Tony Ingle began coaching in 1974. (Or, as he says, “when Moby Dick was a minnow.”) He’s 58 and has five grandchildren. He awoke Tuesday to find himself an overnight sensation.
Kennesaw State beat Georgia Tech of the snooty ACC by 17 points Monday night, and on Tuesday ESPN’s “SportsCenter” kept asking/answering the question, “Who is Kennesaw State?” And KSU’s coach, the aforementioned Tony Ingle, heard from everyone he’d ever known via every means of modern communication — e-mail, text message and calls on his home, office and cell phones.
Not that sudden fame is always a blessing. Said Ingle: “I even heard from a bill collector. He thought I’d died.”
So now we’re asking: Who is Tony Ingle? And we start by saying, “Pull up a chair.”
He was born in Dalton with a facial deformity that has required five surgeries. His dad worked in a saw mill and a cotton mill. Ingle played guard at North Whitfield High and then at Dalton Junior College. The team went to the national JUCO tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas, his freshman season and returned the next year determined to win it all. Ingle’s girlfriend — now his wife — drove to Kansas in an old Ford Pinto and arrived in time to see an opponent step on Ingle’s foot after he made a steal.
His knee was wrecked. He was taken to a hospital in Wichita and put on a plane home. Looking out the window, he spotted his dad on the tarmac. It was the first time he’d seen his father cry. Sitting on that plane, Ingle told himself, “Someday I’m going to win a national championship.”
Ingle began coaching a Boys Club team while a student at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala. He coached three high schools in Georgia, then moved to Gordon College in Barnesville, then to Alabama-Huntsville. In 1989 he took a job as Roger Reid’s assistant at BYU. Seven years later the school fired Reid and named Ingle the interim coach. BYU proceeded to lose its next 19 games.
After the season, BYU president Merrill Bateman told Ingle he wasn’t being retained. As Ingle walked away, he turned and told Bateman, “If you ever want to win it all, give me a call.”
Braggadocio aside, Ingle was hurting. He was basketball poison: Who wanted to hire the guy who’d gone 0-19? He worked seven non-coaching jobs, doing TV commentary on Mountain West games and selling golf equipment for Fila and serving as Utah area representative for Blue Ridge Commercial Carpet of Ellijay, Ga. He was $30,000 in debt. Worse still, he was depressed. He’d go days without leaving a house that faced foreclosure.
“You know it’s tough,” Ingle said, “when the highlight of your day is a bowel movement.”
In 2000 he found a school with a basketball program willing to hire him — Kennesaw State. He told his first band of Owls they were going to win a national championship. Some among them laughed out loud. In 2004 Kennesaw State won the Division II NCAA title.
Ingle is now a published author — his book is titled, “I Don’t Mind Hitting Bottom, I Just Hate Dragging” — and a motivational speaker. “You’re not a failure if you fail and you’re not a loser if you lose,” goes one snippet from his spiel. “You’re only a failure if you blame others and only a loser if you quit.”
For all the busted knees and smelly locker rooms and long bus rides and KSU’s recent upward slog from Division II to Division I, Monday made it all worth it. Kennesaw State, which only last season became a fully vested member of the Atlantic Sun Conference, beat Georgia Tech and the basketball world took note. Beforehand, Ingle had implored his players to “bring your dream,” and they won what their coach called “the biggest game in school history” without ever trailing.
But Wednesday brought another game. KSU wore down at the end and lost to Chattanooga 73-69. Ingle said afterward he’d been worried since April about this being an “ambush,” but what’s a coach to do? In basketball as in life, there’s always something else coming. That’s why basketball men keep opening the gym for practice: So the next game can be better.
“I love coaching,” Ingle had said earlier in the day. Then this: ” I tell people I’m going two years past [Penn State's Joe] Paterno. If he goes to 84, I’ll coach till I’m 86.”
- By Mark Bradley, AJC