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Kahler, Legendary Fisher Basketball Coach, Passes Away

March 19, 2018

St. John Fisher College legend Phil Kahler passed away on Saturday, March 17, at the age of 84. He leaves behind his wife, Fran, whom he married in 1955, and their loving daughter, Jill.

Old photo of Coach Phil Kahler speaking with a female basketball player on the court.

Arriving in Rochester in 1974, Kahler turned the newly-formed Fisher women’s basketball program into one of nation’s top programs at any level.

Old photo of Phil Kahler instructing his players on the basketball court.

With an overall record of 797-175 in women’s basketball, Fisher ranked as the all-time winningest program in NCAA Division III under Kahler’s watch. No coach in all of NCAA basketball—men's or women's, Division I, II, or III—owned a better win percentage over a longer period of time. 

Kahler, who reached the 600- and 700-win plateaus (716 games, 839 games respectively) faster than any other coach in NCAA basketball history, retired as the second-longest tenured coach in all of women's basketball, and the Division III coach with the most wins.

A two-time national coach of the year, Kahler was inducted into numerous Halls of Fame, including the St. John Fisher College Athletics and Basketball Coaches of New York. He was also a finalist for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Under his watch, Fisher reached the 20-win plateau on 27 different occasions, and advanced to the NCAA Division III Championship Tournament 14 times. He led the Cardinals to runner-up finishes in the 1988 and 1990 NCAA Championships, and strung together a streak of 32 consecutive winning seasons from 1976 to 2008. The Cardinals also advanced to the postseason 31 of a possible 34 times during his tenure.

Phil Kahler in 2008.

In 2008, when Kahler decided to retire, he said, “I would like to take this time to thank the St. John Fisher College administration that has supported me over the years. It's really hard for me to believe that I've been here at St. John Fisher College for so long. Time flies when you're having fun, and I've loved every minute of it.”

With only 34 women attending Fisher when Kahler arrived on campus in 1974, he met with interested students and asked them what sports they wanted. Their response was basketball and volleyball, so the two programs began.

Old photo of Coach Kahler giving instructions to his players.

Not only did Kahler create a dynasty on the basketball court, but the volleyball court as well. He guided the Cardinals for nine seasons with a career record of 386-72, including eight straight trips to the state tournament from 1976 to 1983 and two appearances in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Championship. Fisher won a NAIA-record 61 matches during the 1980 season, and Fisher's 76 consecutive wins over the 1979 and 1980 seasons rank as the second-longest winning streak in NAIA history.

Kahler, who was born in Columbus, Ohio, grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and later attended Dickinson State College in North Dakota. While at Dickinson, he lettered in basketball, baseball, and football and met his wife, Fran.

He enlisted in the Army after the birth of his daughter, Jill, and was stationed in his hometown of Anchorage. After completing his military obligation, he returned to Dickinson State to finish his undergraduate studies and went on to pursue a master's degree from the University of Toledo.

As a graduate student, Kahler accepted his first coaching job at nearby Arnegard High School. He proved he possessed a true knack for coaching when he led the boys' basketball team to a state title and the football team to back-to-back winning seasons.

Finally, he managed the baseball team to a remarkable record of 119-13 and led the boys’ basketball team to several league titles at DelVilbiss High School after enjoying success at Arnegard. Looking to take his coaching career to the next level, Kahler made his collegiate coaching debut at Aquinas Institute in Michigan, where he compiled a 60-41 record during his stay as the men's basketball coach before arriving at Fisher.

Kahler’s funeral will take place on Saturday, March 24, at 10 a.m. in the Hermance Family Chapel of St. Basil the Great.