By TERRELL LESTER
Editor at Large
PLAYER APPRECIATION: Indian Springs Country Club in Broken Arrow was packed with former players, colleagues and friends earlier this year for the John Phillips retirement party. In the photo, Phillips is surrounded by former players.
GTR Newspapers photo
There’s this thing between John Phillips and basketball.
Call it passion. Respect. Admiration.
Call it love.
Since his days as a teenager in Tulsa, basketball has been the element that completes John Phillips.
Playing the game. Learning the game. Coaching the game.
Basketball changed John Phillips’ life.
And, through basketball, John Phillips changed a lot of lives in return.
Today, at the age of 71, he is putting the wraps on a career in coaching that began in 1972 and stretched across parts of five decades, through seven high schools and two universities.
He has savored the fruits of victory.
He has swallowed the bitter pills of defeat.
His name is inexorably linked to a sport that develops boys into men.
His life, his career path, was not so clearly defined in the beginning.
There were those who set loftier goals for young Phillips.
His mother expected him to enter the field of law.
A nun envisioned him entering the priesthood.
Reared in a Catholic home, Phillips attended Immaculate Conception school near downtown Tulsa through his eighth grade. At the urging of a nun, he spent his freshman year of high school in a seminary located in Bethany. He celebrated his 15th birthday immersed in the ecumenical environment.
It lasted one school year.
He admits now that he might have been a little too young to make such a life commitment.
He was placing all his faith in others.
He was not fully aware of the sacrifices he must make.
He did, however, embrace his challenging academic workload.
The discipline of the seminary was not unlike the discipline he acquired at Immaculate Conception.
But the vow of celibacy, now that was something he had not expected.
“When I was told that I couldn’t have a girlfriend for the rest of my life,” he said, he began making plans to return to Tulsa.
“I really didn’t realize the finality of being celibate,” he said.
Along with the heavy schedule of chores, studies and theology, Phillips was able to carve out time in the church gymnasium. For the diversion of basketball.
“I really fell in love with the game that year,” he said.
Returning home, he convinced his mother that attending McLain High School would be more advantageous for him and his future in basketball than would continuing along the Catholic line of education that included Bishop Kelley High School.
It was at McLain that Phillips came under the watchful eye of basketball coach Joe Shoulders.
Phillips made the varsity roster as a sophomore and through his graduation in 1965.
The presence of Shoulders in Phillips’ life remains a defining period.
“He was a special human being,” Phillips said. “I loved him. I wanted to be like him.”
During his time at McLain, being around Shoulders, Phillips began to view coaching as a career choice.
“I knew that the game meant more to me than it did to my teammates,” he said. “I could tell that I loved it immensely.”
He went off to play basketball at Paris, Texas, Junior College, only to have the Army intervene by way of a draft notice in 1966.
Once his hitch was up, Phillips enrolled at Oklahoma State University. He did not try out for the varsity, instead concentrating on his studies and watching basketball practices. He met his wife-to-be, Leah, while a student.
In 1972, he landed his first coaching assignment, as an assistant at Broken Arrow. He added the girls head-coaching title in 1975.
His future was solidified.
He was following in the formidable footsteps of his high school mentor Joe Shoulders.
Phillips had been working summer basketball camps during those years and had caught the eye of University of Tulsa coach Jim King. Beginning King’s third year at TU, 1977-78, he brought aboard Phillips as a graduate assistant.
The experience propelled Phillips to his first head-coaching job in boys at Mannford (1978-80). He moved on to Bartlesville Sooner (which closed after the 1981-82 school year) and to Edison High School in Tulsa (1982-88).
At Edison, he coached future collegiate stars Archie Marshall and Kevin Pritchard while posting a record of 130-32. Included were two state runner-up finishes.
The success landed Phillips a position on the Oklahoma State University staff in 1988 under Leonard Hamilton. A fellow assistant coach was Bill Self.
