I was shooting the breeze with Idaho State Basketball Coach Joe O'Brien a couple of weeks ago, when he introduced me to his new assistant, Tim Walsh. O'Brien noted that I was from Collinsville, Ill. -- that was instant cred with the two coaches, Walsh and O'Brien, who had spent a lot of time in Illinois High School basketball circles. As I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Collinsville High School was known around the country for its outstanding high school basketball teams.
Yesterday, I found out the man who coached those teams for 32 years, Vergil Fletcher (above), died one day short of his 94th birthday. Fletcher won over 700 games at Collinsville, including two state championships (1961 and 1965) back in the days when there was only one class in Illinois. One of his best teams -- and his last -- didn't win state. The 1977-78 Kahoks (named for a mythical Indian tribe) featured three future Division I players in Kevin Stallings (Purdue), Steve Ray (Tennessee) and John Belobraydic (Arizona). Despite all that talent, Collinsville lost a close game in the semi-finals to a tough-minded Lockport Central team, and wound up third in the state tournament. Coach Fletcher, then 64, took the opportunity to retire.
Collinsville continued to trade back and forth with Centralia, another Illinois high school (and alma mater of former ISU coach Herb Williams) for the most wins by any high school program in the nation over the next couple of decades, but Kahok basketball would never be the same. Things finally deteriorated so much that in recent years, the team has struggled to win at all, student aparthy is rampant and hardly anyone goes to the "Purple Palace" -- the nickname for Fletcher Gym -- on Friday nights anymore. Coach Fletcher's death really closes the final chapter from those glory days, when the high school gym was jammed on game night, the students turned out in droves and towns people passed down season ticket locations to their children and grandchildren.
I was a student manager for Coach Fletcher one year, and covered the team for the school newspaper another. By the time I was going to school, in the mid-1970s, Coach Fletcher was a calm, no-nonsense guy who had his system ingrained at every junior high school and parochial school in town. Everybody played his 1-2-2 zone press on defense, and every grade school kid in town knew what was coming when the high school point guard called out a play. Although he turned out a lot of excellent guards who would go on to play in college (Rich Knarr at Mississippi State, Stallings at Purdue, his own son Marc at Kansas and Tulane), Fletcher lived and died with his big men. It seemed he could take any high school kid who was 6-6 or taller and turn him into a high percentage shooting, double-figure scorer.
I got to play a role in his system first-hand, when I was a team manager as a sophomore. A new kid, Terry Clark, move into the school district that year. He was a 6-foot-7 bean pole with average athletic ability, but I spent the better part of lunch hour all that sophomore year passing the ball into Clark so he could practice his turn-around jump shot. Two years later, he averaged 20 points a game as a senior.
Catch the ball up high. Fake, turn and square up, shoot with the ball high over your head. Every former Collinsville big man, from eventual college stars like Tom Parker (Kentucky) and Roger Bohnenstiehl (Kansas) to the guys that never made it to the next level but were significant contributors at the high school level, must still wake up in a cold sweat, practicing that catch, fake, turn and shoot in their sleep. My exposure to those sound fundamentals are why I get so irritated to this day when I see 7 footers at the Big Sky level who come into college with no post-up game and clearly a poor coaching foundation.
I had heard that Fletcher used to display a nasty temper in his earlier coaching days, but I never saw it. By that time in his career, he would sit quietly on the bench throughout the game, a rolled up program in his hand in a Woodenesque type of gesture. He spoke mostly during timeouts, and his instructions were clear, to the point and usually without a great deal of elaboration. The players, most of whom had been playing in his "system" since fifth grade, didn't need a great deal of instruction on strategy. And Coach Fletcher had adopted the notion that if you wanted your players to compete with poise under pressure, it was probably a good thing if the coach displayed similar restraint.
Coach V wasn't without his critics. Some folks said he wasn't a great coach because he didn't adapt his system to his opponent, or to the times. Some people criticized the hold he had over the school district, where some concluded he was really running things. He was accused of nepotism for letting his two sons run the point during their playing days at Collinsville, and he certainly gave Marc, a 6-5 all-stater who averaged 28 points a game his senior year, a lot more freedom to shoot than most of his point guards.
So his death earlier this week only confirmed that Coach V was, indeed, human. But for a young man whose earliest memories included going down to the street corner and staking out a spot on a cold, blustery March day in 1965 to wait for the state champions to parade by, it was the rarest form of humanity: success with dignity.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.