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Coaching icon West passes

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Coaching icon West passes

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Family, former players, assistants, colleagues reflect on impact of legendary 45-year career

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    FINAL BUZZER — Sitting on the bench with his son Aaron West (pointing) is longtime Okarche boys basketball head coach Ray West at State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City during the Warriors’ Class A semifinal loss to Cyril in March. The game turned out to be Ray's final one as he died Sunday morning after 45 years in the profession. [Photo by Russell Stitt/www.stitt.smugmug.com]

Oklahoma high school boys basketball – and the sport in general – lost an icon early Sunday morning.

Longtime legendary Okarche coach Ray West died at his home after a brief but vigorous battle with cancer. He was 68.

“His whole mindset was that he was going to fight it and beat it no matter what,” said West’s son, Aaron, who coached alongside his father the last seven years.

“He did not give up. He was fighting like heck.”

A memorial service to honor West is planned for 7 p.m. Friday at the new Okarche High School gym, one in which he never got to coach.

Mass of Christian burial is 10 a.m. Saturday at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Okarche. Burial will follow at St. Francis Cemetery in Canute.

His passing put an end to a 45-year coaching career that saw West become the state’s second all-time leader in boys basketball coaching victories while attaining the status as one of the game’s top ambassadors who was known for his unmatched work ethic.

“He was the hardest-working basketball coach I have ever been around; it was borderline insane,” said Dale girls coach Eric Smith, who was a student-teacher under West for the 2002-03 season.

Smith has since coached the Alva girls to two state championships and in the last two years got the Frontier and Dale teams to state title games.

“He had an unbelievable will to prepare his team. He had Plan A, B and even C if it was needed. His dedication to his team was unmatched.”

In talking about West, both Smith and one of West’s former players at Okarche, Roman Owen, brought up one of his favorite quotes: “The will to win isn’t nearly as important as the will to prepare to win.”

Owen, an All-State player for the Warriors in 2003, went on to play collegiately and is now an assistant on the University of North Texas women’s team.

“I have taken that in every area of my life from being a college basketball player to being a college basketball coach to wanting to impact those I am around more and more,” Owen said. “Success would not follow me if I had not used that principle.”

Cashion boys coach John Hardaway recalls playing Okarche in a regional final in his first year with the Wildcats.

“Aaron told me afterwards that he and Coach West had watched 18 films of us in preparation, basically almost our entire season,” Hardaway recalls.

Jarrod Mueggenborg graduated in 2000 and was another of West’s All-State players.

“After every game, Coach West would immediately head to his office to watch tape on our next opponent until the early morning hours,” said Mueggenborg, now a doctor. “The very next day, he would have a very detailed scouting report on our opponent.

“Consequently we knew their next move before they did.”

That preparation stood out to Chris Schroder, who was an All-State basketball and baseball player under West in 1997.

Schroder went on to an All-American career as a pitcher at Oklahoma City University and had a lengthy professional career that saw him get called up to the Washington Nationals multiple times before retiring in 2010.

Schroder was a senior on the 1997 team that finished as Class A state runner-up.

“He was the most prepared coach I ever played for,” said Schroder. “And I can genuinely say that. I tried to count up all the coaches I’ve played for from pro ball on down and I got to at least 26.

“We went into every game almost knowing we were going to win because we knew their plays. We’d beat guys to their spots all the time because of Coach West’s preparation and game plan.”

“He showed me what it takes to prepare a team and the details it takes to win,” said Smith, looking back at his lone season with West. “Never in my life have I been so tired and learned so much.”

West went 853-391 in his career, which included stints in Fort Supply, Gould, Purcell, Mustang, Mountain View and Cordell.

Before coming to Okarche, West led Cordell to three state tournaments.

In his 25 years at Okarche, the Warriors went 554-182, reached state 11 times and the state finals twice.

He won numerous coaching honors, including being named the 2012 National High School Athletic Coaches Association National Coach of the Year.

His win total in boys basketball is second only to Purcell’s Boney Matthews (922), according to Chris Wilfong at iwasatthegame.com.

