Former players celebrate Coach Eutsler’s ‘wonderful, wonderful life’

Coaching legend, mentor dies at 96 

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

* Obituary

W.E. “Bill” Eustler was more than a series of numbers.

Sport is, beyond anything else, a series of statistics by which you and your team is compared to him and his. But on and off the field, the longtime Rockingham High School coach was much more than a ball coach — he was a disciplinarian, a father figure and a mentor. And when former players needed him the most, he was a friend.

Harry West, a noted artist and former player under Coach Bill Eutsler, used the coach's likeness during an art school assignment.

Harry West, a noted artist and former player under Coach Bill Eutsler, used the coach’s likeness during an art school assignment.

Eutsler died on Saturday, Valentine’s Day, at the age of 96. A funeral service is set for 3 p.m. Tuesday at First United Methodist Church, 117 Third St., Cheraw. Visiting will be from 1:30 p.m to 3 p.m. at the church.

For the past week, it’s been known that Eutsler, under hospice care, didn’t have much time. Former Rockets from across the region have spent the past week sharing memories of one of the most important people to be in charge of groups of young student-athletes anytime, anywhere.

History books will judge Eustler primary by the numbers, and his current and future players searching for a role model need to look no further than the Whiteville native who made Richmond County his home. And there, he became a legend.

Eutsler coached the Rockingham High School football team from 1940 to 1971, where he compiled a winning record of 226 wins, 74 losses and 14 ties — an amazing .753 winning percent. He coached basketball from 1947 to 1952, tallying a record of 104-24 (81.2 winning percent) and, from 1947 to 1957, his teams recorded 111 wins and 48 losses (69.8 winning percentage) in baseball.

Eutsler knew how to win, and he know how to get the most out of every athlete on the field. His football teams won 13 conference titles, six Eastern Championships and four state championships. He also won a state baseball title.

He might have won even more games, but his coaching career was interrupted by a stint in in the Navy during World War II.

He played baseball at Wake Forest College and is a member of the Demon Deacons (Class of 1940) Sports Hall of Fame, inducted in 1977. He also was enshrined into the North Carolina High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 1990 and the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1992.

He retired from coaching and served as the first athletic director for Richmond Senior High School. Long before then — and long after, up to his last days — Eutsler continued to be a confidant, a mentor and a sounding board anytime a former player called upon him.

W.E. "Bill" Eutsler

W.E. “Bill” Eutsler

Eutsler was born May 6, 1918 in Raleigh. That might not have seemed like a special day to anyone other than his parents. But of the majority of Eutsler’s adult life — well, his former players say his leadership and ability to provide sound guidance had an impact longer than anyone might imagine.

Eutsler was married to Cheraw (S.C.) native Ann Eutsler, a Rockingham teacher. Ann and the couple’s only daughter, Jan, both died in 2006.

Dr. Jerry McGee

Dr. Jerry McGee, who will retire this spring as president from Wingate University, talked openly about Eutsler’s “wonderful, wonderful life” and spoke more about friendship than sport.

His was, McGee said, “a pretty remarkable journey.”

McGee pitched and played third base for the Rockets’ baseball teams in the late 1950s and early 60s.

“He became my coach when I was 15,” McGee said. “He never left my life.”

McGee said their relationship changed over the years, from coach to athlete, to friends and mentor.

“Our relationship just never ended,” he said. “He’s been a constant in my life since I was just a child. He’s been so much more than a coach. He’s been a mentor, a friend, an advisor, an encourager.”

While stationed at Fort Bragg, Harry West compiled an Athlete of the Week for the Richmond County Daily Journal. Coach Bill Eutsler was the first person to be selected as Rocket of the Week.

While stationed at Fort Bragg, Harry West compiled an Athlete of the Week for the Richmond County Daily Journal. Coach Bill Eutsler was the first person to be selected as Rocket of the Week.

Eutsler was at McGee’s side when he was inaugurated as Wingate University president. He was there, too, when McGee lost his wife, the late Hannah Covington McGee.

