Godspeed, Yogi

Wilson’s legacy one of perseverance, intensity, no limits

Former Heritage High School coach Ron Wilson, center, with glasses, is pictured here as an assistant coach at Maryville College last season. Wilson, who won more than 400 games during his coaching career, passed away on March 10. He was 65.

Former Heritage High School coach Ron Wilson, center, with glasses, is pictured here as an assistant coach at Maryville College last season. Wilson, who won more than 400 games during his coaching career, passed away on March 10. He was 65.

Members of Ron “Yogi” Wilson’s first team at Heritage High School gather prior to a memorial service for their late coach. From left are former Lady Mountaineers Connie Horner Roberts, Gina Warwick, Gina Hall Wagner, Kristi White Townsend, Jama Waters, Pam Broome, Joy Hartsell Braden, Emmetta Bailey Everett and former Lady Mountaineer assistant coach Terri Bradshaw.

Photo by Brandon Shinn

Members of Ron “Yogi” Wilson’s first team at Heritage High School gather prior to a memorial service for their late coach. From left are former Lady Mountaineers Connie Horner Roberts, Gina Warwick, Gina Hall Wagner, Kristi White Townsend, Jama Waters, Pam Broome, Joy Hartsell Braden, Emmetta Bailey Everett and former Lady Mountaineer assistant coach Terri Bradshaw.

Sarah Wilson, niece to the late coach, is accompanied by her son, Shawn, at the memorial service for Ron Wilson.

Photo by Brandon Shinn

Sarah Wilson, niece to the late coach, is accompanied by her son, Shawn, at the memorial service for Ron Wilson.

Former Heritage High School players Kristi White Townsend, Emmetta Bailey Everett and Gina Warwick share a light-hearted moment as they remember their former coach, Ron “Yogi” Wilson.

Photo by Brandon Shinn

Former Heritage High School players Kristi White Townsend, Emmetta Bailey Everett and Gina Warwick share a light-hearted moment as they remember their former coach, Ron “Yogi” Wilson.

Former Heritage assistant girls’ basketball coach Terri Bradshaw, third from right, talks with players from Ron “Yogi” Wilson’s first team at Heritage. Seated with Bradshaw are, from left, Emmetta Bailey Everett, Gina Warwick, Pam Broome, Joy Hartsell Braden and Joy Waters.

Photo by Brandon Shinn

Former Heritage assistant girls’ basketball coach Terri Bradshaw, third from right, talks with players from Ron “Yogi” Wilson’s first team at Heritage. Seated with Bradshaw are, from left, Emmetta Bailey Everett, Gina Warwick, Pam Broome, Joy Hartsell Braden and Joy Waters.

The line stretched out the door and down the sidewalk as former players, fans and peers gathered for a memorial service for former Heritage girls’ basketball coach Ron “Yogi” Wilson at the school last week.

The line stretched out the door and down the sidewalk as former players, fans and peers gathered for a memorial service for former Heritage girls’ basketball coach Ron “Yogi” Wilson at the school last week.

It got a little crazy when Ron Wilson was whistled for his third technical foul.

The Heritage High School girls’ basketball coach was really steamed after a hard foul on one of his players at a summer team camp in Florida elicited a no-call from the game’s official.

Two technical fouls are enough to get a coach or player tossed from a high school game, but Wilson was only getting started. Before he took his seat, he would collect 11 more, 14 in all. It blew everybody away.

“After the game, the refs had their picture taken with (Wilson),” former Lady Mountaineer Lauren Guigou said.

When it came to his players, the man everyone knew simply as “Yogi” knew no limits.

Wilson passed away in the early afternoon hours of March 10. He was 65.

Prior to a memorial service for their coach last Friday in the school’s gymnasium, several members of Wilson’s first team at Heritage gathered at the home of former Lady Mountaineer assistant coach Terri Bradshaw. Bradshaw, who would leave the bench in later years to become the school’s athletics director, saw Wilson’s fiery brand of coaching first hand.

During Wilson’s first season at Heritage in 1980, Bradshaw’s sister, Gina Hall Wagner, played forward for the Lady Mountaineers. In an early game that year, Wagner was fouled and knocked hard to the floor. Wilson was quick off the Heritage bench.

“He said, ‘I’m going to have to get a technical,’” Bradshaw said. “He ran out there and stepped over Gina (to reach the official).”

Wilson was a tough, uncompromising coach, former Lady Mountaineer Kristi White Townsend, Class of 1982, said. Dosed in equal measure, she said, was a love and loyalty for his players just as fierce.

“He could chew you up and spit you out,” Townsend said, “and 10 minutes later he’d be hugging you.”

Nothing about his former boss was fake, said current Lady Mountaineer coach Rick Howard. You never had to question where you stood with him.

