When former UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden died last week I read a tribute which contrasted him to some of today’s coaching icons.
The writer contrasted Wooden’s integrity and dedication to the teaching aspect of coaching to the type of headlines that are made these days by the likes of John Calipari (academic and recruiting scandals), Rick Pitino (allegations of an extramarital affair) and Lane Kiffin (self-aggrandizing statements unsupported by any record of accomplishment).
I couldn’t help but think about this as, along with hundreds of others, I paid my respects to two Wingate University coaching legends who — despite living long, full lives — still left us way too soon.
Ron Christopher, 74, and Johnny Jacumin, 71, died within five days of each other last week, and I think the two men would have been pleased that their funerals and surrounding events gave members of the Wingate community — both town and university — and alumni of the school an opportunity to get together and share happy memories.
Both were remembered as men who practiced the coaching art the right way and for whom the term “student-athlete” wasn’t just something the NCAA makes you say.
Christopher, who passed away on June 13, was the baseball coach at Wingate for 22 seasons (1963-1972 and 1980-1993). The coach held a doctorate and his two coaching tenures were separated by a “retirement” in which he focused on his classroom work teaching history. His career spanned Wingate’s transition from a junior college to a four-year school.
As Dr. Derrill Smith, pastor of Wingate Baptist Church, noted in his remarks at Ron’s service, the coach was a winner with an enviable record (543-343-3). “He won more baseball games than most people see in a lifetime,” Smith said.
Under the Lincolnton native’s direction, the Bulldogs played in the national junior college tournament three times, spending much of the 1965 season as the nation’s No. 1 ranked team. His teams in the four-year college years won four conference championships.
Twenty-five of his players signed professional contracts and one, pitcher Alvin Morman, reached the major leagues for a few seasons in the Nineties. Another of his former players, Mike Martin, has become well-known in college baseball as the long-time coach at Florida State. He called both before and after his team’s NCAA super-regional game on the Sunday that Ron died.
And for those of you who aren’t familiar with Wingate. the baseball stadium is named for Ron, which should give you some idea of his stature in Bulldog athletic history.
But his former players — and there were many, some with gray hair and a few with none — at the funeral last Wednesday remembered him more for being a man who treated them well, helped them survive college and showed them how to live.
One recounted a conversation in which Ron told him that his priorities needed to be “God, family and Wingate baseball in that order” — with the player quickly adding that academics were grouped in there with baseball, no doubt. Others talked of the coach’s open door policy at his home, where you could often find players just hanging out and watching TV — and eating the spaghetti that his wife Beverly, an English professor at Wingate, was famous for.
Following the service I enjoyed looking through some albums of photos and news clippings in the church fellowship hall — a cool-looking guy in a snazzy Fifties-vintage sports car, two beaming newlyweds, other pictures of a growing family and a coaching career. A life well-lived.
And just a few days later, many of the same people were at another area funeral home, remembering Coach Jacumin, whose teams won almost 600 games in his 27 seasons leading the Wingate women’s basketball program. He passed away on Thursday, a few days after suffering a stroke.
Like Christopher, he was pretty much synonymous with his sport at Wingate, winning more games and coaching more seasons than any other women’s basketball coach in South Atlantic Conference history. His teams advanced to the NAIA Final Four in 1988 and made back-to-back trips to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in 1995 and 1996.
But as in Ron’s case, it was the man that people remembered last Sunday night at the funeral home. I met a couple of my former students, who knew Johnny from his other role in public life — as a member of the Wingate Town Commissioners for 12 years.
They both covered the commissioners meetings as student journalists and stringers for the Union bureau of The Charlotte Observer. I also had limited interaction with him as a reporter and I agreed with their assessment — he never ducked a question and always had something quotable to say, although he might take you to task later for actually putting it in the paper.
A slide show playing in the funeral home’s chapel during the visitation showed a colorful life in pictures. A crew-cut young schoolboy — the hair didn’t show up much in pictures taken after he reached young adulthood, a husband and father, and lots of basketball shots. Most Bulldog fans will remember him in his trademark blue sweater vest, sometimes holding a rolled-up stat sheet or program. And another familiar pose that struck fear into the hearts of referees, players or whoever the target was — leaning back in his chair and looking stern, arms folded.
For anyone who knew Johnny in any of those roles, it brought back memories.
He retired at the end of the 2006-07 season, but it was a retirement in name only. At the beginning of the next basketball season he was coaching again — back in high school at nearby Marshville Forest Hills, filling in for a season after the school had an unexpected opening for girls’ basketball coach. And he continued his public service as a sometimes irascible voice of reason and fiscal responsiblilty on the Wingate Town Commissioners.
And he remained interested in Wingate athletics, attending many Bulldog athletic events along with his wife, Cookie.
I didn’t get to attend his funeral service due to a conflict with my summer school class. But I joined a former student of mine who was also a former player of his, and some of her teammates for lunch afterwards. I probably seemed like an odd addition to that bunch, but it was fun listening to these young women — mostly in their late 20s — swap stories, many of which included their former coach,
And as I looked around that table I saw an assistant women’s basketball coach at a Division I school (my former student), two high school girls’ head coaches, and — in support of that NCAA commercial that insists that “most of us will go pro in something other than sports” — a mining technician for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The words “living legacy” just seemed to fit.