Four for the Ages
At Ralph Tasker Arena in Hobbs, N.Mex., last Friday night, Hobbs High coach Ralph Tasker and his Eagles defeated Clovis High 99-88. It was Tasker's 1,060th career win, making him the all-time winningest coach in prep basketball history. Tasker savored the magical moment for all of, oh, 22 hours. Then, across the country, Morgan Wootten, the coach at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., led his Stags to a 76-58 win over Archbishop Carroll to tie Tasker with his own 1,060th career victory.
As unlikely as it sounds, over the same weekend Bill Krueger of Clear Lake High in Houston won his 1,059th game and Robert Hughes of Dunbar High in Fort Worth won number 1,058, putting four active coaches within two wins of one another on the alltime list (chart, next page). Wootten pretty much echoes the sentiments of the entire quartet when he says, "I'm thrilled to be mentioned among these great coaches. After all these years, I'm just happy that it's still big news when we lose."
Wootten, 63, began his coaching career in 1951 as a baseball coach at a Washington-area orphanage, then moved to DeMatha in '56. His legend was established early in his tenure when the Stags knocked off New York City juggernaut Power Memorial, which featured a seven-foot senior center named Lew Alcindor. Power Memorial had won 71 games in a row before playing DeMatha in 1965 in front of the first capacity crowd ever at Cole Field House on the University of Maryland campus. Wootten prepared his team all week by holding a tennis racket above his head to simulate the seven-footer, only to have Alcindor swat the Stags' first shot into the cheap seats. Nevertheless DeMatha held on to stun Power 46-43. "The other interesting thing about that night was that my wife, Kathy, was nine months pregnant and attended the game with a friend who could bring her to the hospital if necessary. Well, in the second half, her friend said, 'I hope it doesn't happen tonight, because I'm not leaving.' "
Since then Wootten has sent scores of players to Division I programs and a dozen eventually to the NBA, including Adrian Dantley, Danny Ferry and Kenny Carr. Wootten has an .873 career winning percentage, the highest among the four top coaches; this season's team was 22-3 through Sunday and ranked 13th in the nation. But the coach who grew up just one block from the school still lives close enough to occasionally walk home for lunch. And he remains so soft-spoken that he often uses a microphone during practice so that he can be heard over the din of dribbling basketballs.
Tasker, 75, actually retired two years ago. Sort of. He still teaches government and economics classes at Hobbs every morning and returns to school in the afternoon to coach his team as an unpaid volunteer. The Eagles are the Runnin' Rebels of high school basketball, employing a full-court-pressing, run-and-gun style; his 1970 state championship team averaged 114.6 points a game and had 14 straight 100-point games. Tasker's go-for-broke approach is so dear to the Eagles' legion of fans that once in the '60s when he ordered a stall, the entire Hobbs cheering section exited the gym in protest. Another notable Tasker crisis occurred in 1949, when he won the first of his 12 state titles. In the fourth quarter of the championship game, Tasker decided to rest starting guard Billy Ponder. "The school superintendent, H.C. Pannell, was sitting right behind the bench and leaned over to me and said, 'Coach, don't you think Billy ought to be in there?' " says Tasker. "I was young and foolish, so I held Billy out for another minute or so just to get a point across. Luckily we won the game, or my coaching career might have been much shorter."
Tasker's victory total has always been limited by New Mexico high school rules, which allow a maximum of 21 regular-season games, but he has endurance on his side. "I once asked someone how long he'll coach," Krueger remembers, "and the guy told me Ralph will probably die on the bench."
Krueger, 59, the youngest of the group, grew up the son of a rancher in Johnson City, Texas, the hometown of Lyndon Johnson. "I remember my dad always saying that someday I'd have to get a real job, but here I am after 37 years still coaching," says Krueger.
Krueger started out as the coach at Houston's Clear Creek High in 1965 and was there for seven years until the school district split and Clear Lake was created. When the principal asked who wanted to go to the new school, Krueger declined, but when he discovered that many of his better players were making the move, he chased the principal down the hall and begged to transfer. At Clear Lake he averaged 30 wins a season for his first 20 years despite working without a single player who would ever rise above the college ranks.
Krueger is also the only coach who admits to keeping an eye on the records of his competitors. "If I set the record even for just one day, I'd like to know it," he says. "I never have gotten a rebound, never have scored a point and never have taken a charging foul, but the record would be a great testament to everyone I've ever coached."
Krueger defeated Hughes in the Texas state tournament in 1990, the only time any of the four coaches have ever faced one another. Hughes, 65, is a workaholic who still coaches his freshman team in addition to his work with the varsity. After games he washes his team's uniforms himself, then studies game film into the wee hours. "If I ever get bored with it, I'll be hanging my toes in a river in Jackson, Wyoming," Hughes says.
In his 37 years of coaching, the 6'6" Hughes has had only two players taller than he is, but he has produced four state champions—three during a 15-year stint at Fort Worth's I.M. Terrell High—with what he calls "my munchkins." Hughes's first title at Terrell, in 1963, was the sweetest. "I began as a coach in '58, teaching basketball to a group of seventh-graders," Hughes says. "It was a case of, 'This is your left foot, this is your right foot, that orange thing hanging up there is a basketball rim.' We grew up together, and before games I'd take them over to the house and watch over them like a mother hen. Their senior year we reached the state title game and finally won it in double overtime but not before my center, Clarence McHenry, threw a behind-the-back pass in the second overtime and got called for traveling. Clarence was like a son to me, but I'd have killed him right there if there weren't so many witnesses. I'll never forget that night."
Despite their 4,237 total wins and a combined 18 state titles for Krueger, Hughes and Tasker, and 13 city championships for Wootten, when these four legendary coaches are asked what they remember most, each had the same knee-jerk response: "The losses."
Congratulations were in order on Saturday as Wootten won No. 1,060.