By Jeff Holt
Published April 29, 2021 in The Burg
The last several years, I've joked with my family members and friends about my basketball career in Galesburg.
It wasn't much.
But I'll quickly talk about the Churchill ninth-grade basketball team that I played on - led by Coach Bob Morgan - that finished a perfect 14-0. It was one of three undefeated teams that
Morgan coached in his 30-plus years.
I can still remember Tom Bates hitting over 20 points a game, with this signature move to the hoop that was tough to stop. Joel Williamson had this 10-foot jumpshot from the free-throw line that was automatic. Dennis Mason battled in the low post and Troy Jackson ran the point-guard position like he had a PhD in hoops and running a halfcourt offense. We'd run through the wall for each other on game night and we all knew it.
For me, the 3-on-2 fullcourt drill at practice was one of the funnest. You could get out on the break and be a little creative.
Former Churchill Blue Streak Eric Johnson, one of the best pure shooters in GHS history (before the 3-point line) with over 1,000 points, might have said it best about Coach Bob.
"He was fair," said Eric, known as "EJ" to most people. "People loved playing for him. It didn't matter if you were First Team, Second Team or Third Team. They were proud to be on the team. He took the time to bring out the best in people.
"Coach Bob would put wrinkles in a 2-1-2 (offense) or a fullcourt press. People took pride in being a Blue Streak. He'd stay three or four hours (at practice) til he got it right."
The basketball court was the classroom for Coach Bob, teaching things at practice like the (Bob) Cousy pass, the (George) Mikan baby hook, the bounce pass to the low post (fake up, pass low or fake low, pass up), he baseline pivot moves and the Davis turnaround jumper.
Plus, Morgan was not afraid to bench a standout player like Byron Thierry for not playing defense or Dave Wood for not being a team player. Then years later, those same players are forever grateful for the lessons they learned from him.
Coach Bob is now 84 years old and his coaching record (in basketball) at Churchill of 403-81 is just a footnote to many people.
Coach Bob will be moving soon with his wife Berta to Indianapolis to be closer to their daughter (Chrissy) and her family.
Still, it has been tough on him to make the move to Indy and several others in the Galesburg area close to Coach Bob.
Galesburg native Craig Johnson, who was once regarded as the best basketball player in town to many, hates to see his good friend go.
"Saying goodbye makes me remember all the fun and good times we shared over these many years," he said. "I learned so much from you and I'm extremely grateful for all of your help and friendship. You've changed my life and I will never forget you.
"Best wishes to you and Berta. You will always be in my thoughts. Please keep in touch. You know my number."
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The big picture: Morgan's primary focus as a ninth-grade boys basketball coach was to help build up the varsity program at GHS. He prided himself on seeing his former players dress varsity as sophomores, become all-conference or all-state as seniors and then go on to play college hoops.
In fact, on Wednesday night's during the season, Morgan would go to John Thiel's practices at GHS.
"John (Thiel) had the respect and the discipline of the kids," Morgan said. "The man had drills from the pros. That was pretty powerful and that impressed the kids. John ran the 2-1-2 (offense) and it was called the triangle. I told the kids you have to talk and help each other. I was a copycat and Thiel was the one I copied."
Continued Morgan, "My job was to coordinate with drills, an offense, defense and no zone," he said. "I followed directions and did what the high school coach did and asked of us, and that's what I was supposed to do."
To this day, I can still remember Coach Bob before practice with his broom and a wet towel going over the court. It felt like we were playing on Madison Square Garden.
Steve Cheesman had the difficult task of stepping in at Churchill to coach basketball after the Morgan brothers (Bill and Bob) were done. Not many could have done that as well as Cheesman, but he knew the tradition of Blue Streaks basketball.
"Coach Bob (Coach Bill, too) demanded excellence from all their players," said Cheesman. "You were taught fundamentals and attention to detail. They were persistent in all they did and they wanted you to be as well. Their integrity was and is unmatched. There are not enough superlatives to describe these men. They belong on the Mt. Rushmore of coaches. All of us have the highest regard for them as coaches and human beings."
Building the athlete: Coach Bob is primarily known to most people around for his success in coaching basketball.
But you've got to give him credit for building up athletes at Churchill - tough basketball players. He coached football for 22 years at Churchill and track for 22 years.
Kurt Bell, who went on to play football at Indiana State University, talked about in his letter to Coach Bob about how he was a "skinny ninth grader" at Churchill.
Back in 1971, Mark Wilson had never played one down of organized football in his life and Morgan made him the starting quarterback of his ninth-grade football team at Churchill. The main point for Morgan was to "toughen him up" for basketball. The end result was Wilson helping lead the Blue Streaks ninth--grade basketball team to a perfect 15-0 record.
It was the first of three undefeated basketball teams for Morgan, which also featured standout Joe Swedlund.
"We averaged around 74 points a game with six minute quarters," said Morgan, "and gave up like 42 or 43 points. That was with everybody playing."
Others like Greg Turner and Phil Goodman - former football-basketball players at Churchill for Morgan - turned out to be exceptional athletes at Galesburg High School.
To Coach Bill ... I know you are not moving out of state, but "thanks" for all you did.
(You can reach Jeff Holt at firstname.lastname@example.org)