“I’ve seriously never made a major life decision without talking to him about it first,” McGee said. “His advice has always been sound”

McGee traveled the country as a referee for NCAA football.

“I’d call him from the 50 yard line at the Rose Bowl or Notre Dame,” McGee recalled. “I really think, looking back on it … I spent my whole life trying to get his approval.” Everything I did with my life, I wanted to share with my family but also share with him. He was someone I just looked up to so much.”

McGee knew who Eutsler was well before trying out for the baseball team.

“He was larger than life,” McGee said. “He was the most important guy in town as far as I was concerned. It was just a really big deal just to stand next to him.”

On the field, McGee — along with every other former player who shared their memories — spoke of Eutsler’s high expectations for each player.

“He was always talking to you about going to college, what your major would be, saving money to go to college … you were always more than just an athlete.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com The trophy case inside the Kate Finley Auditorium at Rockingham Middle School, formerly Rockingham High School, holds dozens of memorabilia from the Coach Bill Eutsler era.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
The trophy case inside the Kate Finley Auditorium at Rockingham Middle School, formerly Rockingham High School, holds dozens of memorabilia from the Coach Bill Eutsler era.

Like others of his generation, McGee grew up at a time when the textile mill community helped make Rockingham “a pretty tough place.” His parents worked the second shift, from 4 p.m. to midnight.

“I had a little brother,” McGee said. “I was responsible for him in the evenings. I would play ball, hitchhike home … there was plenty of trouble around for young people to get into those days. (Eutsler) just didn’t allow it. If you broke the rules … you were no longer part of the team. We knew that he held us to a higher standard. His expectations for us were so high that we developed high expectations for ourselves. I’ve heard my mom say more than once, ‘I got him to high school and turned him over to Coach Eutsler.'”

As McGee climbed the career ladder in education, Eutsler was never very far away. The Cheraw (S.C.) resident knew McGee’s vehicle as it came up the drive to his cabin.

“Since I’ve been president here, at least 50 times probably I’ve driven down,” McGee said. “I used him as a sounding board for so many things.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Ron Tuthill was arguably the best quarterback ever to play in Richmond County. His death was the catalyst to the 18 years of reunions at Coach Bill Eutsler's cabin in Cheraw.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Ron Tuthill was arguably the best quarterback ever to play in Richmond County. His death was the catalyst to the 18 years of reunions at Coach Bill Eutsler’s cabin in Cheraw.

McGee is one of many individuals who played for Eutsler and, using a foundation of a solid work ethic installed by the coach, went on to be successful in life.

“I think a lot of that success that I’ve enjoyed goes back to the discipline that he taught me,” McGee said.

Harry West

Harry West was a backup fullback on the 1955 and 1956 Rockets football teams. Even a guy who, after all these years still recalled wanting more playing time spoke of nothing but appreciation for the continued impact Eustler had.

“I didn’t like not getting a lot of playing time,” West recalled, “but I feel like he treated me fair. I got in when I could. I got my share of playing time. He was just fair about it.”

Former Tar Heels basketball coach Dean Smith, who died one week ago at the age of 83 guiding teams to a  879-254 won-loss record (77.5 percent winning percentage) over 36 years, through 1997. West figures that history will also note first Eutsler’s won-loss record. And then the person behind those numbers.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Today, students at Rockingham Middle School pass by a marker that designates the school's athletic complex as the Bill Eutsler Athletic Facility.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Today, students at Rockingham Middle School pass by a marker that designates the school’s athletic complex as the Bill Eutsler Athletic Facility.

“Of course, it’ll be his record on the field, but you know, he was quite a guy off the field,” West said. “I just can’t say enough about him.”

In football, Eutsler switched the team’s offensive scheme to the T formation from single wing. It was an approached designed not to give the opponent’s defense a free yard.

“I think the success of that system was that unlike in the NFL today, when the quarterback takes the snap and he turns around five yards in the backfield, and the running back has to run four to five yards to (the line of scrimmage,” West said. “Eutsler never ran backwards. It was parallel and straight ahead. A play would open up quickly. It was a running game with very little passing.”

