Commentary

Where are they now? Bill Hodges

Originally Published: September 30, 2011
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

When a reporter calls North Cross School in Roanoke, Va., he is greeted by a woman's pleasant tone and slight Southern accent. She asks how she can help.

"I'm hoping to speak with Bill Hodges," the reporter says.

The pleasant woman tells the reporter that she thinks Coach Hodges is out right now, but can she take a message? The reporter identifies himself. The woman laughs.

[+] EnlargeBill Hodges
AP PhotoIn 1979, Bill Hodges (seen here with wife Connie) played a central role in the famous Bird-Magic game.

"Why exactly are you calling?" she asks.

The reporter explains: "Well, Coach Hodges is a famous former college basketball coach. He coached Larry Bird at Indiana State in 1979. That team almost went undefeated, but lost the NCAA title game to Michigan State. Magic Johnson played there at the time. It's a classic game and rivalry and Coach Hodges was a big part of it."

Just as the reporter realizes this might be more explanation than the pleasant women needed, he notices the line go silent.

The woman with the pleasant voice laughs.

"I'm not sure if Coach is in today, but I will take your message," she says. "I did not know any of that, honey. But I do know who Larry Bird is!"


Everyone knows Bird and Magic. Far fewer know the coach who took that fateful Indiana State team to a national title game that launched March Madness as we know it -- even when that coach works in the same building.

"Sometimes, I wonder if those kids even know who they're being coached by," Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said.

Yes, the architect of the magical 1979 Indiana State Sycamores -- now 68 years old and the proud grandfather of five -- is still working, still teaching and still coaching. He lives in Roanoke, where he pulls daytime double-duty teaching history at William Fleming High School and basketball at North Cross, where he just took over after coaching at nearby Roanoke Catholic.

Sometimes, I wonder if those kids even know who they're being coached by.

-- Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg

For Hodges, switching gigs is nothing new. Nor, one imagines, are confused receptionists. Since reaching the pinnacle of college hoops 32 years ago, Hodges has been a nigh-anonymous basketball nomad. He has coached at Long Beach State, at Georgia College, at Mercer and at a bevy of junior colleges, high schools and middle schools in between.

He has taught high school history. He has coached golf and women's tennis. He has sold insurance. He retired -- for a year.

Along the way, there have been signs, in bright flashing neon lights, that most would have heeded: Stop coaching.

Occasionally, Hodges has listened. But each time, he has found himself right back where he started.

Bill Hodges has tried it all. But he only has ever wanted to do one thing.

"I'm a teacher," the former Indiana State coach said. "I'm a coach. Once you get it in you, it never leaves. Nothing else feels right."


In 1979, at the age of 35, the former Indiana State coach tasted glory. That was The Year: The year Hodges took over for coach Bob King after King suffered a brain aneurysm. The year Hodges became like a "big brother" to Larry Bird, the mythical future NBA legend.

[+] EnlargeBill Hodges
AP Photo/Charles E. KnoblockIn that one glorious season, Bird and Hodges won national honors as player and coach of the year.

It was the year ISU won its first 33 games on the way to a historic matchup with Magic Johnson and Michigan State, the year his team catapulted into the national consciousness, the year a mid-major team from Terre Haute, Ind., contributed as much as anyone to the modern popularity of the NCAA tournament.

A few years later, after his three post-Bird teams went a combined 34-47, Hodges found himself besieged by unrealistic expectations produced by his success. The university failed to renew his contract, and he suddenly found himself jobless.

"I always tell people I left Indiana State because of illness," Hodges said. "Because everyone got sick of me."

In 1983, Hodges took a job at Long Beach State but disliked California and found himself growing disillusioned with his profession. Hodges saw his first neon sign: Stop coaching. So he decided he might like to sell insurance.

Within two years, Hodges was hired at NAIA school Georgia College.

In 1991, Hodges took a job at Mercer, his return to Division I basketball. He coached there until 1997, when his sister -- who saved her vacation days for an early retirement she never saw -- passed away from a brain aneurysm. Hodges didn't want to do the same. Stop coaching. He retired.

By 1998, Hodges was teaching again.

"There are only so many rounds of golf you can play," he said. "When you wake up in the morning and say, 'Oh, hell, I guess I'll play golf today,' you probably shouldn't be retired."


In 2006, after a few years spent teaching and traveling back and forth to Roanoke to spend time with his daughter, Zoie, Hodges relocated to Virginia full time. For four years, Hodges abstained from coaching. He had his teaching and he had his family.

And unexpectedly, he had found a new way to get his fix.

When Greenberg learned a famous member of the college coaching fraternity lived less than an hour's drive away from Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus, he reached out and invited Hodges to come and speak to his players.

[+] EnlargeGreenberg
Mark L. Baer/US PresswireVirginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg quickly struck up a friendship with Hodges.

"I mean, he's Bill Hodges," Greenberg said. "He coached Larry Bird. He coached in the Final Four. It would have been foolish of me not to utilize him as a resource."