For two seasons, Phillips and Self generated a bond that would endure.
“I got my overall understanding of what the game was all about during my time at ,” Phillips said. “I really came to believe at that point that teamwork was what it was all about. That you didn’t have to have the best talent, you just had to have a team that played together.
“You have to do the fundamentals, but you have to stress the importance of teamwork.”
When Hamilton departed for the University of Miami (Florida), Self remained at under Eddie Sutton and Phillips took the head-coaching job at Stillwater High School.
After three seasons, Phillips returned to Broken Arrow as head coach. In his fourth season, 1996-97, his Tigers team captured the Class 6A state championship.
In the spring of 1997, Self was hired by the University of Tulsa. Immediately, he brought in Phillips as a member of his new staff.
The three-year run of Self and Phillips reached unprecedented heights at TU. The 1999-2000 team surged into the Elite Eight stratosphere and the 32-5 record earned Self a promotion to the University of Illinois.
Phillips chose to remain in Tulsa. When Buzz Peterson was hired to succeed Self, Phillips continued as a top aide.
It was not to last.
Peterson bolted after only nine months on the job.
Phillips wanted the job. But he had to convince others.
TU players preferred Phillips. He had been on staff for four seasons. A new coach would be the third in three years. Phillips would provide needed continuity.
Weeks passed after Peterson’s departure. Phillips finally was approved for the job in April 2000. He was 54 and was handed the reins to his first collegiate head-coaching position. In his hometown.
“I was not foolish enough to think that I was the best candidate, but I was the best candidate for what TU needed,” he said.
What TU needed was for the new coach to maintain the momentum that began on Self’s watch and had continued with Peterson’s championship.
Phillips was ecstatic. If the TU job had not been a lifelong dream, it was nevertheless a dream job.
“I loved it,” he said.
He cried when TU Director of Athletics Judy MacLeod handed him the contract to sign.
Phillips also signed another letter, one that he delivered to TU President Bob Lawless.
It was a letter of resignation.
“I told him that this will give you an out at the end of the basketball season. If it doesn’t work out for you, then it’s OK with me,” Phillips said.
Things did work out. Quite well.
Phillips guided TU to the second round of the tournament in consecutive seasons, finishing with 27-7 and 23-10 records.
He is only the second TU coach to record 50 victories in his first two seasons.
As TU slipped to 9-20 in 2003-04, the glow was fading from the Phillips honeymoon. He was beginning to feel pressure from outside the university.
By the start of the next season, some of that pressure was turning personal.
TU was 2-5 in December 2004 and Phillips had endured enough.
“My family was real important to me,” he said. “I could tell that they were hearing that their dad wasn’t ….” His voice trailed off. His head slumped.
After a moment, he continued.
“It affected my family and I didn’t want to put up with it. I’d rather go be a high school coach.
“You can put up with it if you want it badly, but it wasn’t worth it to me. I’ll go to my grave, it’s not worth it,” he said.
He wrote another letter of resignation. He delivered it to Judy MacLeod on Christmas Day 2004.
“It was the hardest letter to write,” he said.
He accepted TU’s offer to remain in the athletics department as an assistant AD. He remained for almost two years before returning to coaching at the high school level.
He took control of the McLain program for two years, left to become general manager of Indian Springs Country Club and was introduced as head coach at Summit Christian Academy in Broken Arrow in 2012.
When he announced his retirement from Summit in March, Phillips walked away from coaching with more than 400 high school victories. His record at TU was 61-42.
“The innocence of the high school level is beautiful,” he said as he looked back on his career. “They are playing because they love to play.”
Phillips coached because he loved to coach.
In full retirement now, Phillips is relaxed, comfortable, content with life.
“It’s 45 years (since he entered coaching) and I can’t remember having a problem,” he said.
“I think I summed it up when I said, ‘Man, I’m lucky.’
“I’m happy that I’ve had the life I’ve had.”