What's the secret of successful coaching? To Robert Hughes, head basketball coach at Dunbar High School in Fort Worth, Texas, it comes down to “intensity and team discipline. I grade my players hard, and I won't back off from what I expect them to do. I'm just a throwback, a Neanderthal. I'm out of Jurassic Park; I won't change.”
Hughes knows what he's talking about. He's one of only four active high school basketball coaches in the nation with more than 1,000 career victories apiece. By comparison, Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
the leading U.S. college basketball coach, has won “just” 830 games.
What's even more remarkable is that Hughes will enter the 1995-96 basketball season in a virtual dead heat with the other 1,000-game winners: Bill Krueger, now coaching at Clear Lake High School in Houston, leads the pack with 1,066 wins; Morgan Wootten of DeMatha Catholic High in Hyattsville, Md., has 1,064; and Ralph Tasker of Hobbs (N.M.) High is tied for third place with Hughes at 1,063.
Despite their nearly identical victory totals, high school basketball's Big Four insist there is no sense of competition among them. Indeed, they may represent the high school game's most exclusive mutual-admiration society.
“This is something that will never happen again,” says Hughes. “And obviously, no one could have planned it. The one of us with the most wins at the end of this coming season will likely be the one whose team plays the most games.
“I've known the other three guys for years. But as far as rivalry, I don't think so. One reason is that we're all so spread out over the United States except for Krueger and myself. And Texas is big enough to encompass several states.”
Some high school coaches have gone on to what many sports fans might consider greater glory at the college or pro levels. The legendary Vince Lombardi is remembered mainly as the coach of Green Bay Packers teams that won five National Football League championships, including the first two Super Bowls.
His first coaching job, however, was at St. Cecelia High School in Englewood, N.J., where he also taught algebra, chemistry, Latin and physics. Under Lombardi, St. Cecelia's won six state football championships. In 1942, he began coaching baseball and basketball. Three years later, St. Cecelia's won the New Jersey parochial school basketball title.
Wilbur Charles “Weeb” Ewbank was another U.S. coaching legend who got his start in high school. He headed the baseball, basketball and football programs at Miami (Ohio) University High School before moving on to Brown University in Providence, R.I., and Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. Later, as a pro football head coach, he guided the Baltimore Colts to NFL titles in 1958 and 1959 and won Super Bowl III with the New York Jets.
High school success doesn't provide automatic entre into the college or pro winners' circles, however. Gerry Faust, acclaimed as head football coach at Cincinnati's Moeller High School, flamed out at the University of Notre Dame. Similarly, Bob Wade never duplicated his achievement as head basketball coach for Dunbar High School in Baltimore after taking charge at the University of Maryland.
Most high school sports coaches - like Hughes, Krueger, Tasker and Wootten - begin and end their careers on the secondary-school tier. The pay isn't as great as in the college or pro ranks, but neither are the hassles. And there are emotional rewards that the colleges and pros rarely can match.
Donald R. Prokes, executive director of the National High School Athletic Coaches Association, recalls that he always enjoyed having the occasional superstar on his teams when he was a coach, “but they were always difficult to work with.” On the other hand, “the average players are the ones who still call you 20 years later and say, 'Coach, I'm an accountant now, and I really appreciate everything you did for me.' ”
Tasker, whose coaching career began the same year that Pearl Harbor was attacked, feels much the same way: “I guess I was just put on Earth to help these kids grow up a little bit, and that's always been my goal - to help them become better persons.”
His secret of basketball success is equally straightforward: “You've got to put the ball through the hoop, so therefore you've got to put in hours of practice on your own. We like our kids to have an outdoor basket, because no matter how well you do everything else, if you can't put the ball through the hoop, you're going to lose.”