By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
INGOMAR – Don’t be surprised when Ingomar’s Norris Ashley, the state’s all-time winningest high school basketball coach – 1,658 victories – announces his retirement when this season ends.
It seems that 41 seasons, 39 of them at the Union County school, have taken their toll on the 62-year-old coaching legend.
However, he’ll hold off making his final decision until the Falcons’ postseason run – which resumes at home tonight against Ray Brooks – is over. Hopefully for Ingomar fans, it will end in Jackson with Ashley bringing home a ninth gold ball.
His wife of 36 years, Patrica, believes he’ll have no problem leaving a game that’s been so much a part of his life.
“I really think he can walk away,” she said.
Actually, Ashley nearly walked away before the 2009-10 season.
“After I had heart surgery this summer, and stayed out six weeks, it was kind of tough to come back. I found out it wasn’t that hard to stay home,” he said, then laughed.
He says he won’t miss it. He points to his exit from coaching baseball.
“When I retired nine years ago from coaching baseball, folks told me I’d miss it,” Ashley recalled. “You want to know how many times I’ve been back on that field since I retired? Once … I had to take the umpires their checks.”
If Ashley retires, he’ll likely visit the gym a few more times, especially to see his son, Jonathan, coach Union County rival Myrtle.
“We’ve talked about traveling out West,” Patricia said. “We’d enjoy going to Jonathan’s games. We enjoy watching basketball, baseball, football on TV. His favorite team is always the underdog.”
That would make sense. Ashley’s Ingomar teams were almost always the underdog. As he says, “When you’re a 1A school all you can do is play up.”
In anticipation of Ashley’s retirement, the Daily Journal conducted a question and answer session with the coach in his office in the Ingomar gymnasium.
“Are you writing my obituary?” he asked.
“No,” was our reply.
“Well, I know how you guys (the media) are,” he added, then chuckled.
Questions and answers
Q: You had open heart surgery this summer and considered not coaching this season. What changed your mind?
A: This group of boys I’ve got this year have a little old school about them. If they had to choose between going on a trip in the summer and playing basketball, they’ll choose basketball. If you offered them $100 or a ball, they’d choose the ball. I think that’s what made me want to come back.
Q: How is your health these days, and how much affect will it have on your decision to remain in coaching or retire?
A: Health-wise, I’m probably better than I was a year or two ago. I got a new motor put in this summer. I feel good.
A couple of good friends of mine, Joe Horton (Falkner) and Carl White (Potts Camp), were in the act of coaching when they died. It wouldn’t bother me to do that, but it would probably bother the people here. I’d just as soon not bring that on somebody … but I feel real good.
Q: What factors will go into your decision on whether to retire or not?
A: It’s an accumulation of things. The wear and tear of coaching is one of them. Maybe being at a place too long is another. Just wanting to do other things, because basketball has a way of taking up a lot of time. People don’t realize we played 20-something games last summer. There’s a lot of extra time that goes into it.
Maybe somebody else needs to get in here. People have only known one person for 39 years. I feel like the time’s right.
… To be quite frank, I’m not sure I want to invest four or five years in building a program back up again. I’ve already done it too many times.
Q: If you do walk away after this season, you would miss a career milestone, winning 1,000 boys games?
A: I didn’t get into this to set any kind of records. It would be nice, but that hasn’t even entered my mind.
Q: If you do retire and miss it, would you coach again?
A: I’m still passionate about the game and enjoy teaching it. If the right opportunity came along somewhere where they wanted an old, grouchy coach who wants it done the old-school way, then I’d probably listen.
Q: You’ve won eight state championships during your tenure at Ingomar – four boys, four girls – did any of those teams share a common quality?
A: Fortunately there were quite a few players on all those teams who had a great desire to succeed. They made me work harder. I wanted to make sure they had plenty of practice time, make sure they had a competitive schedule that brought out the best in them. When these kids come out here with fire in their eyes and fire in their gut, it makes you work a little harder.
They were extremely competitive. That was the one common thread they all had.
Q: You’ve won a lot of games with pretty much the same strategy over the years – a flex offense and man-to-man defense. Why those two schemes?
A: The year we won two state championships in a row and a Grand Slam, and won 77 of 78 against anybody who would play us, we ran one very simple offense whether it was against a man or zone. I found out then, it’s not what you do, it’s how well you do it.