West played both baseball and football for Eutsler — “football’s a little bit tougher, I guess … he worked us a whole lot harder in football to keep us in shape” — and spoke fondly of the devotion the coach paid to starters and backups alike.

“He was a winner on the football field, he was a winner on the baseball field … the only thing I can attribute that to was the genuine caring he had for his players,” West said. “I think players responded by giving him their best.”

Photo by Harry West “Coach” addressing the RHS Class of 1957's 47th Reunion in March 2004 – called the “Last Chance Reunion” as they were to demolish the old Rockingham High School building that summer.

Photo by Harry West
“Coach” addressing the RHS Class of 1957’s 47th Reunion in March 2004 – called the “Last Chance Reunion” as they were to demolish the old Rockingham High School building that summer.

West took the Post back to the final game of the 1956 season. Clinton, a perennial powerhouse and conference foe, was also undefeated. The winner would finish 10-0 and win the conference title. But the Rockets faced a 7-0 halftime deficit.

“In the halftime locker room, Coach made a few comments about what we were doing, what we needed to do, how to approach the second half,” West recalled. “Then he went to one of the players and said, ‘Clifford, I’ve never had an undefeated team.'”

Eutsler is said to have asked that player, and everyone else in the locker room, one by one, if they could help deliver.

“He goes around the room and shakes each guy’s hand and asked the same question,” West said.

The players nearly busted through the door to get back onto the field. The Rockets won, 13-7.

A positive attitude never left Eutsler.

Down 3-0 in baseball against Kinston in the second-to-last inning of an elimination game, the Rockets scored twice to pull within 3-2. Players’ heads were focused on the ground, but Eutsler suggested the game was far from over.

“‘That’s alright,'” West recalled Eutsler saying to the team. “‘We’ll get two runs next inning.'”

Photo by Harry West “Coach” arriving at the RHS Class of 1957's 50th Reunion at the Hinson Lake Rotary Lodge on Oct. 6, 2007.

Photo by Harry West
“Coach” arriving at the RHS Class of 1957’s 50th Reunion at the Hinson Lake Rotary Lodge on Oct. 6, 2007.

“We had only an inning to go,” West said. “And the last of the order was up. The first two (got out). The third guy got hit by a pitch.”

The team won the game and the state championship.

“His positive attitude carried over to the team,” West said. “They just signed on to it.”

Reese Steen

Reese Steen was captain of the 1966 football team and served the Rockets as a halfback and “a 120-pound punter.”

Steen, a Mars Hill resident, said Eutsler made the most of what he had on the field, even when the other team had better talent.

“He had a lot of good athletes down there,” Steen said. “He also had a lot of people like myself that were fillers. Sometimes he was able to make us think we were a lot better than we were.”

Despite all the wins, though, Steen said he’ll most remember “what he taught us about life in general, about determination, preparation and maybe dedication. That carries over in to life. The prize doesn’t always go to the fastest or the brightest.”

Photo by Harry West Plaque on barbecue pit at the Eutsler cabin-in-the-woods outside of Cheraw where the annual gatherings are held.

Photo by Harry West
Plaque on barbecue pit at the Eutsler cabin-in-the-woods outside of Cheraw where the annual gatherings are held.

Eutsler, Steen said, “loved hustle.”

“Sometimes he’d take hustle over the best athlete,” Steen said. “I think the ones who had to work for it, we learn more than the ones who had the gift. It sure carries over more in life.”

Steen went on to become a dentist and a Madison County commissioner. By accident, almost, Steen learned that Eutsler was to be recognized by the North Carolina High School Athletics Association. He took his son. That was several years ago.

Flash forward to only three years ago, and Steen’s son, Justin, was talking to Eutsler during one of the semiannual gatherings at the coach’s Cheraw cabin.

Eutsler, Steen said, “remembered more about us being there than I did. He had a knack of remembering names. It was very important to him.”