Third on the list is Anadarko’s Doug Schumpert, a longtime friend of West.

“He was always learning, whether he was buying a book or calling someone or digging into something that might help his kids win,” said Schumpert. “Here’s a guy who was 68 years old, coached 45 years, won 853 games and was still trying to learn.”

Schumpert and West were part of a “Living Legends Panel” at the Oklahoma Coaches Association Clinic last month in Tulsa.

Little did Schumpert or anyone else know West was battling his disease at the time.

“I had so much fun doing it and I’m so glad we got to do it together,” Schumpert said. “I just thought the world of him.”

One of West’s most successful stints came when Billy “B.J.” Karr was his assistant from 1999-2004.

Karr has gone on to his own coaching career, one that saw him lead Whitesboro to the state tournament each of the last two years. Karr recently took over the boys basketball position at Chattanooga.

“He taught me how to prepare, work hard and how to influence kids in a very positive manner,” Karr said. “He is why I am where I am today in my career and life in general. He helped me, taught me and always supported my decisions and would help me during difficult times.”

And that was the other aspect of West that went beyond the basketball court.

“One thing that always impressed me was the way he cared deeply about his players,” Schumpert said. “It was the time he spent making sure they did the things they were supposed to on and off the court.”

West was a groomsman in Owen’s 2008 wedding.

“I knew he would be someone that would always hold me accountable to my vows,” Owen said. “I never wanted friends that just told me what I wanted to hear. As my friend, he always told me the truth.”

Added Mueggenborg: “ I can confidently say that Coach West impacted the direction of my life and his influence will continue to impact his students for years to come. It goes with out saying there’s a huge void in my heart as I not only lost my coach, my mentor, but a very dear friend.”

Smith said much the same.

“I can’t convey the proper words about how great a coach he was,” he said. “More importantly what a great friend and person he was.”

Schroder said West had an innate ability to chew you out one minute and make you feel loved the next.

“He had a little something where he could relate to people in a way that few could. He had a good way of relating and forming those friendships,” Schroder said. “He could be really hard on guys and at same time be their best friend.

“That’s probably a hard line to walk as a coach, but I think that’s what a lot of players expected from him.”

When he heard of West’s passing, Mitch Fuller reached out to the Times & Free Press.

Fuller played for West at Cordell and was on two of his state tournament teams in 1984 and 1985 (Cordell also reached state in 1986 after Fuller graduated).

Among Fuller’s teammates were Scott Hines, who has coached Fort Cobb-Broxton to multiple state titles, and Garrett Mantle, who has had coaching success in multiple stops.

Fuller now lives just outside of Austin, Texas.

“He had a huge impact on my life and this has really hit me hard,” Fuller said. “I grew up without a dad and he filled that role. I’ve had a great life and his lessons have stuck with me.

“He was a great, great coach and an even better man.”

Longtime Kingfisher boys coach Craig Patterson never went head-to-head with West, but they spent a lot of time talking basketball as they lived just 10 miles apart.

He, too, experienced the non-basketball side of West.

“When my dad died in 2011, Coach West was one of the first people to call me,” Patterson remembered.

There was also the family side of West.

He leaves behind his wife, Lanell, and three daughters - Amber, Rayla and Alex - as well as Aaron. He also had six grandchildren and another on the way.

“We talked a lot about two things: Family and basketball,” Schumpert said. “We talked a little about religion, but he was Catholic and I’m Southern Baptist so we mostly left that alone.

“But he definitely loved his family.”

Said Owen: “The family was everything to him and it wasn’t hard to see that.”

Smith spoke with West often and their talks covered the same things beyond basketball.

“He loved his wife and family and every time we talked on the phone or I ran into him, he always made sure to ask about my wife and kids,” Smith said.

In recent years, West was the P.E. teacher at Okarche Elementary, a job that allowed him to teach his grandkids.

“He loved having his grandkids in P.E.,” Schumpert said. “That meant so much to him to be able to spend that time with them.”

