Longtime Stevenson basketball coach Pat Ambrose steps down

Stevenson’s Pat Ambrose, one of the state’s winningest coaches over the last two-plus decades, called it a career Wednesday.

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Pat Ambrose talks to his Stevenson team during a practice in 2019.

Pat Ambrose talks to his Stevenson team during a practice in 2019.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose, one of the state’s winningest coaches over the past two-plus decades, called it a coaching career on Wednesday.

Ambrose resigned quietly, without any fanfare or even an outgoing quote. Ambrose is about as hypersensitive to attention as any coach you will find. He was always quick to credit “all the great players” he coached over the years rather than accept any coaching praise.

But the remarkable success dwarfs the outgoing coach’s modesty.

Ambrose’s storied coaching run included winning over 500 games, taking four teams to the IHSA State Finals and capturing a state championship in 2015. He finished with an eye-opening career mark of 505-191.

Ambrose leaves behind a legacy of not only success but extraordinary consistency. He never had a losing season in 24 years. He was an architect of a defensive-minded program that won 17 or more games in 21 of those 24 seasons.

The three-year run from 2013-2015, led by current New York Knicks star Jalen Brunson, was historical. Those teams sold out gyms, played in the biggest events and left a massive impression on Illinois high school basketball in this state. Ambrose’s Patriots went a combined 91-10 in those three seasons. In addition to the state title, Stevenson finished second in the state in 2013 and third in 2014.

But Ambrose won big before the Brunson years, which included other stars such as Connor Cashaw and Justin Smith, and he won big after.

A no-name group in 2007, led by leading scorer Jong Lee’s 12 points a game, stunned Warren in the super-sectional and went on to finish fourth in the state in the final year of the two-class system.

The 2018-19 team won a sectional championship. The following year the Patriots were 28-4 and set to play in a sectional championship before COVID shut down the season.

Coach Pat Ambrose talks to Justin Smith during a 2016 game.

Coach Pat Ambrose talks to Justin Smith during a 2016 game.

Sun-Times file photo

When talking with Ambrose over the years, nothing beat coaching his two sons, Matthew and Evan. They were both instrumental during that 2019-20 season as Matthew was a senior and Evan a junior.

Lake Forest coach Phil LaScala has been battling Ambrose and Stevenson in the North Suburban Conference since 2006. The Patriots were a roadblock which some great Lake Forest teams couldn’t get past during the Brunson years. But even as league rivals, the highly-successful LaScala couldn’t help but admire the coaching job of Ambrose.

“His teams are so fundamentally sound, rarely make mistakes and were always so mentally tough,” LaScala said. “He’s probably the most prepared coach you will ever face. His preparation was unbelievable.”

No one knew Ambrose, the coach, better than Paul Swan. The longtime coach was Ambrose’s first assistant coach when he was hired in 1999 and has been by his side throughout the 24 years. For Swan, it’s the attention to detail in Ambrose’s preparation that has always stood out.

“He was a teacher of the game,” Swan said. “But his attention to detail, how he saw the game, his preparation for teams and games was just remarkable. He remembers and sees things that I don’t think other coaches do.”

Former Stevenson player John Taylor, who graduated in 2007 and later became an assistant coach for Ambrose, thinks back to the perfect example of the famed Ambrose preparation.

Taylor’s junior season came to an end with a sectional loss to Jon Scheyer and Glenbrook North. The next day a dejected Taylor was talking with his coach and simply asked what he was doing for the upcoming spring break.

“I still remember him saying to me, ‘Spring break? Forget spring break. I’m getting ready for next year and watching Warren,’” Taylor now says with a laugh. “He had binders and binders on Warren.”

That next year was when Ambrose finally was able to get past legendary coach Chuck Ramsey’s Warren team and reached the Class AA Elite Eight.

Both LaScala and Taylor credit Ambrose with being able to change with the times. Yes, Stevenson’s trademark was always a stingy man-to-man defense and toughness on that end of the floor. However, he refashioned his Stevenson teams over the years, particularly on the offensive end.

“As a coach he adjusted to his personnel and always took away what other teams wanted to do,” LaScala said. “But he doesn’t get enough credit for the offensive coach that he is. He changed everything when Brunson came.”

Taylor remembers seeing the transformation of his coach’s offensive philosophy and system.

“What stands out to me is how adaptable he was as a coach,” Taylor said. “We went from a grind it out, first team to 40 wins to five-out and how he completely changed things when Jalen came. He would morph the system to meet the strengths of his players.”

And he also meant a whole lot to those who played for him, both on and off the court.

Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose talking with Jalen Brunson during a 2013 game.

Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose talking with Jalen Brunson during a 2013 game.

Sun-Times file photo

Cashaw, the former Stevenson star who teamed up with Brunson for a state championship in 2015, credits Ambrose for so much of his own development. Cashaw says he and his teammates were “allowed to play free and play to our strengths.” But it was that defense that Ambrose taught that stood the test of time.

“The defensive principles and tactics put me ahead going into the next levels because it directly echoed the college principles,” Cashaw said. “He taught and drilled us on every spot we needed to be on defense.”

Cashaw, who went on to play college basketball at Rice and Creighton, says the impact of Ambrose continues to be felt to this day.

“He is family,” Cashaw said. “He still checks in, supports, and coaches me now. His coaching and mentorship greatly impacted me as a player and person.

“After playing for coach Ambrose, mentally I felt prepared for the rest of my career and life. I’m so grateful to be a part of his coaching career and thankful for everything he did for all of us.”

Ambrose, who is already an IBCA Hall of Fame inductee and former City/Suburban Hoops Report Coach of the Year, finished his final season at Stevenson with a 22-8 record and regional championship.

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