Steen said Eutsler influenced a tremendous number of players to go on to college when the local economy didn’t require a college degree to succeed.

“I’d guess maybe a third of them didn’t even graduate high school,” Steen said. “There was not a college graduate in my family. He’s the reason (I went). He said, ‘Steeno, your’e gonna go to college.'”

Steen said for Eutsler, it always came down to the basics.

“He was more concerned about you blocking than he was about you running for a touchdown,” Steen said. “It was that teamwork. He was always (wanting to) take care of the small things. He’d always say we won in the fourth quarter. We were in better shape.”

Photo by Harry West Says West: When we won the conference championship in football in 1956 (Coach’s first undefeated regular season), I volunteered to letter a ball with all the players names, the title won, and the season record, and to do that anytime he won a championship. Had no idea that it would become a full-time job.

Photo by Harry West
Says West: When we won the conference championship in football in 1956 (Coach’s first undefeated regular season), I volunteered to letter a ball with all the players names, the title won, and the season record, and to do that anytime he won a championship. Had no idea that it would become a full-time job.

Keith McLester

McLester donned a Rockets uniform when the team’s signal caller was Ron Tuthill, whom McLester considers still “probably the best quarterback that ever played in Richmond County.”

Ronald F. Tuthill played from 1957 through 1960 and earned all-state honors in ’59 and, in 1960, All-Southeastern and first-team All-American honors.

Tuthill died nearly two decades ago. McLester asked Eutsler if they could ride together to his funeral in Charlotte. Eutsler said yes and noted that “it’s a shame we only meet when somebody dies.”

Out of that trip came an 18-year tradition of meeting at Eutsler’s cabin in Cheraw for food and fellowship. Up to 60 people would attend any one gathering — not all of them former players, but many.

Many former players shared with Eutsler “a wonderful relationship with somebody that influenced all of us.”

McLester played defensive end and offensive tackle. His teams won conference and state championships in football and baseball. All the time, McLester looked up to Eutsler.

“He was quite a coach,” McLester said.

McLester sat in The Pee Dee Post office and shared a bit of the coaching tree that follows Eutsler. May have gone on to coach in college or play in the pros.

Photo by Harry West Coach Bill Eutsler at Wingate University President’s Box (October 2010) with Roy McBride, member of the RHS 1942 baseball team coached by Eutsler. This was for the presentation at halftime of a Scholarship Fund organized by former players for Richmond Senior High students in Eutsler’s name.

Photo by Harry West
Coach Bill Eutsler at Wingate University President’s Box (October 2010) with Roy McBride, member of the RHS 1942 baseball team coached by Eutsler. This was for the presentation at halftime of a Scholarship Fund organized by former players for Richmond Senior High students in Eutsler’s name.

McLester said his family relocated to Rockingham from Lumberton. In Robeson County, players had to supply their own socks, T-shirts and shoes — “everything except shoulder pads.”

Eutsler worked to eliminate that concern from Rockets players’ minds.

“When I got here, all that was supplied,” McLester said. “He wanted to be sure all the kids could play” regardless of family financial circumstances.

McLester credited Eutsler for Richmond Senior High School’s football tradition.

“He has influenced hundreds of people,” McLester said. “He is football around here, believe it or not.”

Charlie Yow

Charlie Yow played quarterback for the Rockets in 1962 and ’63, serving as captain in ’63.

Like many other former players, Yow said there’s “no question about it” when comparing Eutsler to UNC’s Smith.

“He was like a father figure to everybody who played for him,” Yow said. “He wasn’t really into how great you were or anything like that. You weren’t singled out as being better. He considered everybody equal. He took care of you all the way through school. He made sure you went somewhere productive after school. He trained you not to cheat … and the right away is always the best way.”

That began in the classroom, Yow said. Eutsler “didn’t allow anybody to have a D” on their report card. “He required everybody to be proper in school. He trained you, really prepared you for life after school. He never tolerated any kind of dirty ball.”

No profanity, either.

