It can't be done in some recruit's living room or in a weekly
lunchtime schmooze with the press or in the spotlight as a
high-profile ESPN-tity. If you're a high school basketball
coach, the place you make your mark is in the gymnasium.
Call his school, ask to be patched through to the gym, and the
coach will most likely pick up the phone himself. That's true
even when you're dealing with the four winningest coaches of all
time, all of whom are still brandishing clipboards.
"Got beat in overtime last night," says Bill Krueger, coach at
Clear Lake (Texas) High, his voice betraying the anguish of
every call that didn't go the Falcons' way. "Didn't hardly sleep
"Hold just a moment?" says Ralph Tasker, coach of the Hobbs
(N.Mex.) High Eagles. "Got a boy up on the rubbing table."
December 25, 1995
"I just met with the parents of a boy who's trying to become
academically eligible," says Morgan Wootten, whose balcony
office at DeMatha Catholic High in Hyattsville, Md., looks out
onto the floor where his Stags practice and play.
"Swept the gym this morning when I came in," says Robert Hughes,
whose team at Dunbar High in Fort Worth isn't merely the
Wildcats, but the Flying Wildcats, thank you very much. "Soon as
we get off the phone, I'll be sweeping some more.
"This is not the big time," Hughes adds, hardly needing to. "All
the games I've won, they don't mean diddly here."
The games these men have won now total 4,286-1,075 for Krueger,
1,073 for Hughes, 1,071 for Wootten and 1,067 for
Tasker--following the Legends of High School Basketball
tournament, held last week in Fort Worth in their honor. The
numbers would almost certainly be higher had the four not spent
the weekend trying to add to their victory totals at one
another's expense. The four have been so tightly packed at the
top of the wins list that if you turned your head during any of
the past few winters, you were liable to find that they had
swapped places, do-si-do style.
If each coach were a scratch 'n' sniff, he would smell like an
admixture of custodial dust, mimeograph fluid, Ben-Gay and old
sneakers. "We've seen it all," says Krueger. "The long hair and
the short. The Chuck Taylors, and now these shoes that cost 150
bucks." Indeed, after beginning their careers in the Norman
Rockwell tableau of the '40s and '50s, none batted an eye when,
at Fort Worth's Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center last week,
every spectator had to pass through a metal detector.
But Krueger, Hughes, Wootten and Tasker also stand stoutly for
some things that haven't changed. All have entertained college
offers, but each chose to pass them up, preferring the more
subtle rewards of working with boys who are at an age when a
coach is most likely to make a difference. "I've never asked a
boy to come out for basketball," says Tasker, who can't abide
the thought of recruiting. "And I wasn't about to start begging
them to play." All regard the full teaching loads they've
carried, in addition to their coaching duties, without regret.
And even as Cassandras wail to the contrary, all remain
basically optimistic about Kids These Days.
"We're the last four guys in Jurassic Park," says Hughes.
Almost a year ago, when Fort Worth businessmen Tom Rogers and
Rick Whitehurst first broached the idea of assembling the
legends' tournament, Tasker, 76, was the reluctant one. He's
still the chronically shy West Virginian who couldn't bring
himself to apply for his first job, at Sulphur Springs (Ohio)
High in 1941; he was only hired because, unbeknownst to him, his
girlfriend, Margaret, who would soon become his wife, filled out
the application. But Tasker relented and agreed to come to Fort
Worth when it was pointed out what an experience the trip would
be "for the boys."
Tasker says "for the boys" so often, you could mistake him for
Bette Midler. He won his first New Mexico state championship 46
years ago at Lovington High. But after one season, peeved that
his bosses wouldn't let him keep the gym open after hours for
kids who wanted to work on their games, he took a pay cut to
jump to a bigger school, Hobbs, where they promised him the key
to the gym. Watch the Eagles play and you can tell that the
gym--now officially Ralph Tasker Arena--keeps the hours of a
Quik-Stop. At Hobbs, an oil-and-gas outpost a few stray
tumbleweeds from the Texas line, Tasker has won 11 state
championships, gone unbeaten twice and, like Minnie Minoso in a
sport coat, won state titles in five decades.
