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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) 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.

Ogden High School girls basketball coach Phil Russell celebrates his 500th win by cutting off the net after defeating the Box Elder Bees at Ogden High School on Feb. 18, 2010. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Ogden High School girls basketball coach Phil Russell celebrates his 500th win by cutting off the net after defeating the Box Elder Bees at Ogden High School on Feb. 18, 2010. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

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.

"One year we challenged him to not swear any more and not to drink Tab any more, because it's just not good for you," she recalled. "But he got so ornery at not being able to swear or drink Tab that we told him to please just start up again."

Jones noted that at Ogden High, there is a great diversity of students — some from well-to-do families on the east bench, others from poor families in the inner city, and many that are African-American or Hispanic.

With his lovable yet stern way, Russell was able to break down any possible barriers between different socioeconomic groups and races and turn them into a winning team.

"Ogden High is an interesting school with such a wide variety of kids," Jones said. "But he didn't care about that. He'd take those different groups of girls and put them together, and he made them winners. He didn't care if they had different backgrounds, he cared for every single player exactly the same. He'd treat you all the same and love you all the same.

"He's just a unique guy. He was always so positive and upbeat. Years after I graduated, I'd see him and he'd always say, 'We're gonna be so awesome and we're gonna (half-court) trap the heck out of everybody. We're gonna be great.' He believed in every team and every player, and he has a great ability to bring out the potential in every kid.

"He's a great motivator, and another secret to his success is he's a big believer in fundamentals. And he was also great at always teaching us a lot of life lessons along the way," she said. "He's seen it all, he's done it all, and it's really a sad day to see him go. I don't think we'll ever see another one like him. I would've loved for my kids to play for him."

Russell has certainly seen many changes during his years in the coaching/teaching profession.

Back when he started, the entire football coaching staff actually taught at the school, too, which is seldom the case now.

In this era of specialization, it's rare to see an athlete play multiple sports like they did back in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Instead, many athletes play on club or comp teams and compete in the same sport year-round.

The quality of players and teams has become much stronger than it was in those early days, Russell says.

"There was a time when, if you had one or two good players on a team, you could go a long way," he said. "… You could add to those two players and really put a team on the floor. But you can't do that now; you've got to have five players that can really play the game.

"It has evolved to the point that kids are so skilled now that they're very competitive. It's incredible what the girl athletes have become. They start early and they're attending camps and they're doing all the things that the boys, of course, have done for a long time. I think most of the girls are really focused on their individual things that they want to do. … And there are some girls who are such good players nowadays they could play on the boys team.

"Club sports have hurt high school sports as far as limiting the number of sports that a kid plays," Russell said. "In soccer, they go from high school soccer to club soccer to indoor soccer to co-ed soccer and hell, what's next, naked soccer? I don't know. It never ends. And the kids' next season after soccer is girls basketball, so there's a lot of distractions, too.

"Club sports are mostly all-star teams, and I've always liked my teams to play together. I've always worried about the promises made to kids on the club level about 'We're going to be able to find you a scholarship more readily that your high school program.' And they're shelling out a lot of money on those club teams."

What's more, nowadays schools like Ogden High face serious sports budget-crunch issues in the Ogden School District.

Yes, things have certainly changed in many ways since Russell came to OHS in the early 1970s. And for him, it's been a great ride.

"I've loved being in the classroom," he said. "I've really loved teaching U.S. history. That's been the cake, and the frosting has been being able to coach."

Russell related a touching letter to the editor that a young man recently wrote to the local newspaper.

"He said, 'I was never an athlete at Ogden High, I never played one sport. But Phil Russell treated all these kids like they were his favorites. I thought I was his favorite student, but as I got older, I realized that wasn't the case,’ ” Russell said. "He said 'Everybody else tended to think they were his favorites, too.' He just said he really appreciated that. That was really a nice thing for him to say."

Russell admitted that coaches probably receive too much credit and recognition when their teams are winning, while a teacher who spends many years doing his or her job in another non-athletic department receives virtually no recognition — and he thinks that's wrong.

A big, lovable and sentimental lug, Russell compiled 38 basketball scorebooks in his 38 seasons at the Tiger girls' helm, and he included newspaper clippings and photographs along with them, transforming them from scorebooks into invaluable scrapbooks.

Now he's gotta figure out what to do with them.

"It's a great way to keep those memories from each year," he said.

He's been honored with enough Coach of the Year and Hall of Fame awards to fill any trophy case. And they named the floor in the new Tiger gym "Phil Russell Court."

On the wall of his office at the school is this saying:

"Choose the job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life."

"And I really feel that way," Russell said. "I never know what kid or what problem is gonna walk through that door, but every one of them is fun and interesting and solvable. You shed a few tears with kids and you laugh a lot with kids, and that's the thing I'll miss. I'm not gonna miss the bricks in this building, but kids, teachers and experiences, holy mackerel, that's what I'll miss the most."

Indeed, Russell is one of those guys with a tremendous sense of humor, a guy who loves to laugh and to make others do the same. He's a terrific people person who loves those around him — and they love him right back.

He was once told by a principal that he had "a talent for cursing" and yet somehow never offended anyone with it. At a recent reception honoring him, one of his former students was asked, "What have you learned from Coach Russell?" And the student promptly replied, "I've learned 50 ways to use the word 'hell.’ ”

In my 40-plus years as a sports writer, I've had the privilege of getting to know a lot of great coaches, many great men and women who were such terrific people.

But I doubt if any of them have had a more positive impact on people's lives than Phil Russell. He has truly been one of the great, great ones — as a coach, certainly, but most importantly as a guy who made a tremendously caring and lasting difference.

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com

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