A coaching journey with many twists

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2010

ROANOKE, VA. - Roanoke Catholic School Athletic Director Paul Ripley knew the story of how Bill Hodges once coached Larry Bird at Indiana State. He was well aware that Hodges led the Sycamores to an undefeated regular season and all the way to the men's national basketball championship game in 1979.

But it wasn't until Ripley accompanied Hodges to the Final Four in Indianapolis last year for the 30th anniversary of that famous game that he fully realized just what sort of reputation his friend held within the coaching community.

Not only did Hodges coach alongside Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg and American's Jeff Jones in an all-star game featuring some of college basketball's top seniors, he was also a celebrity of sorts. Throughout the weekend, coaches such as John Calipari, Tubby Smith and Bob Huggins went out of their way to say hello and get a few words with "Coach Hodges."

"It was just amazing who knew him," Ripley said. "It was like traveling with a rock star."

As it happened, the varsity boys' basketball coach at Ripley's school had resigned just a few weeks before the trip, and he'd always wondered, "Why couldn't I have Bill in the first place?"

So afterward, Ripley asked Hodges's daughter, Zoie Park, who is an English teacher and admissions officer at Roanoke Catholic, whether her father would be interested in the vacant position.

Park thought about how her father was still hanging around gyms all the time - even though when she asked, he never admitted that he longed to return to the bench. But when she mentioned Ripley's question, Hodges jumped at the opportunity to coach again in the high school ranks, especially when Park reminded him that his grandchildren had never seen him coach before.

A year ago, though, that may not have been enough incentive.

'I was lucky to be alive'

Hodges, 67, retired from coaching basketball in 2005, returning to his house on Smith Mountain Lake outside Roanoke to be close to his family. In recent years, he had kept busy teaching world history at Fleming High, coaching the boys' and girls' tennis teams and becoming a regular at Virginia Tech basketball practices and home games.

But Hodges discovered a new sense of urgency when the left side of his face went numb in the middle of class one day last October. Doctors initially tested him for a stroke, before realizing he had suffered a brain aneurysm.

It was the same ailment that destroyed the short-term memory of former Indiana State coach Bob King before the 1978-79 season, thrusting Hodges into that role just four days before the memorable campaign began.

"I was lucky to be alive," Hodges said. "And you come to a point where you say, 'There's gotta be something better than what I'm doing.' I just thought, 'Heck, I better have all the fun I can.' When I moved up here, I wasn't coaching but I was around the kids. I went to all the games. I missed it."

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