Hodges eventually became a fixture at practices with Tech, which ironically enough was ISU's first NCAA tourney opponent during that memorable run in '79. He could just as often be found in Greenberg's office, analyzing tape and discussing offensive sets. In 2010, Hodges was invited to coach the National Association of Basketball Coaches' Reese's All-Star Game. He asked Greenberg to serve as his assistant.

Soon, a casual professional meeting blossomed into a friendship.

"The biggest thing now is I just enjoy spending time with him," Greenberg said. "He's the most humble, unassuming, normal guy. He might be the most regular guy that ever coached in an NCAA title game. He's touched my life."

After decades spent wandering the collegiate wilderness, Hodges had found a second home just down Interstate 81.

"I realized the biggest thing I missed about coaching was the practices," Hodges said. "I really enjoyed the practices. I would go to Virginia Tech's practice and go to different ballgames all over the place, and I kind of satisfied my enjoyment for basketball through that."


It wasn't long until another neon sign -- stop coaching -- shone bright in Hodges's eyes.

In 2009, he suddenly felt sick. At first, he thought he was having a stroke. Soon, the doctors discovered he had suffered a brain aneurysm -- the same abnormal arterial swelling that had taken the lives of his sister and mother.

After successful surgery at the University of Virginia Health Systems -- "I told the doctors I would root for UVa as long as they weren't playing Tech," he said -- Hodges made a full recovery. According to his doctors, he didn't need to change his lifestyle. He still had his Hokies hoops. He still had his friends. He still had his teaching. He still had his family.

If ever there was a time to heed the neon sign, this was it.

A year later, Hodges became a coach again.

I'm a teacher. I'm a coach. Once you get it in you, it never leaves. Nothing else feels right.

-- Bill Hodges

Roanoke Catholic -- an upstart program that competes in a brutal private school conference alongside powerhouses such as Hargrave Military Academy -- needed him. Hodges's daughter talked him into taking the job. Soon, there was no looking back.

"As soon as you start again, it's like lighting a fire," Hodges said. "I didn't want to quit."

Greenberg even tried to talk Hodges out of taking the job. It didn't work.

"I tried to talk him out of coaching, told him to come spend more time with us," Greenberg said. "But here's the thing: Bill's a lifer. He is. There aren't many lifers in this business anymore, the kind of guys who used to sneak into the back of a restaurant during the Five Star Camp just to catch a stray piece of advice from Hubie Brown.

"This profession has changed. Bill hasn't. How much money do you think he has made in his career? When he got in the business, it wasn't about money. It was about relationships. It was about teaching. It was about making a difference. It was about pushing a kid to somewhere that kid didn't think he could get. He got into it for pure reasons. He's still in it for pure reasons."


The lovely receptionist at North Cross might not know about her new basketball coach's history, but his students at Fleming High do.

"I have some pictures I put up in my classroom," Hodges said. "It's important for the kids to know who you are, and a lot of them think it's really cool that I coached Larry Bird. Some kids just think the short shorts look funny. They call them 'booty shorts.'"

[+] EnlargeLarry Bird & Bill Hodges
AP Photo/KeatingWith Hodges in his first season, Bird (left) and the Sycamores began 33-0 before losing the finale.

Hodges doesn't speak to Bird as much as he used to, and he doesn't spend much of his time ruminating on his Indiana State days. He wishes he would have done some things differently, but he says he has no regrets.

For 25 years, Hodges never watched film of ISU's loss to Michigan State. He broke that streak in 2006. It wasn't easy.

"After I watched it, I knew why I had never watched it," he said. "It's easy to get upset -- there were a few things in there that could have gone a different way."

Hodges says he still wishes he had called a timeout with about six minutes remaining. The Sycamores had cut MSU's lead to six, and he considered the timeout to gather his players for a primer on how to prevent the Spartans from running out the clock. Instead, Hodges deferred.

"I didn't do it," he said. "They started holding the ball, and this was before the shot clock. We couldn't -- they were just too good at holding the ball. We couldn't break it."

You can hear it in his voice. The loss still stings. Still, Hodges is quick to point out what that team -- which no one expected to even make the NCAA tournament before the season -- accomplished.

"I can't look at that season in a negative manner," he said. "I never could and never will."

It's that view -- positive, humble, bitterness-resistant -- that has guided Hodges through his 30 years of nomadic hoops existence. It's the attitude that has led him to countless coaching jobs on the East Coast, West Coast, and everywhere in between. It's that attitude that has caused him to ignore the neon sign over and over and over again.

Bill Hodges can't stop. At 68, he keeps working, keeps teaching, keeps coaching. Why?

"It's like being a carpenter," Hodges explained. "You put pieces together, you build something, then you finally see that finished product. There's just something about that, something about working with kids and getting them to improve. When you see the improvement -- it keeps you coming back. A kid will walk into my classroom and think he doesn't have a chance of lasting in my class. By the end of the semester, you get through.

"I wouldn't want to stop that. I retired once … I don't plan on doing it again."

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, email collegebasketballnation@gmail.com or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).

ALSO SEE