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The Unlikely Coaching Tree: Legacies of Connell and Christopher alive and well

Wingate has produced some incredible sports teams down through the years, but few can hope to produce a coaching legacy as impressive as that of the 1963 men's basketball team.

The team had a Hollywood-movie feel to it: The scrappy ball handler who escaped the coach’s notice at tryouts but became the engine driving the team. The competitive, athletic small forward who craved buckets. The coach-in-training who soaked it all in from the bench.

And, at the helm, the former Marine whose job it was to impart basketball knowledge to them: proper defensive stances, how to box out, when to make a cut in the “shuffle” offense, not to mention discipline and self-sacrifice.

It was the winter of 1962-63, and Wingate Junior College’s basketball team was an up-and-down bunch, losing a couple, winning four in a row, losing, winning, losing, winning. The Bulldogs played a few freshman teams from NCAA schools but mostly went up against other junior colleges: Lees-McRae, Chowan, Anderson and two squads, Charlotte College and Asheville Biltmore, that would join the ranks of four-year schools the next year. They beat Charlotte twice, lost to Asheville and pretty much split with everybody else.

The team was somewhat nondescript. It was the days before basketball really took off as a highflying spectacle for fans, and some players still employed set shots. The Wingate team, employing a staunch defense and a plodding, back-to-the-basket style, was good some days, average on others. There wasn’t much buzz around the Bulldogs.

“I don’t think we ever had very many fans at the games,” says Morris “Mo” McHone ’63. “Let’s put it this way: We weren’t big men on campus like they are today. We were just regular guys who played.”

1963 Wingate basketball team

In our would-be Hollywood blockbuster, this is the point in the script where the team plays the big game, when this ragtag group comes from behind to win a championship, sending the campus into a frenzy.

But this isn’t the movies. The championships would come, but not until years later, in courts and on baseball diamonds around the country. There may not have been anything special about this team at this moment in time, but the players on it would go on to win thousands of games and coach some of the greats in baseball and basketball: J.D. Drew, Buster Posey, Kobe Bryant, George Gervin, Dave Cowens.

This is the story of the coaching tree nobody realized had been planted. Ultimately, players from this Wingate team would go on to coach in the NBA, to lead Team USA to the gold, to dominate high-school basketball, and to win more NCAA games – in any sport – than any coach in history.

And the team has even spawned a third generation of coaches that are at least as successful – and, in some cases, higher-profile – than the second.

Underlying these successes were lessons learned from a couple of old-school coaches who became Wingate institutions: Bill Connell and Ron Christopher.

‘A killer to play for’

Bill Connell ’53 spent time in the military after graduating from Wingate and then Catawba College. When you first met him, it didn’t take long to figure out he was an ex-Marine. “If you were ever around him, you could tell he was military,” says Bill Nash ’71, a longtime administrator and coach at Wingate who is now the director of the University’s Bulldog Club.

Connell came back to Wingate in 1959 to teach physical education and help coach football, and he remained at the school until his death in 1992. Over the years he would coach tennis, golf, football and basketball and serve as athletic director. With his buzz cut, clipboard and whistle, he looked the part of the coach in just about every teen movie ever made. 

Bill Connell

He wasn’t so much a throwback as a product of his time, and he was successful. He was a coach of the year nine times, and his golf teams once had a 49-game dual-match winning streak.

In Connell’s first season as an assistant coach, the Bulldog football team went 7-2, including a loss in the Pine Bowl in Texarkana, Texas. Connell, who had played basketball and baseball at Wingate, became the head basketball coach in 1960 but continued coaching football until the sport was disbanded after the 1962 season.

Connell was as old-school as they come. He kept players at arm’s length, demanded 100 percent effort from them and was the unquestioned authority during practices and games.

John Miller was Connell’s starting point guard from 1961 to 1963 and eventually won more than 650 games as a high-school basketball head coach, even coaching Kobe Bryant in the 1996 McDonald’s All-American Game. “Coach Connell was a killer to play for, boy,” says Miller, who was also known for his demanding style of coaching. “He ain’t messing around.”

“He was pretty strict as far as that kind of thing goes,” says McHone, who played basketball for Connell from 1961 to 1963 and served as manager of the football team. “Strict’s probably not the right word. But I always did feel like he was stern.”

McHone, who would later become head coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and would coach Team USA to a gold medal in the Tournament of the Americas in 1997, quickly adds that Connell was a very good basketball coach who worked hard to get better.

Miller agrees, saying Connell studied the game and wanted to win. “He was big on defense,” he says. “He had this thing he called ‘spot’ defense. It was a matchup zone. He was running this matchup zone back in ’62, ’63, and there just weren’t that many guys in basketball who even knew what a matchup zone was. He got it from somebody or knew somebody, but he had it down pat.”

“As a basketball coach, everything I’ve heard about him was he was almost ahead of his time,” says Nash.

No going through the motions

Defense was the team’s hallmark, and if you didn’t guard the opposing team with all your energy, Connell let you know about it. Mike Martin, who has won more college baseball games than anyone in history, was an unashamedly shoot-first, ask-questions-later small forward for Connell for two years starting in 1962. “He used to get on me all the time,” says Martin, a two-sport star who finished his 40-year run as Florida State’s head baseball coach in June with a 2,029-736 record. “He said a statue could do a better job than I.”

Martin, a two-time junior-college All-American baseball player at Wingate, went on to star in center field for Florida State’s baseball team, but he loved coaching basketball. After giving the minors a try for three years, Martin coached hoops, starting the program at Tallahassee Community College before coaching junior-high and high-school ball.

