I just returned from a Florida vacation and was greeted by the sad news that Vergil Fletcher, the legendary Collinsville basketball coach, had died on the day prior to his 94th birthday. No other high school coach in Illinois had more of an impact on the game.
His record speaks for itself...794 victories in 36 years, a 32-year record of 747-171 at Collinsville before retiring in 1979, a winning percentage of .814, state championships in 1961 and 1965, second in 1957, third in 1978 and fourth in 1950, a record 14 state qualifiers, a home-court winning percentage of .870, a 283-34 record or winning percentage of .893 from 1960 to 1970, our high school All-Americans--Terry Bethel, Bogie Redmon, Rodger Bohnenstiehl and Tom Parker.
Most of all, Fletcher was a visionary. His definition of a great coach was "someone who can win when he doesn't have talent." His players always weren't the fastest or most athletic. When opponents tried to hold the ball, he introduced the zone press or ball press in the early 1950s. In the last 20 years of his career, he ran a triangle offense.
After demonstrating his new ball press at a clinic, former St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca said it wouldn't work in college. Then he began using it the following year. Later, UCLA coach John Wooden used it. Fletcher's 1965 state championship team set a state record for creating turnovers while averaging only five per game.
I first met Fletcher as the sports editor of the Daily Illini when he brought his unbeaten 1961 state championship team to Champaign. Later, when I worked for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat from 1966 to 1968, I lived in Collinsville and spent countless hours talking to him in his office, observing practice and covering games.
When I began my research in 2002 for my first book, "Sweet Charlie, Dike, Cazzie, and Bobby Joe: High School Basketball In Illinois," Fletcher was the person I interviewed. At his home on Vandalia Street, next to the old high school, he guided me through his basement, a museum of old memories, newspaper clippings, pictures, trophies, copies of old speeches, pep talks and game plans.
As I'm writing this, I am looking at some memorabilia that he gave to me, including a typewritten copy of his defensive fundamentals that he gave to each member of his team prior to the opening practice. It lists 45 different fundamentals.
Also two diagrams of his screen-and-roll offense, a four-page typewritten outline on the full-court ball press defense, a copy of year-by-year statistics on the effectiveness of the ball press defense and a three-page typewritten copy of the Kahok Code, subtitled "So you want to be a basketball player," complete with handwritten notes in the margins. Upon reading Fletcher's do's and don'ts, his training rules and his list of "basic requirements," each player had to sign the document.
It all makes for fascinating reading. It was a blueprint for building one of the most successful programs in state history. No wonder so many coaches, including former Kahok star Kevin Stallings at Illinois State and Vanderbilt, copied his defense and incorporated so much of his teachings into their philosophies.
"He was the Vince Lombardi of basketball," said Dennis Pace, the star of the 1965 state championship team."He had three or four plays and one basic defense and he made you play the way he wanted you to play. He never practiced for Alton or Quincy or Belleville. He knew they practiced against him. He didn't scout and never prepared for an opponent. He prepared his players to do the things he wanted them to do on the floor under any condition. He knew if we did what he wanted, we'd be successful."
Parker, who also played for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, recalled how Fletcher set a stage for success with his highly organized, disciplined and professional approach to the game. "There was no question who was in charge," Parker said. "He cut kids who didn't do what he expected--and he expected you to go to class and make grades. You didn't want to let him down."
Bethel, the star of the 1957 powerhouse that was upset by Herrin in the state final, said he probably would have dropped out of high school if not for Fletcher. "He never scouted, never looked at game film and didn't even take film of our team. His theory was if he had coached us right and did what he told us to do, we didn't need to know about the other team," Bethel said.
Fletcher admitted he was an "old school" type of coach, that his philosophy probably couldn't pass muster today. He once sent a letter to his players prior to the season, outlining what he expected, what he wouldn't tolerate--they had to be in bed by 10, no smoking or drinking, no dating on weeknights, practice on Thanksgiving morning.
Stallings' older brother wanted Fletcher to his offense to suit Kevin's style. "There's the door," Fletcher told him. The father of a former player, a minister, advised Fletcher that he shouldn't conduct practice on Thanksgiving. Fletcher told him that he would run the basketball program and the minister should run his church.
"You've got to be the boss," Fletcher said. "You can't let the players or their parents decide what is best for them or the program."
They don't make them like that anymore. He will be missed.