When you're stuck out on the prairie, you don't get accustomed
to measuring yourself against others elsewhere. Thus it matters
little to Tasker that outsiders question the Eagles' competition
and call into doubt the national-record 114.6 points per game
his team averaged in 1970 and the 176 points the Eagles scored
in one 32-minute contest in '78. No matter that the pros judged
12 Eagles--including 13-year NBA veteran Bill Bridges--skilled
enough to be drafted. For the honor of most pro draftees per
capita, can any place on earth match Hobbs, population 30,000?
The great constant in Hobbs's success has been a full-court
press that Tasker has hardly called off since 1955. He credits
the defense to a player named Kim Nash, who made the original
suggestion that the Eagles use pressure from tap to buzzer, end
line to end line.
"No team is in good enough shape to do that," Tasker reputedly
"So," Nash replied, "get us in shape."
Today Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, who faced Tasker while at
El Paso's Bowie High during the late '60s, credits Tasker with
inspiring the 40 Minutes of Hell defense that Richardson's
Razorbacks use. Pressure basketball has become so much a way of
life in Hobbs that when Tasker got a notion back in the '60s
that he ought to be changing with the times and once ordered his
team into a delay, Eagle fans took all of two minutes to file
out of the gym in protest.
Since the death of Margaret four years ago and his third
hip-replacement operation, Tasker leaves home for little more
than games and practices. Players come by to crack open a soda
and hear stories out of a past that, frankly, Tasker is more
comfortable with than he is with the present. All the to-do over
high school ball these days--the USA Today Super 25, the national
cablecasts, the hopscotching across the country to play in this
or that tournament--leaves him unsettled. "Kids get to thinking
the world owes 'em a living, and that scares me," says Tasker.
"That's not the way life is."
Krueger was as eager to participate in last week's tournament as
Tasker was reluctant. Although at 60 Krueger is the youngest of
the four, the Clear Lake coach had actually intended to retire
after last season, to repair with his wife, Martha, the recently
retired registrar at Clear Lake, to their ranch in the Texas
hill country. But the prospect of joining Hughes, Tasker and
Wootten in Fort Worth last week led him to postpone his
retirement for one more season.
Krueger is a screamer gone gradually mellow since he took over
his first team, at Cameron (Texas) High, in 1957. (A measure of
what it's like to be a basketball coach in Texas: The first time
he ordered his players to run sprints, every guy on the team
reflexively dropped into a three-point stance.) "I used to be
Daddy Redlegs, meaner than hell," he says. "But you have to
adjust. Over 38 years the kids have been constantly changing.
The adjusting kept me younger and up to date. Certain things I
go to war over, sure. But others I let run off my back."
He calls out the cavalry to defend one proposition: "There is no
I in team. I don't think there's any sport better than
basketball when it's played as a team. And there's no sport
worse when one guy goes down and jacks it."
Krueger's current home, Clear Lake, is a NASA bedroom community
southeast of Houston, where the garages are two-car and the
families aren't just two-parent, but two college-educated
parents. Recent cutbacks in the space program have left the
community a little more firmly rooted in the real world, and the
socioeconomic texture of Krueger's teams has changed
accordingly. As a result you'll see tattoos and exotic haircuts
on some Clear Lake kids. Krueger will also go much further down
his bench than he used to, an acknowledgment that every boy on
the team expects to play. "A few years ago," he says, "I
wouldn't have substituted unless a bone was sticking out."
No loss disappointed Krueger more than the one eliminating the
Falcons from the state tournament in 1988, when he got a
technical--for wandering over to the scorer's table to resolve a
foul discrepancy--and Clear Lake suffered a one-point defeat.
Even the state title that Clear Lake won the following season by
reeling off 21 straight points to beat a 38-0 Jay High team from
San Antonio in the championship game didn't make up for that
disappointment, and that fact highlights something common to all
four coaches: It's the relatively few defeats, not the many
victories, that tend to stick in their minds.