Cherie Myers was the girls coach at Okarche for the better part of two decades during West’s tenure with the boys.

She said the two spent countless hours bouncing basketball ideas off one another, but also talking about their own children (Aaron for West and Haley Mitchel for Myers) being in the profession.

“We discussed a lot about Aaron coming over to coach with him and he was always worried about Haley,” Myers recalls. “People didn’t see that side of him a lot. He was very, very kind-hearted.”

But basketball remained a very large part of his life.

Or, as Aaron summed it up: “He loved his family, but he was eat up with basketball.”

Lomega girls coach Kevin Lewallen played against Okarche teams coached by West in his playing days for the Raiders in the late 1990s.

He’s gone on to coach the Lady Raiders to five state championships and has had a front-row seat for many of West’s games.

“I think he loved the game of basketball more than anyone I know,” Lewallen said. “I had talked to him a lot about retirement and he always told me it was the only thing that he did. Basketball was not only his job, but his hobby.”

Whether a job or hobby, West was known as a competitive combatant.

“He was as competitive as anyone I have ever been around,” Lewallen said.

Hardaway was a teammate of Aaron West on the 1999 OCA All-State basketball team. The two have remained close friends since and he’s gone head-to-head with the Wests every year since coming to Cashion, sometimes multiple times.

“Our games were almost always fiercely competitive and sometimes our competitiveness probably got the better of us both,” Hardaway said. “Neither of us wanted to lose, but what most people probably don’t know is that after all those games, we almost always exchanged a phone call or text.”

Chris Cameron officiated a number of West’s games. When hearing of his passing, Cameron posted to social media that West, “Was a fierce competitor and he will most certainly be missed on the sidelines. Fought for his kids as hard as any coach I’ve met.”

Ric Meshew has officiated West games since West was at Cordell and was part of the crew that called West’s final win when the Warriors beat Kiowa in the Class A state quarterfinals in March.

“He’s always been competitive,” Meshew said. “But I always felt he respected the shirt and when the game was over, it was over.

“It was always fun for me to have a game with him. There was a lot of back-and-forth, but it was never personal; it was always respectable. He was just trying to win a game.”

For a number of years, West not only coached basketball but also delivered The Oklahoman to county subscribers.

“This man would coach, then watch film and scout until 2 or 3 in the morning, maybe sleep an hour or so and then go throw the paper route,” Smith said. “And then he would go to school and teach and coach! I found myself some nights either rolling papers or riding with him to help throw the paper.

“I don’t know how he did it all those years.”

His relentless work ethic and ability to thrive on such little sleep earned him the moniker “Crazy Ray” in some circles.

Schumpert has a similar work ethic as West, but was still baffled by West’s ability.

“I promise you (OSU head coach) Mike Boynton and (OU head coach) Lon Kruger aren’t putting in the time Ray did with basketball and I think they’re fantastic coaches,” Schumpert said. “I still don’t know how he still managed to have that paper route.”

When news of West’s sickness spread, word eventually got to Duke head coach Mike Kryzewski, who called West and spent 15 minutes talking with him.

“He sort of gave him a pep talk,” Aaron said. “They talked about basketball, church and cancer. It meant so much to my dad that he’d take the time to call.”

West also got letters recently from the likes of Kruger, Bill Self, Bob Huggins and a number of other legendary names in basketball.

Such correspondence speaks to the impact West has had on the game of basketball, not just in Okarche or Kingfisher County, but in all of Oklahoma and beyond.

“I think you can tell a lot about a coach by how many people follow in their footsteps and Ray coached a lot of kids that grew up to be coaches,” Lewallen said.

Added Patterson: “When you talk about Oklahoma high school boys basketball, Coach West has to be in the conversation. He was a giant and a legend for our sport for 45 years.”

Or, as Smith put it: “His passion and work ethic will always be with me. He was old-school hard, tough and intense, but he cared about his players.

“He was one of the best that has ever coached in Oklahoma. There will never be another ‘Crazy Ray.’”

‘The will to win isn’t nearly as important as the will to prepare to win.’
Coach Ray West