friends over the years, they’ve asked me, ‘What five-year-plan are you on?’
“I just say, ‘Oh, number four I think.’ But truly, it’s been a great run, we’ve had tons of success and it’s been enjoyable on so many levels. I’ve just reached a point in life where it’s time to try something different.”
While he will remain on as a teacher at GHS, Prather has resigned as head basketball coach.
A search for his replacement is underway.
Whoever steps in will inherit a program that is considerably healthier than the one Prather took over 17 years ago. While the school had won a state title in 1996 under Pat Neely, the Buffs had endured several tough campaigns between the end of Neely’s run and Prather’s arrival in 1999.
Prather now speaks fondly of his early years at GHS as he sought to “change the culture” of the basketball program. “It had fallen off a little bit,” he said. “When I interviewed for the job, I was asked to share my vision for the program. I described an offseason program, with open gyms, tournaments, a summer league in which we would play with several other teams in the area.”
His proposal was met by blank stares.
“I pushed hard for it, though. Teams that are successful put in a lot of time in the offseason. I had to get commitment from kids who wanted to play. I was fortunate that I came in with a good group of kids. Jordan’s group of eighth graders had been playing quite a bit — Kings, Collingwoods, Lipps. The seniors that year had struggled a little bit, but they were eager to learn, eager to have success.”
Prather said he and Terry Hopkin (then the coach at Riverside) started the summer league program and that other area coaches, including Michael Simmons at Rocky Mountain, have come on board in recent years as big supporters.
“Now it’s every team in the Big Horn Basin, and gosh, if you look at the records and the success, it seems like every year we have a couple state champions coming out of here. I think it was a big part of us turning the corner and being a competitive program.”
Prather said one of the things he’s proudest of has nothing to do with basketball. It’s the rise in school spirit that has occurred over the past two decades. He recalled noticing in his first few years at the school that when there was a pep assembly and the school song was played, “half the kids didn’t know it, nobody stood and nobody clapped.”
He sought to change that, working with Myriah Sylvester to find a costume for the Buff mascot. Not long after, the boys started singing the school song after games. Initially it was just the players, huddled together after games. Eventually other students and GHS alumni joined in. Today, it’s a tradition.
On the court, memories of the good times are vivid for Prather. It didn’t take long for the new coach to discover the intensity of the school’s rivalry with Lovell. In his first year at the helm, the Buffs managed to beat the Bulldogs — and in Lovell.
“To win on the road in a tough environment, it was an exciting moment for the kids, but even more so for the community. I think collectively, people said, ‘Gosh, this team can do some good things.’ That win infused some life in our program. It was a starting point we tried to build on.”
Prather fondly recalled a number of “firsts” in his tenure — starting with the Buffs first state tournament appearance in 2003, their first back-to-back conference championships in 2004 and 2005, and of course, his first (and only) state championship in 2006.
His coaching ledger at GHS is an impressive one, with 251 wins against 197 losses.
In his 17 years, the Buffs made it to the state tournament eight times, and while their only title came in 2006, they always seemed to be in the mix. Seven of those eight years, the Buffs made it to the semifinals, the lone exception being 2004. In five of those seven years, the team that beat the Buffs in the semifinals went on to capture the state championship.
Twice, Greybull finished third.
Five times, they took fourth.
Prather also leaves with five conference championships (2016, 2014, 2010, 2005, 2004), five conference coach of the year awards and one state coach of the year award.
While he’s content with the way his career ended, Prather hasn’t forgotten the 2005 team that won the conference championship and was ranked No. 1 in the state before being bounced from the regional tournament in two games. He called it “a crushing experience” for all involved, and while a state championship followed a year later, he thinks the Buffs had the horses to go back to back.
This year, the Buffs had another strong campaign. At one point, they were the top-ranked team in all of 2A. The season ended in a third-place finish at the state tournament, where once again, the team that beat them in the semis, Pine Bluffs, went on to capture the title.
While he didn’t decide to retire until after the season, Prather admitted that the thought of stepping down crossed his mind long before that. Early in his career, it didn’t bother him to spend six hours on a bus, coach the games, then spend another six hours getting home. This year, the bus trips — particularly coming home — started to wear on him.
So, too, did the time required in the offseason. One year, he kept track of his hours and stopped at 1,100. It was like that, for much of his 30 years in coach. “I’ve always felt like if I couldn’t give 100 percent and be excited about being out there that it was time to move on. This was the first year that I wasn’t excited to be there during the holidays.”
Prather said he’s looking forward to a full summer vacation, minus basketball, but that he anticipates he’s going to stay involved in the game moving forward. If the right opportunity presents itself, he might consider a return to the coaching bench. At the very least, he said he’ll continue to make himself available as a mentor to younger coaches in the area, many of whom have called on him for advice over the years.
But that’s down the road. Right now he’s just looking forward to normal vacations and to getting better at a lot of things he’s dabbled in over the past 17 years — among them, fishing and riding motorcycles.
“It’s been a great run,” he said.