Another loss haunts Krueger still, and it wasn't a game. In
1957, two years before he began coaching at San Marcos (Texas)
High, an all-white school, the board of education closed the
black high school in town and ordered all the students there to
attend San Marcos. That might have proved beneficial to Krueger,
but the board also ruled that blacks couldn't play
interscholastic sports. Among the players who might have suited
up for him was a 6'9" young man named Lucious Jackson, who would
later star on the 1964 Olympic team and be named rookie of the
year in the NBA. Jackson ended up going to high school in
"Till Shaq O'Neal came along, he was the best player to come out
of Texas," says Krueger, who has won all his games without the
benefit of a single future NBA player. "It was the times. But if
I'd have had him, I'd have had a bunch more wins."
For most of Hughes's career, Jim Crow laws in Texas weren't a
source of wistful might-have-beens but an abiding reality. There
was that time in Texarkana in the '60s when the team pulled into
a drive-in restaurant in its two station wagons, only to watch
the waitress roller-skate contemptuously by. Yet during that
decade Hughes won three black state titles at Fort Worth's I.M.
Terrell High, and after Terrell closed in '73 and he moved to
Dunbar, Hughes set about putting wings on the Wildcats. Is Texas
really a basketball wasteland? High-profile national programs
like Verbum Dei of Los Angeles, which found itself on the
business end of a 40-13 deficit at halftime against Dunbar in
1983, and Oak Hill of Virginia, which had its 55-game winning
streak snuffed out by 28 points in '87, would say emphatically
Now 67, Hughes is a 6'6" reed of a man whose only perceptible
physical change since 1955, when he was drafted by the Boston
Celtics out of Texas Southern, is the dusting over and faint
thinning of his hair. His principles are unchanged, too. "All
the things from the '60s are coming back to hurt us now," he
says. "Do your own thing, lack of respect for your elders. I
know it's a new day. Have to change and all that. But guess
who's a dinosaur? Me."
That means no earrings, no dreadlocks--"He's just plain vanilla,"
says Swarn Lacy III, who won a blacks-only state title playing
for Hughes at Terrell in 1967, and whose son Swarn IV won a
title at Dunbar 26 years later, after integration. Well into the
'80s, even after bureaucrats went into conniptions over the
practice, Hughes would require miscreant players to meet up with
his "board of education," a paddle he considered an essential
But there's nothing hidebound in Hughes's approach to the game,
a style he calls "flat out." During a stretch in the mid-'60s
Hughes ordered up an alley-oop dunk off every opening tip, a
signature play that bamboozled referees who, not knowing any
better, often disallowed it as offensive goaltending. Others
reviled Hughes's brand of ball as "hully-gully," "street"
or--this is the coach talking now--"the name only Mark Fuhrman
uses" basketball. "Now it's 'up-tempo,'" he says. "My game
hasn't changed. A lot of other folks have just joined it."
For nine straight seasons, from 1983 to '92, Hughes took Dunbar
to the Texas Final Four in Austin, only to lose there. In '93,
on the Flying Wildcats' state-record 10th consecutive trip, he
won with a vindicating brigade of 11 seniors. Some suggest there
was a racial explanation for that stretch of futility, that the
refs had it in for Dunbar, but you won't hear Hughes raise that
issue, for he is no angry old man. "The first thing you learn at
Dunbar is not to worry about officiating," he says. "I've had
fewer than eight technicals in 38 years. I'm not Santa Claus.
I'm not gonna give you two free throws and the ball. Like a bad
marriage, you just stick with it."
Working with boys from the hardscrabble Stop Sixth section of
town--the neighborhood is named after an old trolley route--Hughes
knows that simple inclusion on the team, and exposure to his
stern ways, can make the difference in a young man's life. "We
got people wheelin' and dealin' with players that shouldn't be
within a hundred miles of a boy," says Hughes, whose current
roster lists 19 names, and who suited up 17 last weekend. "Might
be we run out of uniforms, but we don't cut. Now, if you're a
discipline problem, you're not cut--you're fired. I'm not Freud."
