FARMINGTON – Ever heard your husband heckled while he worked? Marty Bessey has, many times.

One of the more memorable instances happened when Mt. Blue and Rumford high schools had a heated basketball rivalry. Some fans were saying some unflattering things about her husband, Jim, within earshot of her.

“The guys were just playing like a bunch of duds,” Bessey recalled. “I sat in front of these two women from SAD 9 saying awful things about Jim and I just turned around and said ‘Excuse me?’ and they said ‘Well, we do pay his salary.'”

Jim Bessey has been drawing a meager coach’s stipend for 40 years now, the last 31 as a varsity coach. Most of those years have been spent in Farmington, where hundreds of boys from as many as nine different communities have gathered each fall and winter to learn basketball from a man whose passion for the game has never wavered.

“He just loves the game and he loves kids. It’s his hobby. It’s his everything,” said Marty Bessey, who grew up with Jim in Oakland and has been married to him for 43 years. “He just loves basketball to the point where I sometimes don’t like it so much.”

“Some people would say he’s mellowed a bit. No way. Ask Mrs. Bessey,” said Mike Adams, who was Maine’s Mr. Basketball while playing for Bessey in 1990 and now matched wits with him on the sideline as head coach at Edward Little.

“He’s just as intense, just as driven,” he added. “Some people hate him because of that. Me, I couldn’t imagine playing for anybody else who was willing to work just as hard, or 99 percent of the time, harder than his players.”

Though he retired from 37 years of teaching social studies three years ago, Bessey continues to outwork many of his players and coaching peers at the age of 63. He still watches hours upon hours of videotape of opponents, and prepares three- or four-page scouting reports to give to each of his players before every game.

He still keeps a notebook next to him whenever he watches a college or professional game on television, in the unlikely event a coach unveils something he hasn’t seen before. And he still works his countless contacts from around the state and country to learn more about the game. His goal is to put his players in the best possible position to win.

“He has never left a team unprepared, and that’s his biggest thing. He doesn’t want to cheat his players,” said Chris Brinkman, who played for Bessey in the 1970s, worked as an assistant to him for 17 years and is one of his closest friends.

‘A consuming passion’

Bessey says he decided he wanted to coach when he was in the eighth grade, about two years after he knew he wanted to teach. A few years later, he was a star basketball and football player at Williams High School in Oakland. Under coach Rod Shain, whom he still regards as a mentor today, Bessey played guard and broke school scoring records.

He went on to play at the University of Maine at Farmington, and after graduate school at Appalachian State, returned to Farmington to teach. In 1966, he got his first head coaching job with the Farmington High School junior varsity.

“Once I got involved with it, it was, as my wife would say, a consuming passion,” he said.

It’s a passion he’s always worn on his sleeve. Few coaches, at any level, are more animated on the sidelines than Bessey.

“On the court, he’s very demonstrative,” said Marty, who retired as the postmaster of West Farmington two years ago. “Off the court, he’s a very quiet man. He really is. And very humble.”

Bessey’s style on the court makes him a lightning rod for the opposition and a thorn in the side of many referees. Some of his most animated sideline antics are often calculated, not to get under anyone’s skin, but to get an edge or keep his players motivated.

“If you sit in the stands and you don’t know him, you see what he’s doing and you think he’s a nut,” he said. “Part of it is, I guarantee you he knows the rulebook more than a lot of officials.”

“He believes 100 percent in his players and what he’s doing and he’ll defend his players and what he wants to do 100 percent,” Adams said.

In return, Adams said, Bessey expects his players to be dedicated to the basketball program, to work hard “and just to be good people.”

“One thing he can’t tolerate is people who lie or cheat or don’t respect the game or respect themselves,” he said.

Milestone within reach

Bessey enters this season with 393 career wins. If the Cougars contend for a high seed in the tournament, as they are expected to do, he should join a select group of Maine high school coaches with 400 career wins.

“In this day and age, to have somebody with the longevity he’s had in this school is tremendous,” Walker said. He’s been passionate about basketball a long time, and a lot of coaches that have that level of passion burn out quickly.”

There’s no danger of that, according to his wife, who has five children and 11 grandchildren with him. Even though he’s had to deal with difficult parents, administrators or fans and spends many long winter nights on the road, “he’s never complained once about having to go to work,” she said.

Bessey has had two stints at Mt. Blue. He was fired the first time for an incident involving some of his players that he is reluctant to discuss. Between stints, he coached at Madison, where his best player was Bob Wilder, who was better known for his football exploits and went on to play quarterback for the University of Maine.

After four years at Madison, he returned to Mt. Blue in the mid-1980s. In 1990, with Adams leading the way, the Cougars won a quarterfinal against Presque Isle, the coach’s first win at the Bangor Auditorium. Adams remembers Bessey celebrated by jumping up and down on some folding chairs.

Rewards of coaching

Celebrations such as that haven’t been too common in the postseason. While Mt. Blue is a perennial contender in Eastern A, regularly reaching double digits in wins, it has been to only one state title game (in 1997, when they lost to Cheverus) under his watch.

“At one time, I certainly felt winning a championship would reflect positively on me as a coach,” he said. “Now, I see coaching as far more than winning games. Now, it’s far different.”

He said he cherishes the other rewards of coaching, like having many of his ex-players join the coaching ranks themselves. In Maine, his influence extends to Adams, Ken Marks at Greely, Gavin Kane at Dirigo, Freeport’s Craig Sickels and Jeff Hart at Camden Hills.

Adams and Brinkman called him a father figure to many of his players, willing to help them with off-the-court issues whenever he’s needed. Bessey said his biggest reward is that the bond he forms with his players often lasts a lifetime.

A few weeks ago, one that played for him four decades ago dropped in for a visit. Bessey said it was a reminder why he’s been doing it for so long.

“To have someone stop by after having played for me 30 years ago,” he said, “it’s reassuring that you probably did something right, that it was more than just coaching a team.”

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