The first Abilene Christian University head basketball coach to take a Wildcat team to a national tournament was the late Willard Tate, who died in 2010. His talented 1979-80 team finished 27-5, advancing to the second round of the NAIA Division I tourney in Kansas City, Missouri.
This year’s men’s team matched that win total last Saturday night with its 27th victory of the season. Its celebration underscored a wildly successful yet tumultuous season, and the program’s rise from one of the worst in the NCAA when ACU began its transition from Division II to Division I in 2013.
Its treasured bid to the 2019 March Madness tourney – mirrored, amazingly, this week by the ACU women’s team coached by Julie Goodenough – is just two years after Abilene Christian became eligible for such postseason play. It is a remarkable accomplishment and awe-inspiring opportunity, even more so in front of tonight’s primetime game against Kentucky, the most storied men’s college basketball program of all time.
Tate, and his cohort of Wildcat coaches throughout this first century of men’s basketball at ACU, would find this scene incredulous. Abilene Christian and its quip-meister head coach, Joe Golding (’99), are the talk of the sports world today.
This is not the university’s first experience making men’s basketball headlines, however.
A.B. Morris coached the Wildcats to six conference titles before and after World War II. The late Dee Nutt (’50) took his 1965-66 ACU team to the Elite Eight of the NCAA College Division national tournament, losing to a North Dakota team on which future NBA coaching icon Phil Jackson played. Tate’s teams excelled in the 1970s. Mike Martin’s teams won three straight Lone Star Conference titles and played in two regional tourneys in the 1980s. Shanon Hays’ 1998-99 team reached the NCAA Division II regional. Golding took his 2017-18 team to thecollegeinsider.com tournament following its regular season.
One of the most beloved ACU professors and coaches of all time, Tate was a master motivator known for his winsome, folksy demeanor and his spirited teaching in the classroom, on the basketball court and in the pulpits of churches around the nation.
Late in his life, he shared insights into mentoring and coaching young people. Tate said helping convince student-athletes to choose Abilene Christian required focus on values often deemed intangible in today’s world:
“It’s not about brick and mortar. You can get brick and mortar anywhere. You can get an academic program anywhere. It’s about relationships. It’s about people caring for you that goes beyond the court, goes beyond what you do in the stats.”
He then recalled an opportunity to talk to an ACU team before a big late-season game. He told them:
“Guys, you don’t have to win for us to love you. You’ll appreciate and like yourself, and you’ll feel good about who you are. You give your best. But you don’t have to win for us to love you.”
Tate modeled what it means for a university to care for its students, regardless of their performance in a big game, or their achievements in the classroom or other experiential learning venues.
Tate was convinced helping students find God’s purpose for their lives outweighs all other earthly matters, and provides a framework for the difference a quality college degree can make in a committed life. That’s the enduring value of Christian higher education and an important distinction made daily in the athletic endeavors in which ACU engages.
With tears in his eyes, Tate expressed his admiration for Wildcat coaches:
“I am so proud of the coaches here today, I could just burst. Because I think they care about those people more than just [as] players. They’re interested in them; they’re interested in their life; they’re interested in their families.”
Winning is great. But love is greater, the battle-worn coach believed.
That spirit lives on in powerful ways today, whether playing the Davids or the Goliaths of intercollegiate sports, or on any other of the biggest stages of life where a higher education from “little ol’ Abilene Christian” – as Golding described it to national media yesterday in Jacksonville, Florida – leads its students.
May it ever be so.