As high school basketball has made its steady rise, for better
or worse, to a more prominent national profile, Wootten has been
the sport's constant. With his national reputation, he was a
sort of Gladys Knight to the other three legends' Pips last
week. Over Wootten's 40 seasons DeMatha has been tops in the
D.C. area more times than not and has won five mythical national
championships. In 1965 DeMatha sold out Cole Field House at the
University of Maryland and handed Lew Alcindor and New York
City's Power Memorial their first loss in 71 games. He has sent
two players to an NCAA championship backcourt (Sidney Lowe and
Derek Whittenberg, with N.C. State in '83) and 12 players to the
NBA. Most astonishingly, since 1961, every DeMatha senior but
two, regardless of size or station on the depth chart, has been
offered a scholarship to play college ball--and the two who
didn't get full rides both went to Division I schools and walked
All this success has brought Wootten scores of offers from
colleges, including three from ACC schools. But he's far too
wise a man to accept. With his instructional videos, five books,
clinics, speaking engagements, deals with McDonald's and Reebok,
and an internationally renowned summer camp (which Al Gore Jr.
attended last summer), he makes more than all but the most
lavishly paid college coaches, yet he lives just minutes from
school and the house in which he grew up. As South Carolina
coach Eddie Fogler, one of eight current Division I head coaches
who once played for or coached under Wootten, recently told him
with no little envy, "You get all the benefits of a college
coach without the pressure."
It's a gratifying position for someone who earned $3,800 a year
when he started at DeMatha, coaching two sports, teaching world
history five periods a day and calling bingo on Tuesday nights.
"The second year," Wootten says, "they told me they wanted me to
work full time."
Like former UCLA coach John Wooden, the man with the similar
surname, Wootten has metallic hair, glasses and a ministerial
way of applauding from the bench. He's so muted by nature that
he'll mike himself during practice to make sure he's heard. But
he's heard. Proof is Greg Harris, DeMatha's current point guard.
Cut from the Stag freshman team, Harris, with Wootten's
encouragement, worked to improve his game and is now a senior
weighing 10 college offers. Wootten, 64, is no power broker--"I
don't tell them who to marry, and I don't tell them where to go
to college"--but off to college all the boys seem to go, like
crops coming to harvest.
He had the highest profile in Fort Worth last week, but he
underscored the respect for the job that all the coaches share.
"We've got more than 5,000 games among us," says Wootten. "More
than 160 years of teaching experience. This weekend makes a
great antiburnout statement. It says that teaching is a noble
profession; that kids are fun to be around and as good as
they've ever been."
If it weren't for New Mexico's limit of 22 regular-season games,
Tasker would easily outstrip the other three on that victory
list. But he was happy for the company last weekend--happy to be
back among the pack. And while the other three schools
negotiated the round-robin tournament with 2-1 records, the
Eagles dropped all three games, which left Tasker grateful for
the format. "No elimination," he said. "That made it nice."
Indeed, for a few days all the honorees seemed to scale back
their hypercompetitive natures. Krueger joined the press in
peppering Wootten with questions after his team lost to DeMatha
on Friday night. On Saturday night Wootten pronounced himself
glad that nobody went 3-0 and that Tasker's team had played so
well in defeat. Hughes, meanwhile, likened the entire weekend to
a family picnic. "Brought my pad out to scout the first night,"
he said. "By the end of the first quarter I'd folded it up. Not
this tournament. This tournament I just came out to play. And
you know what? All four trophies should look just alike. There
are no losers here."
LIFE AT THE TOP
When the dust settled at last week's legends' tournament, the
pecking order of the winningest coaches in high school
basketball remained the same. Here's how the legends stacked up:
Coach School Years Record Top Finishes
Bill Krueger Clear 38 1,075-248 Two Texas
Lake state titles
Robert Hughes Dunbar 38 1,073-184 Three Texas
Morgan Wootten DeMatha 40 1,071-159 Five mythical
Ralph Tasker Hobbs 49 1,067-275 11 New Mexico