“If you saw Yogi twice, you saw the same man each time,” Howard said. “If you heard something from him, you got the truth. You may not like it … “

Wilson’s coaching philosophy - man-to-man defense, no zones, full-court pressure - had a lot to do with the kid who grew up in Eagleton Village dreaming of becoming a state champion. He’d been a highly-regarded baseball prospect in his youth. His favorite team was the New York Yankees, his favorite player Yankee Hall of Famer Yogi Bera. Since both played catcher, Wilson soon picked up the nickname “Yogi.” It would be his for life.

It wouldn’t be baseball, however, where Wilson would leave behind his mark at Everett High School. He’d lost in the state wrestling tournament his junior year. Training relentlessly the next 12 months, Wilson returned to the tournament a year later in 1961 to become Blount County’s first state wrestling champion, a feat only twice repeated since.

The up-close-and-personal nature of wrestling would later become a trademark of the way Wilson’s basketball teams played defense.

“I remember Yogi saying, ‘You’ve got to challenge them, or they won’t respect you,’” Wagner said.

“No zone,” Emmetta Bailey Everett, Class of 1984, said. “No zone for anything. Man up.”

Coaching girls that way was unheard of when Wilson was first named Heritage coach with the 1979-80 season. He’d been an assistant at Heritage the two previous seasons, when girls’ basketball in Tennessee was still a halfcourt, six-on-six game. It was going fullcourt in Wilson’s first year, and he was planning some changes.

That spring, he was named Heritage’s new head coach. He would never work at another high school.

“I remember him jumping up and down and running across the gym floor when he got the job,” former Lady Mountaineer Connie Horner Roberts said.

Sexism had long held the women’s game back, Wilson felt. Girls could play the fullcourt game every bit as tough and every bit as aggressively as boys. When the rule change hit, Wilson was ready.

“I still think he had one of the finest coaching minds ever in basketball,” area radio icon Glenn Morton said. “He hated zones. Throw it in, and they’re right there on you.”

Wagner said she knew the Lady Mountaineers were in for a shock the day Wilson was named coach.

“I said, ‘He’s a boys’ coach! We’re girls,’” she said.

Soon after taking the job, Wilson phoned Bradshaw, then a teacher at a local elementary school, about becoming his assistant. Like the changes Wilson would make in how girls played defense, hiring Bradshaw was one for the books. When hired, she was only the second woman ever to sit in a coach’s chair at a Blount County high school, assistant or otherwise.

The pace Heritage would play under Wilson’s direction was evident from the first game.

“We’d play a fullcourt press the whole game,” Bradshaw said. “We’d put five new people in and just run (opponents) to death. He could get girls to play so hard.”

Wilson’s first game as coach wasn’t much to write home about. Clinton put it on the Lady Mountaineers pretty good, a contest in which four Heritage starters would foul out.

At practice the next day, Wilson brought out the trash cans, one stationed at each corner of the gym.

In Wilson’s famed 60 second drill, players raced from baseline to baseline until they could cover the down-and-back course 15 times in 60 seconds. Miss the mark, and the drill began all over again.

Few teams ever made it, Wagner said, but that was never the point. Those trash cans were there for a reason. After a while, it’s where many players deposited their lunch.

“He pushed you to be the best,” Wagner said. “He pushed you and the team to be what he expected you to be, and that wasn’t just on the court.”

Wilson had other methods for toughening his players, like running the steps in the gym. You just had to make sure he didn’t get too distracted directing practice while you were up there, Townsend said.

“You’d be running those steps up to the balcony, and he’d forget about you,” she said.

If there was a signature move during Wilson’s days at Heritage it was his way of sending player to the scorer’s table to check in. He didn’t simply point to player. Often, the summons was accompanied with a brisk and forceful tug on the jersey.

On one such occasion, former Lady Mountaineer Joy Hartsell Braden tripped over the foot of a teammate sitting near the end of the bench. The end result was a swan dive to the front of the scorer’s table. In the stands, Braden’s father, standing well over 6-feet tall, rose from his seat and began making his way toward the court. Wilson was quickly at Braden’s side.

“He said, ‘Are you OK?’” Braden said. “‘Tell your daddy I’m sorry.’”

Braden said she quickly motioned to her father everything was fine, and he returned to his seat.

There are countless stories like that about their coach, Townsend said. She’ll never forget the time the team tried to toilet paper Wilson’s yard after a big win. The plan went awry when Wilson emerged at his front door with a shotgun.

“We said, ‘It’s us, coach!’” Townsend said.

“It’s the last time I ever tried to roll a yard,” Wagner said.

Wilson was like that. He was also the man that changed Pam Broome’s life.

Broome, Class of 1984, was the kind of player that defined Wilson as a coach. She was, by her own admission, quiet and not terribly aggressive as a freshman. Her self-confidence wasn’t what it should have been. Perfect.

Broome endured the 60-second drills, running the steps, the heated halftime speeches, for each of her first three seasons. Her senior year, she put up a shot at the buzzer that won a big game, at which point Wilson exploded from the bench.

“He came out and grabbed me by the throat and said, ‘You’re a winner, Broome!’ ” she said.

Wilson won more than 400 games and 13 district championships at Heritage. Far too often, the legacy of a great coach is left only to the scorebook.

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