Yow said proudly that Rockets teammates “were the best of the best … because we were well-trained. We didn’t have one mighty talent.”

In practice and in games, Eustler held each player to the same standard.

“He demanded perfection,” Yow said. “He demanded the best you could do.”

Yow’s family relocated to Rockingham in 1960 from Raleigh. His father was a railroad engineer. Yow played baseball and basketball in Raleigh. With the impending move, though, Yow’s father had a message for his son: “Hang up your baseball cleats.”

Yow recalled a time he and his father went to the now defunct Richmond Savings and loan to see about buying a house. Bank president Joe Haywood greater the family and commented, “I hope you brought a football player.”

The response was a simple look and a casual wave towards Yow: “We’ve got one right there.”

Yow, of Whispering Pines, said he returned to work at a textile mill in East Rockingham after college.

Bill Covington

Bill Covington graduated from Rockingham High School in 1958. Prior to that, he played football (quarterback, safety) and baseball (shortstop) for Eutsler in the ’55, ’56 and ’57 seasons.

Covington credited Eutsler with helping him to secure a baseball scholarship to Wake Forest University. There, he enrolled in R.O.T.C. and though he intended to serve only a couple of years in the military, he retired after 23 years of service and earned the rank of lieutenant colonel. Covington served two tours in Vietnam as a pilot. Later in life, he became a mortgage banker and a golf caddie.

He credited Eutsler with much of his success where ever in life he went.

“He was a great mentor,” Covington said. “he was just very important to me and my life.”

Covington said Eutsler focused on discipline, responsibility and leadership.

Eutsler took the football team down to Cheraw Beach for two weeks prior to the start of the regular season. Covington had sprained his ankle and figured coach would let him off of kitchen duty. His assumption changed, however, when Eutsler visited his cabin.

“He said, ‘hey, what are you doing? Get your crutches and pull your duty,'” Covington recalled.

Like so many other former players, Covington spoke highly of the standards set by Eutsler for every player. Also at Cheraw Beach, Eutsler noticed a group of 10 to 12 players who had decided to “do something rambunctious” at the dock — smoking, and maybe a little drinking.

Eutsler threatened to kick every single one of them off the team. Covington and William Pickett, as co-captains, took it upon themselves to try and convince coach to consider an alternative punishment.

“You never seen two co-captins begging so much,” Covington said.

After all, Covington said, several of the players were starters. Eutsler opted to suspend the players for a game or two, but the lesson was clear.

“He didn’t put winning first,” Covington said. “He taught us how to win (but) he put principles, responsibility, leadership” ahead of winning. “He was just a great man. I loved him. He was just a man that meant so much to me. I owe so much of my life to Coach Eutsler.”

The Class of 1957 is having a reunion in September. Eutsler won’t be there — and neither will every athlete from that year. But you can bet the subject will come up.

Another Coach Eutsler?

McGee, for one, doubts it. On the other hand, “I hope so,” he said.

“I think you’re seeing less of less of ’em,” McGee said. “Very few in coaching stay 30 to 40 years.”

McGee figures that today’s coaches are trying to progress up the career ladder rather.

“Very few coaches stay around long enough to be an icon like Coach Eutsler,” McGee said. “Both my boys were athletes. They admired their coaches (but) neither one of them had a relationship with their coach like we did with Coach Eutsler.”

“I feel so blessed that Keith and Harry and all of us came along at a time we had the opportunity to be around great teachers and great people in the community who believed in us and a coach who kind of led the way with his really, really high expectations of us.”

McGee called Eutsler’s “a life well-lived. As long as all of us are alive, and our children are alive, his legacy will go on … because he’s invested in all of us.”

A legacy lives on

Wingate University has established the Coach Bill Eutsler Endowed Scholarship. Those who would like to make a donation should do so at:

The Coach Bill Eutsler Endowed Scholarship
Wingate University
Campus Box 3071
Wingate NC 28174

 

Filed in: Cheraw, Featured News, Latest Headlines, News, Obits, Rockingham, Sports

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