Tenacious coach creates own 'luck'
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Remember that charmed student back in high school the one who always found himself on luck's kind side? Tony Ingle was never mistaken for that guy.
Indeed, life took its first stiff shot at Tony at first breath. The Ingles were poor. Claud and Bobbie Ingle worked hard in the mills of Dalton, Ga., but they were never able to bring much home for their son, Tony, and his sisters. "We were so poor, the rats lost weight," he joked.
Plus, Tony was not by his own admission a pretty child. A fatty tumor under one cheek left his face deformed and forced him to endure five childhood surgeries. Once while convalescing he missed so much school that he failed the fifth grade.
"You feel like you're ugly. You know you're poor. And you feel like you're dumb," he said, recalling his youth. Indeed, the prospects of success appeared distant for the pity-worthy boy a few decades ago. Yet there was Coach Tony Ingle on national television March 27, whooping and dancing at mid-court with his team of Kennesaw State University athletes. The Fighting Owls had just won the NCAA Division II men's basketball championship.
"I'm living a dream right now," Coach Ingle told the Church News days after leading Kennesaw State to the national title.
A convert to the Church, Coach Ingle said he learned about love from his mother and work from his father. And he was fortunate to find basketball and its attendant discipline and dreams early in life.
Still his athletic ambitions at North Whitfield High were almost undercut by tough times. Too poor to buy a new pair of basketball shoes, Tony played one season with mismatched sneakers (sizes 10 1/2 and 9) that had been abandoned at the school.
There was also trouble at home. The night before the first game of his sophomore season, Tony awoke to the din of his mother arguing with his father, who had been drinking. Claud Ingle had found a job at the mill for Tony and told his son he had to drop out of school and quit the basketball team. "I told my dad, 'I'm not quitting school. I'm not quitting school.' "
Young Tony's protests earned him a beating and he played the next day bruised and welted. Eventually, Claud Ingle began attending his son's games. A big-hearted man, Coach Ingle has come to peace with their sometimes painful history. He loves his father. "A fool lives in the past, a wise man in the future," he said.
After finishing high school, he entered Dalton Junior College on an athletic scholarship. While in school, he married Jeanne Whitworth, a young LDS woman who introduced her husband to the gospel. The birth of their first child, Eliott, prompted some soul searching for Tony Ingle.
"I wanted to be a good daddy. I wanted to be a good husband. But I didn't know how." Moved by Jeanne's strong testimony of the gospel and eternal families, he agreed to listen to the missionary discussions. He was baptized two weeks later and now belongs to the Acworth Ward, Marietta Georgia East Stake.
When his playing days ended, he was still pestered by the basketball bug. He turned to coaching. Coach Ingle enjoyed success in the Georgia high school ranks, then coached at a pair of small colleges before taking an assistant coaching job at Brigham Young University in 1989. During Coach Ingle's eight years at BYU, the Cougars made five NCAA tournament appearances and won the Western Athletic Conference regular season championship three times.
His tenure at BYU did not end as he had hoped. After the Cougars started the 1996-97 season 1-6, head coach Roger Reid was fired and Coach Ingle became the interim head coach. The young team was heavy with freshmen and thin on talent. The Cougars did not win another game that season. The school opted for a new direction for the next season and Coach Ingle was out of a coaching job.
For three years he earned a living working as a sports color commentator, scouting for the Utah Jazz, selling carpet and peddling golf equipment. But his heart remained close to the hardwood. "I knew I'd coach again," he said. In 2000, a friend from the coaching community tipped him to a head job at Kennesaw State, a small school outside of Atlanta. He was hesitant to uproot his family from their Orem, Utah, home and schools. He didn't want his two high school-age sons, Tony Jr. and Israel, to have to leave their respective basketball teams. It was the Ingle boys who persuaded their father to move back to Georgia and full-time coaching.
"One son told me, 'Dad, we'd rather see you coach than us play.' It broke my heart," Coach Ingle said, pausing with emotion. After much prayer, he accepted the Kennesaw State job. In just his second season, Coach Ingle led the Owls to the Peach Belt Conference Championship game. High expectations were met again this season. Kennesaw State won 35 games best among all U.S. college teams enjoyed a 26-game win streak, and topped the season with the March 27 win in the Division II finals over Southern Indiana.
So what if luck sometimes sidestepped Tony Ingle. The title-winning coach says blessings have always been close by. "Life is short, serious and frail," he said. "Learn from it. Laugh at it. And live it well."