He wound up leaving basketball behind to become an assistant baseball coach at FSU, where he stayed for 45 record-setting years. He was more of a player’s coach than Connell, but some vestige of the former Marine’s disciplined approach remained throughout Martin’s consistent career in the dugout. Martin still recalls the demanding practices in Sanders-Sikes Gym.

Bill Connell talking to the team manager

“He wasn’t what you would call a dictator, but it was his way or the highway,” Martin says. “He knew what he wanted to accomplish, and when we came to practice you didn’t just go through the motions. You got after it for the allotted time that we had.

“He had a lot to do with making me walk a tight line,” Martin continues. “There were things that were not allowed by him, meaning if practice was at 3 o’clock, you better be on the court ready to go at 2:55. … I’ve closed many a door in my career if you’re not where you’re supposed to be in the allotted time.”

“He had all these different little rules, and man you better be following his rules or he would get you,” says Miller, whose high-school teams, although more offense-minded than Connell’s squads, were just as disciplined. “He would just blow up.”

Miller recalls one especially motivating example. “We were ranked really high in junior college on defense,” Miller says. “We might have been a top-three or -four defensive team. He got some type of certificate or letter or something. He was pretty proud that we were ranked pretty high defensively. I remember one day he got ticked off, and he brought that letter out, he just ripped it up. He tore it up. ‘You guys don’t want to play basketball!’ That’s how he was.”

Nash, who as a high-schooler watched Connell’s Wingate teams play in Sanders-Sikes, compares him to former Indiana coach Bobby Knight in his desire to control every aspect of his team.

“He reminds me more of the coaches today,” Nash says. “You watch coaches, and they’re coaching almost every dribble. Connell was like that too. He was confident in what he was seeing and what he wanted.”

McHone spent most of his basketball time at Wingate watching from the bench, soaking up Connell’s sophisticated systems. But he says he always felt part of the team, no matter his lack of playing time.

“He was a good coach, and we ran good patterns, and I did like that part of him, because I knew I was learning about structure and those kinds of things,” he says. “One of the things about Coach Connell, I never felt like if you played bad he would hold it against you. Some coaches, you can tell they don’t like you as a player. You feel kind of hurt by that. I never did feel that with him, even though I knew I wasn’t good enough and I knew he knew I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t feel unwanted or anything.”

Contrast in styles

With his disciplined approach, it’s no surprise that Connell’s teams were in great shape. That was helpful to a young coach just getting his feet wet in the fall of 1962. Ron Christopher took over the Wingate baseball program that year, inheriting a couple of Connell’s basketball stars, Martin and Miller, who played center field and shortstop, respectively.

“Mike and Johnny came to baseball in great condition,” says Dr. Beverly Christopher ’57, Ron’s widow.

Christopher wound up having even more of an impact on Martin than Connell did, by virtue of the fact that Martin ultimately became a baseball coach. In 24 seasons as head coach, spread over two stints, Christopher had a 536-343 career record at Wingate. He got off to a hot start, leading the Bulldogs to the junior-college World Series in his second and third seasons.

Ron Christopher, coaching in the 1960s

Christopher may have been more approachable than Connell, but Martin says he was no pushover.

“He wasn’t as scary, you might say, as Bill Connell,” Martin says. “He was just a guy that, ‘Hey, this is the way it’s going to be done, guys. Not going to listen to any griping. This is the way it’s going to be done.’ Whether it’s the way we get on and off the field, the way we go to the plate, the way we approach the umpire. Ron Christopher I owe an awful lot to for giving me opportunities that I probably would not have gotten.”

Christopher was something of a contradiction in terms. Baseball “was all-consuming for him,” Beverly Christopher says. Nash says that, for Christopher, the Wingate program “became his life and his identity.”

But Christopher quit coaching for eight years when he had a young family, and he was noted as an excellent history teacher. “He was excited about it (teaching history),” says Nash, who took a history class taught by Christopher and later was his assistant coach for 13 years. “I think he was the college teacher who coached,” as opposed to a coach who was handed classes to teach.

If Connell kept a wall between himself and his players, Christopher became more of a close mentor to his. He regularly had team members over to his house. “It was always an open door,” Beverly Christopher says. “I think he wanted for it to be more than just the game. I think he wanted life lessons to come from it, and I think they did.

“He loved it so. It wasn’t like a job to him. He loved getting to know his players and keeping up with them. I think the comment I treasure the most about his coaching is when players say, ‘It was so much fun to play for him.’”

Martin stayed in touch with Christopher until the latter’s death in 2010. Christopher even took his team to Tallahassee one year to take on Martin’s Seminoles.

Even after he passed away, a bit of Christopher remained alive in the form of Florida State’s incredible baseball program. “Coach Christopher was one that stressed pitching, defense and baserunning, and that’s three things we have written on the door downstairs,” Martin said a few months before his last game at FSU. “He was a guy that believed if you got beat, the other team outplayed you. You didn’t give them extra outs. You didn’t do those things that can cost you ballgames.”

The coaching tree planted by Christopher and Connell continues to bear fruit today. Martin’s son, Mike Martin Jr., has coached alongside his dad for 22 years and is the team’s recruiting coordinator.

Miller’s two sons, Sean and Archie, played for their dad in high school and have used many of his coaching principles in their stellar careers. Sean has been the head coach at the University of Arizona for a decade, and Archie will begin his third season as head coach at Indiana University this fall.

McHone’s son, Kimble, is a successful high-school coach in San Antonio, where McHone makes his home, and his grandson, Griffin, is director of operations for the men’s basketball program at Kennesaw State University. “I think he’s going to be the best coach of the bunch,” McHone says. “He’s got it in his blood, no question.”

Perhaps there’s a tinge of blue-and-gold blood mixed in there as well. Whether he realizes it or not, Griffin McHone is part of a surprisingly impressive coaching tree.