SALT LAKE CITY — Tony Ingle, the longtime college basketball coach, recently announced his retirement, which means he will end his career where it started — at Dalton (Georgia) State in his hometown of the same name. He leaves the game having fulfilled his ambition to win a national championship while also making people laugh along the way with his gift of gab, his homespun wisdom and his endless one-liners.
By any measure he was a successful coach — a three-time national Coach of the Year Award winner whose teams won two small-college national championships — but Ingle fell short of achieving one personal goal. After serving as emergency interim head coach at BYU during the disastrous 1996-97 season — after falling on the sword for his church’s school — he never got another chance to coach big-time college basketball. But he knew that was the price he would pay.
It was three years before Ingle found another coaching job and then only in the backwaters of college basketball. He won the NCAA Div. II championship at Kennesaw State in 2004 only to get fired again years later after the school decided to make a premature jump to Div. I. After spending two more years trying to find another coaching job, he won the NAIA national championship at Dalton in 2015.
Ingle had always planned to retire at 55. Then he woke up one morning this year and realized he was 66 and still coaching. For the past year, he also had been serving as bishop in his local ward while also coaching his team, and it had become too much. He was getting off the team bus at 1 or 2 a.m. on Saturday nights and attending church meetings a few hours later. There were times when he got off the bus and went straight to the church.
Then there was the pressure of coaching in the town where he had grown up and attended college, a place filled with former teachers, high school and college teammates and friends. “Let me tell you, when you lose in your hometown, you drive through town with your head out the window like Ace Ventura looking for a stray bullet to put you out of your misery,” he says.
So he retired, but it wasn’t easy to walk away from something he had worked so hard to obtain. Few men have ever worked more tenaciously than Ingle to stay in the coaching profession. Between jobs, he sold insurance, carpet and multi-level products, directed basketball camps, and, during his days as a prep coach, delivered newspapers and officiated Saturday games at $10 per. He was just biding his time while trying to land another coaching job while also trying to earn a living to support his wife and five children.
Between coaching jobs, he also signed on with various speakers bureaus and since then has given about a dozen speeches a year. In retirement, he will devote more time to it. “I’ll go from coaching on the hardwood to coaching on the stage,” he says. “I’m going to use my experiences to persuade people to find the good in themselves. Coaching has never been about basketball. The Lord is not going to care how many games I won. It’s going to be, how many people did you bring with you.”
Ingle has plenty of hard-won wisdom and experience to pass along. Someone could make a movie about this guy (and according to Ingle, someone is considering it — Mitch Davis, who directed “The Other Side of Heaven”). He was born with a deformity on the left side of his face that was caused by a tumor. He underwent surgeries at the ages of 3, 5, 7, 11 and 13. He was supposed to undergo one more plastic surgery procedure, but the surgeon — who had been donating his work because of the Ingles’ indigence — died in a car wreck. As Ingle tells it, “Mom and Dad said, ‘You look good enough.’” He rose above the deformity through his basketball prowess and found a permanent home in the game.
His coaching career was a tour of high schools and small colleges with one exception. He was hired as an assistant at BYU by head coach Roger Reid. His plan was to gain experience and then pursue a head coaching position when he was ready. It didn’t work out that way. BYU fired Reid after a 1-6 start to the 1996-97 season. School officials asked Ingle to replace him. He said no. They persisted. The other assistant, Lynn Archibald, was ill and unable to take the job.
Ingle knew he had zero chance of success. BYU had six freshmen and four sophomores that season, and a schedule packed with nationally ranked opponents. He realized that if he coached that team it would be a scarlet letter on his résumé. He finally relented, with this caveat: “Don’t judge me by my record.” It was like taking the helm of the Titanic after she struck ice. The Cougars finished with a 1-25 record. He was fired. He went job hunting with a 0-19 mark.
“I knew I was committing professional suicide,” he says. “I was not going to win. The bottom line is I did what I thought was right. The way I looked at it, the house was on fire; how many people can you save? If you love them, are you going to run in and save them and get burned in the process? I did it because I love BYU and the players.”10 comments on this story
His parting shot to his former employers at BYU was that he would win a national championship some day. He won two of them, and the second one, at Dalton, was perhaps his greatest feat. Dalton had not had a basketball team for 35 years when it hired him to start one. During the next five years the Roadrunners produced a 131-33 record — the best record of any of Georgia’s 40 universities and colleges. They might have won another national championship in Ingle’s first season there, but they didn’t have a conference affiliation at the time and thus no avenue to the postseason playoffs despite a 26-4 record.
Now Ingle leaves coaching behind and for once it’s his choice. He will take 31 years of experience to the speaker’s podium. Among other things, he says he will discuss perseverance.
“Kids now want to start at the top,” he begins. “They expect instant gratification. It don’t work that way. You gotta run the race to get the reward. Everyone wants to do ‘set-go, give me a trophy.’ You gotta roll up your sleeves and go to work.”
It’s a subject he knows well.