During this year's Rocket City Classic, Huntsville native's saw a familiar face step out onto the court. Westminster Christian's head basketball coach Ronnie Stapler. Coach Stapler was honored as this year's Thompson Gray Great of North Alabama.
WAAY 31 sat down with Coach Stapler after he received this award, and he says he was honored that they chose him and truly it was unexpected.
"It's usually given to somebody connected to the Alabama or Auburn program," Coach Stapler said. "I'm just a boy from Boogertown. I'm not connected to either one of them Alabama or Auburn either one. I guess they saw I was getting old. I've been in this for 49 years. So they felt sorry for me."
Contrary to what Stapler believes, he has earned the title of Legend of the Hardwood.
"I actually started coaching in 1969. I coached a 7th grade team at forest hill middle school in 1969," Stapler said. "Then I got the assists job at Grissom, and then three years later I was the head coach at 26 years old at the third biggest school in Alabama."
Stapler coached at Grissom for 33 seasons, winning two State Championships with an overall record of 485-283. He left Grissom in 2002, went out to Guntersville and lead the Wildcats for five years, then he moved on to coaching the girl's team at Randolph, that's when Westminster Christian came knocking.
"In my second year at Randolph. Coach Spivey who's the AD here called me and said, 'My boy's job is coming open, would you be interested?' I said, 'Coach I'd love to but I told these little girls that I stay, I started with them as 9th graders and I told them I would stay with them through their senior year.' And the way the good Lord works, after that fourth year he called me and said 'Okay, one more chance, I'm letting my basketball coach go, would you like to come out here?' I said, 'Hey I'll be there tomorrow to sign the contract.'"
Stapler's now in his seventh season at WCA. He won a State Championship back in 2016 and were the runners up last season. But for Coach, the wins and losses don't matter.
"I'm not stupid enough to think that coaching has anything to do with this," Stapler said. "Players are 95% and coaching is 5% and I've been lucky all these 49 years to have some of the best assistant coaches; guys who've played for me who've come back to help me, and they've just made it that much more enjoyable."
One of those former players turned assistant coaches is Kendrick Epps, whose relationship with his coach has lasted for more than 25 years.
When asking Epps how important is having a relationship like the one he had with Coach Stapler at such a young age, he responded with this.
"It's been life changing for me because I didn't know it at the time, but he was training me on how to be a great father, how to grow and be a respectful adult, how to treat people and how to treat my own kids."
Epps takes what he's learned from Stapler and tries to match the amount of love his coach has always shown.
"He does so much that people don't see outside of the gym," Epps said. "Just from feeding kids, to clothing them sometimes; housing them sometimes. Those were things that I learned from him and instill today that I really admire. Basketball is really just extra credit. The relationships we get to build with the kids, lifelong relationships, that's something I'll cherish for the rest of my life."
"I really don't like the games," Coach Stapler said. "I could care less about the games I just enjoy teaching the game, teaching young kids how to play basketball. We tell ours out here all the time. It's not where you play, when you play, who you play, it's how you play the game is the most important thing about basketball."
Coach Stapler was inducted into the Huntsville/Madison County Athletic Hall of Fame in 1997; has won more than 700 games in his career; been named Coach of the Year numerous times; but what makes him happiest is seeing his former players thrive in life no matter if it's in or out of basketball.
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