To so many of us who played on his teams, he was and forever will be known simply as Coach. There was no other like him. He taught us the game of basketball and the game of life at the same time.
His understanding of the "fast break offense" and the "zone defense" set him and his teams apart from all others. He would readily tell you that he learned both from Cam Henderson, the coach who was known at Marshall University as "The Old Man". No disrespect in that name. Just awe and amazement because of the man who was the originator of both strategies.
Bill Armstrong, who died in Palm Springs, California, on January 4, 2003, at the age of 85, was a coach for his time and usually ahead of his time. He was a coach's coach. There was nothing he enjoyed more than talking basketball technique and strategy with another coach.
His days of greatest prominence were the 13 years he spent at Compton, CA, where he had two consecutive undefeated seasons with both teams being crowned the mythical national high school champions. His 868 high school games won and 66 consecutive victories are records that still stand in California. His career record is at 905 won and just 298 lost.
Few people knew Coach Armstrong longer or better than I did. I had the privilege of playing on the first two teams he ever coached at Leewood Junior High School, Leewood, WV, from 1943-45. After playing for him there was only one "Coach" in my vocabulary.
When I delivered the eulogy for his funeral service on January 11, I told the congregation that I knew him as a man who was interested in all of life. He taught his young players about life not so much by his preachments, but rather by the kind of life he lived.
When I was in the eighth grade our team was returning from a four-games-played-weekend-trip. On Sunday night the entire team slept in his one large bedroom on chairs, a sofa, the floor and two in the bed. Before going to sleep I noticed a copy of the New Testament on the night stand.
I'll never forget that. My young thoughts went something like this: "If my coach, as big and handsome and skilled as he is, reads that book, then I should also check it out". I did and on a Sunday night in June, 1944, at a one room Methodist Church at Decota, WV, I surrendered my life to Jesus Christ.
That was the kind of life-changing influence Coach had in my life. At his funeral I read the words of Jesus from that New Testament which his mother had given to him on December 25, 1937. Here they are: "Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me . . . I go to prepare a place for you . . . I will come again and receive you unto myself . . . I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:1-6 KJV).
His lovely wife, Dell, knew him better than anybody and she told me she never heard him curse, he did not drink coffee or tea, and had never tasted tobacco or alcoholic beverages. It is little wonder then that his son, Wayne, and his wife, Sue Ann, speak so highly of him.
His grandson, Andrew, who is 13 years old, and will make some high school and college an outstanding athlete, recently wrote a theme paper in school about the men the world calls great. Andrew wrote of his grandfather: "Coach Armstrong instilled pride and work ethic along with discipline and a winning attitude. He helped many young men escape the ghetto and become contributing and successful members of society."
All of us who played for him knew that as individuals we were more important to him than how many games we won. Because we knew of his deep concern for his players, the thousands who were on his teams gave him the very best they had and that made him one the winningest coaches in our nation's high school history.
Thanks Coach. We will never forget you. Your measure of excellence is stamped upon our minds and hearts forever. You were the mentor and example that pointed me and others in the right direction not only by what you said, but by the way you lived.
Copyright © 2003 Bill Ellis. All rights reserved.