Randy Hollis: Coach Phil Russell made a huge difference in people's lives at Ogden High

Published: Thursday, May 23 2013 12:25 a.m. MDT

Ogden High School girls basketball coach Phil Russell, right, is presented with a plaque commemorating his 500th win after defeating the Box Elder Bees at Ogden High School on Feb. 18, 2010. Russell is joined by his wife, Carolyn, and granddaughter Nelle Russel.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

Great coaches can make a huge difference in the outcome of a ballgame.

Much more importantly, though, caring people can make a huge difference in people's lives.

And when Phil Russell walks away this week from Ogden High School, he should feel the satisfaction of knowing that, in a coaching/teaching career spanning four-plus decades, he did both of those things too many times to count.

Sure, as a highly successful girls basketball coach, Russell guided his Tiger teams to five state championships — 1979, 1985, 1988, 1994 and 1996.

But as great as that accomplishment is, he's always been a thoughtful, caring coach, teacher and mentor who has had a tremendous, positive impact on thousands of young people's lives.

Russell, 67, is retiring this week after spending 42 years in the Ogden School District, the last 40 of them as a U.S. history teacher at that classy, cool-looking old high school that stands so proudly on Ogden's east bench.

He spent 38 of those years as the OHS girls basketball coach, piling up 502 career wins and 10 region titles to go along with those five state titles. He spent the last 11 years as Ogden High's athletic director and, along the way, he also spent 27 years as an assistant coach in both football and baseball, and four years as the Tigers' head coach in girls volleyball and softball.

"After that first football season (in 1973), the principal called me in and said, 'You're not doing anything in the winter, so I'd like you to do something for me,’ ” Russell recalled. "And I said, 'What?' And he said 'Well, girls basketball is just really starting to get started up and I was wondering if you'd take that girls basketball job.' I didn't even interview for it; they just asked me if I'd do it.

"There was pressure from parents saying, 'Hey, can't we get a coach for these few girls that want to play?' And I said, 'Geez, really … girls?' And he said, 'Just try it.' So I did and you know what — I just really, really enjoyed it."

Russell laughingly remembered how, back in the early days of the girls program, they didn't have actual uniforms, instead simply wearing T-shirts with black electrical tape used for the players' individual numbers.

"But when we heated it up (in the clothes dryer), the tape fell off," he chuckled. "So then we stretched ’em over a frame and wrote the numbers on the back with black magic marker."

Finally, a couple years later when the school did get uniforms for the girls athletic teams, they wore the same ones for volleyball, basketball and track and field — complete with collars around the neck, but without the obligatory "Ogden," "Tigers" or "OHS" across the front of them.

Now, four decades later, he takes with him a million fond memories and leaves behind a lasting, loving legacy that will be impossible to duplicate.

"I always tell people I'm so lucky and so proud to play for him," said Anne Handy Jones, one of Russell's former players who went on to star at the University of Utah and is now the girls head basketball coach at Davis High. "We had a great tradition of winning, and I think his secret to being the winningest coach in girls basketball is that he not only loved the game of basketball and fought for girls basketball, but he cared about the individual.

"He's just beloved by so many people. He cared about the individual and you knew it, and you wanted to play for him. You'd do anything for him. He'd say jump and we'd say how high. … Whatever he was selling, we were buying it. And now, with me being in coaching, I think back about all those things I learned from him.

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