Sunday, March 29, 2015

Wiggins: coach, neighbor, friend ... winner

     When Billy Wiggins died Friday in Shreveport, the news was difficult to hear. It was a tough day.
     Not a big surprise because his health had been in obvious decline for several years. But tears came several times after his son, Freddy, sent me a Facebook message in early afternoon.
     Wig meant a great deal to me, professionally in a coach/sportswriter relationship, and more importantly, on a personal basis because he looked after my parents -- especially Dad -- for years.
     Wish I had written this months ago. Wiggins might've enjoyed it, although to be honest, I don't think he gave much of a damn about personal publicity. He never had much to say about anything I wrote about his teams or their games.
     But then Wiggins never had much to say about anything ... unless he was coaching his players or berating basketball officials. That he did quite well.
     He was short, in stature and with words. I've known few people who could be more succinct in describing games, people and situations. Ten words was a speech for Wiggins.
     If you were a sportswriter, he would give you exactly what you needed (if it was printable), but he was not going to be expansive or rambling. He was direct, and he was honest. If he didn't like something or someone, you'd know it.
     He was calm on the bench, actually one of the calmest coaches I've seen in basketball ... until he got hot, and that did happen.
     It wasn't so much with his players, although he could be stern. But if the officials got it wrong, in his view, he could be livid. He respected opposing coaches, but if he didn't like them, he wouldn't have much to do with them.
     But within the Shreveport-Bossier, North Louisiana and state coaching fraternity, he was popular ... and respected. Because he was a winner; his teams were winners. They played hard, they played clean, and they were efficient.
     Not many teams faced his teams at North Caddo, Captain Shreve, Trinity Heights and other private-school stops, and had an easy time. (Well, he did have a couple of clunkers late in his coaching career when talent was severely lacking.)
     His teams were tough, physically and mentally. In that way, they much reflected their coach.
     His players had to be tough; if they weren't, they sat. Or they left. And they were fundamentally sound in basketball; not many coaches in my experience in North Louisiana were better teachers of fundamentals -- shooting, passing, dribbling, rebounding, in-your-shorts man-to-man defense (almost always man-to-man, seldom played zone defenses).
     And, mostly, competitive. That was Wiggins.
     Mike Harrell, in my opinion one of the two best players Wiggins ever coached (his Captain Shreve teammate Jeff Sudds was the other), told me Friday, "I never met anyone who hated losing more than he did, in anything, ping-pong or whatever. ... One thing he instilled in me was to be very competitive.
     "I thoroughly liked him as a coach," added Harrell, now an attorney in Dallas. "Wiggins set me up good for college basketball [at Bradley University]."
     I thoroughly liked him as a person. Coaching was only one reason. Being around him, because he was fun and subtly funny, was another.  
     Loved what seemed to be an easy relationship with Miss Amy -- she is as talkative as Wig wasn't -- and his kids (Sharan and Freddy), and I've read on Facebook how his grandkids adored their "Popi." (Sharan, not incidentally, married one of Wiggins' players on his early -- and greatly successful -- Captain Shreve teams, Tommy McGuire.)
     But what made Wiggins special to me -- as with some of the Woodlawn coaches of the 1960s -- was his relationship with my parents. When they moved to South Broadmoor in 1967, Billy and Amy moved there, a couple of blocks away, a couple of years later.
     My Dad loved basketball, and he appreciated great athletes and great coaches. He knew Wiggins had been a great athlete in high school (Winnsboro, La.) and college (Louisiana Tech); I told him that.
     I could do paragraphs on Wiggins' achievements in athletics. His Louisiana Tech Athletics Hall of Fame bio covers it:
     Dad was quite the Woodlawn fan, so he wasn't rooting for Wiggins' teams when they faced Woodlawn. But otherwise, he became a Wiggins fan. And he came to realize in time what kind of neighbor Wig was.
     As they both retired -- well, Wiggins "piddled" at jobs long after he stopped coaching and teaching -- Wiggins would often walk those two blocks to my parents' house and visit for coffee and conversation. I mean, this was an almost daily thing for a decade or so in my parents' later years.
      You can imagine, my Dad loved to talk (and so did Mom); Wiggins was sparse with words. So who did most of the talking -- Dad, with his world view, his many experiences.
      Here was a contrast -- Dad from a big city overseas (Amsterdam), a Holocaust survivor who spoke broken English, sometimes hard to figure out. Wiggins, a four-year U.S. Air Force veteran from a rural place who spoke Southern. But he seemed to understand Dad, who amused him and Wig gently could tease him.
       I got in on quite a few coffee visits while we lived in Shreveport-Bossier (through 1988) and on return trips home. But Wiggins was much closer to my parents' age than he was mine.
       When Dad got too old to care for his yard, Wiggins did it. For a couple of years, he cut Dad's grass every week or so. Wiggins -- basketball/football coach, yardman.
       Mostly Dad loved it because they could talk sports and because Wiggins paid attention to him. It was a beautiful friendship.
       Mike Harrell said Wiggins "was the first coach I had who was intense" and he can tell stories on how much of a taskmaster the coach was on defensive and shooting drills -- to the point that as a sophomore Harrell walked off the court and wasn't sure he wanted to play. 
       "He was scrupulously fair with everyone," said Harrell, the city and state's "Outstanding Player" in the 1968-69 and 1969-70 seasons. "... He didn't play favorites, he made everyone work equally hard. ... 
       "He never yelled at you as much as expressed disappointment," Harrell added. "I heard him yell 'crap!' a lot ... very loudly. He wasn't demeaning or belittling you, but he had a temper."