The execution of something simple is more important than the Xs and Os. I don’t think I’ve ever outsmarted anybody.
Q: You played a zone – for the first time in nearly 20 years – against New Albany last year in the semifinals of last season’s Union County Tournament. What led to that move?
A: I always thought that zones don’t improve as the year goes along. It’s about as good as it’s going to get the first game. We did try a zone because I didn’t feel like we could match up with New Albany’s athletes. Plus, our big guy had mono and was out. I guess I was retreating and trying to find something that would catch them by surprise. It worked. We packed it in there and they had trouble hitting from the outside.
The next night, against Myrtle, their outside shooters ate us up, so we scratched the zone real quick. That was the last time we’ve played it.
Q: How has disciplining players changed through the years?
A: The old saying, “You ask a player to run through a wall for you and they run through a wall,” well now, they will look at you and think you’re crazy and hit the door.
Q: At times you can be quite vocal on the sidelines during a game. Your wife says you’ve told her it’s all an act to motivate your players and to fire up the fans. Is that true?
A: (Laughs) We used to play 35-40 games a year and sometimes you have to use things to get your players motivated, fired up. I’m not an actor, but there are times when I make it more intense than it actually is.
I learned a lot from football coaches. You better be keyed in and focused or it could be dangerous. In some sports you can go a little numb in the brain. I don’t think football is one of them. In a basketball game you never know when the deciding play may be. It may be in the second or third period. It might be the opening tipoff.
Q: If you had to do all over again, would you go into education and coaching?
A: Yes, I’d do it again.
Ashley’s influence inspires others into coaching careers
Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
James Green remembers the day he quit the Ingomar Attendance Center’s junior high basketball team.
It was also the same day his coach, Norris Ashley, encouraged him – to put it nicely – to give hoops another try.
“I decided I wasn’t going to play basketball,” said Green, now men’s basketball coach at Jacksonville (Ala.) State. “Instead of going to the gym that day, I went to study hall. Baseball was my first love anyway.”
Ashley, noticing Green was missing when practice time rolled around, went in search of the young player.
“He came to study hall and got me,” Green said. “He told me I had two options: I could either play basketball or clean toilets during that period. I sure didn’t want to clean toilets.”
Green went on to star on two Ingomar state championship teams (1978-79) and one Grand Slam team (’78) and earned a scholarship to play at Ole Miss.
After college, Green entered the coaching profession, prowling the high school sidelines for Jackson Jim Hill before embarking on a college coaching career that featured assistant coaching stops at Alabama, Idaho, Iowa State, Texas A&M and head coaching jobs at Southern Miss and Mississippi Valley State before taking the Jacksonville post.
“Coach Ashley is the one person who influenced me most as a coach, player and person,” Green said. “He’s my hero, my John Wooden.”
Green believes the main reason for Ashley’s success has been his ability to teach his players the fundamentals.
“If you’ve got six or seven guys on your team who are fundamentally sound, it doesn’t matter what offense and defense you run,” he said.
Keep it simple
Ripley boys coach Trent Adair, who played on Ingomar’s 1999 state championship team, also sees Ashley’s gift of teaching the fundamentals.
“He kept things simple, real simple,” Adair said. “We ran that flex offense, the baseline cutters and guys popping up on the wing, and we practiced it every day.
“You just react and play basketball, that’s Ingomar. When kids come in there they already know how to play. It’s a cultural thing.”
Another key to his success, Adair believes, is Ashley’s tough, but fair, discipline.
“He commands it,” Adair said. “He might say something funny. He had his own unique way of telling you how to guard, how to rebound. We were too scared to laugh. We respected him that much.
“We would have done anything he told us to do. We respected him that much. You were scared to mess up because he’d tell you like it was. He might get loud, but there was always a message in there, a way to fix it. He definitely motivated me.”
Hard work pays off
Ashley’s son, Jonathan, played for him and coached along side him before taking the head coaching job at Myrtle four years ago.
The main thing he picked up from his father was the value and rewards of hard work.
“He works hard and he works his kids hard,” Jonathan said. “When it comes down to the fourth quarter, those players are ready.
“Whatever daddy did, he gave it everything he had.”