       Yes, he did. And I heard a lot worse than "crap." I saw him irate -- ready to fight -- after a one-point loss at Woodlawn in 1972 when Robert Parish made a putback shot at the buzzer after his own missed free throw -- a much-too-long 2 seconds after it looked as if an underdog and deserving Shreve team was about to beat the eventual state champs. No printable Wiggins quotes that night.
       He was absolutely crushed and furious, as were many others, after the Class AAA state championship game in 1970. Brother Martin won it 72-56, but that score ... so misleading.
       Shreve, with Harrell and Sudds (both All-State) as seniors, had won 33 in a row and was 35-1, then built a 16-point halftime lead. But in a tightly officiated game, Shreve's stars got into foul trouble, Brother Martin caught up and it was tied at 56-56 when Shreve lost a chance to win near the end. Guard Shelby Houston was called for charging on the baseline -- a highly debatable call -- with 8 seconds remaining in regulation.
       Shreve's team lacked quality depth -- its only real weakness -- and when its starting lineup practically fouled out, some in OT, Brother Martin won the OT 16-0. It was one of the toughest losses I've seen a great team take.
       The charging call was made by Bobby Olah, who after the game was laughing and joking with people in the lobby of Rapides Coliseum in Alexandria. I didn't think that was funny, and neither did Jerry Byrd, who stared him down. If looks could have killed, Byrd killed Olah that night.
       A friend Friday said he guessed Olah won't be a pallbearer at Wiggins' funeral. Olah was a name Wiggins really didn't want to hear.
       I remember the first time I saw Billy Wiggins up close -- early December 1962, a Woodlawn basketball game at North Caddo, my sophomore year as manager/statistician. Our bus pulled into the circular drive in front of the school and there was the basketball coach busy doing something. He waved, Coach Jerry Adams -- the bus driver -- stopped, and Wiggins got on our bus. What?
       It was quickly evident, as Wiggins gave directions to the back of the school where the gym was located, that our coaches (Adams and W.B. Calvert) were fond of this guy.
       We saw a lot of Wiggins and North Caddo in those early '60s years, and his teams were good but not great. He would admit that early in his coaching career at North Caddo, where he went when it opened in 1956, he was not as good a coach as he might've been. He'd rather scrimmage with his players than purely coach them.
        His teams were offensive-oriented, but not the defensive-minded units he would develop later. Once he determined he needed to coach better defensively -- remember, he had been an offensive star as a player -- the championships started coming.
         He didn't have big winners until the 1965-66 season when North Caddo -- led by Mike Durham, Pete Schuler and Jerry Carlisle -- won the Class AA state championship. That was neat to see because, even from another school's standpoint, we had seen those kids grow as players.
         Wiggins, the guard, became a masterful teacher, too, of post play with such stars as Durham, Harrell, Sudds and Tommy Grubb (Captain Shreve).  
         After the North Caddo title, Wiggins returned to Louisiana Tech -- where a lot of people wanted to see him -- as an assistant to Scotty Robertson for the 1966-67 season (my sophomore year there), and Tech won the Gulf States Conference title.
         But he didn't like the college coaching role and returned to high school when Captain Shreve opened in the fall of '67. One of his fellow North Caddo coaches, Stanley Powell, was Shreve's founding principal. 
         By the second season, the Gators won the District 1-AAA championship, taking two of three games from state champion Woodlawn. That team went 29-4, finishing with a state quarterfinals loss in New Orleans to St. Aloysius (soon to become Brother Martin in a merged school) 
         Wiggins was part of a Shreve state championship team, as a football assistant coach, in 1973. Those Gators were talented, dominant and undefeated.
          In the same school year, Carlos Pennywell -- receiving star of the football team -- led the basketball team to the state semifinals, where it lost to a stronger Brother Martin team, led by future Kentucky and NBA star Rick Robey.
          Wiggins won another state championship in the private school organization with Trinity Heights in the early 1980s. But his great coaching days soon were done. 
           Dad made it to 89. Wiggins made it to 85. They died seven years apart. For both, the last few years were tough.
           Which brings me, finally, to my last visit with Coach Wiggins. Bea and I stopped by the house in South Broadmoor last Aug. 1 -- on the day of the Ark-La-Tex Sports Museum Hall of Fame event in Shreveport -- and Wig was in the living-room recliner where he spent many days in the past few years.
            He was hooked to an oxygen tank, could barely talk, and mostly just listened to Amy and me. Amy whispered that "he can't hear anything," but every now and then I would see Billy smile, and he would utter a word or give me a thumbs-up, which indicated to me that he knew exactly what was being said.
            He was still the good audience he had been for Dad all those years.
            The fiery days were long behind, the great player and great coach a distant memory. For those of us who were around him quite a bit, he is an unforgettable, honest treasure.
            My writer deluxe friend Joe Rhodes, a manager/statistician for Wiggins at Shreve in the early 1970s, posted this Friday on Facebook:
            "Coach Billy Wiggins, who taught me how to drive, who trusted me with the keys to the gym, who gave me refuge and inspiration and a sense of responsibility, died today. Good game, coach."

1 comment:

  1. One of my all time favorite coaches. Coached me in both football and basketball in junior high and helped me learn to be a sportswriter later when he worked with Bobby Ray Mchalffey at Glenbrook. I would add that Wayne Smith has to be one of his best basketball players along with the Shreve connection.