Remembering Bill Fox, legendary Father Judge basketball coach

Bill Fox
Bill Fox and the 1975 Catholic League-champion Judge team

By Kevin Cooney

Northeast Times

When Mark Heimerdinger got the news last spring about the diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis for Bill Fox, the former Cardinal Doughtery and Samuel Fels head coach felt compelled to put his thoughts on paper.

The two coaches couldn’t be more polarizing opposites: Fox was composed in everything from temperament to Today’s Man suits on Father Judge’s sidelines. Heimerdinger was a whirling tornado of flying shirt collars, colorful language and unfiltered thoughts. There were games between the two that could be classified as battles.

And yet, Heimerdinger felt the need to let his old adversary know how he felt. And so, he put a letter together and sent it to Fox with the idea that he didn’t need a return correspondence back.

“The last sentence I wrote was thanks for making me a better basketball coach,” Heimerdinger recalled in a recent phone call. “If you coach 40 years and you don’t get any better, then you are doing something wrong. But when I saw what Judge did, it made me look at what we did. I saw the way he ran his program and the success that he had. I saw the way he respected the league and people in it. In my mind, that was my template and model to do the things I did at Dougherty.

“I didn’t want a response back. I knew that Bill was not in good health. Maybe I did it just for my own thoughts. But I wanted him to know how much I really respected him, the way he handled everything and the way he carried himself, his program and how much he loved his family.”

Fox, who played at La Salle University and coached Father Judge for parts of 29 years from 1975 to 2006, passed away late Sunday night at the age of 70 after a year-plus battle with ALS.

In Philadelphia scholastic basketball history, Fox currently ranks sixth all time with 541 wins behind Speedy Morris (754 wins at Roman/Penn Charter/ St. Joseph’s Prep), Jim Fenerty (626 wins at Bishop Egan/Germantown Academy), Dan Dougherty (621 wins at Malvern Prep/Episcopal Academy), Bud Gardler (560 wins at Bishop Kenrick/Cardinal O’Hara) and Heimerdinger (546 wins at Dougherty/Fels). His .670 winning percentage is better than everyone on that list except Morris (.761) and Dougherty (.685).

There were three Catholic League titles – ones in 1975 and 1977 at the beginning of his tenure, followed by one in 1998 in what many in the league consider as the last “neighborhood team” of players who grew up together to win a PCL title. In 29 years, there were 26 playoff appearances and 18 trips to either the PCL semifinals (12) or championship game (6).

Fox did it with only a handful of Division I prospects and often short of height. His style maximized the available talent and built a feeder system from parishes like St. Bernard, St. Matthew, St. Dominic and St. Timothy. Those players – often with skill sets similar to the ones who had departed the year before – helped turn Judge into a perennial favorite in the old Catholic League Northern Division. In summary: The Fox-era Crusaders were never going to beat themselves.

“He was very professional and very organized,” said Bill Koch, who first met Fox as a summer league teammate in 1965 and was on his bench for his entire coaching tenure at Rowland and Solly. “He had great practices and was a great game coach. He took a bunch of individuals and made them a team. He was very repetitious and by the time our guys got to be juniors and seniors, they knew exactly what was expected of them.”

Not one for flash, Fox rarely made a scene on the sidelines. His blazers were crisp and dress shirts pressed for every game, but the moments when he would lose his cool were few and far between. Often, he would stand in front of his bevy of assistant coaches – Koch, Rich Miller, Charles Liddell and Ron Zawacki, among them – and survey moves before making his next decision.

“You knew that he was always anticipating the opposing move,” former Archbishop Wood head coach Joe Sette said. “It was always a chess match and I always knew that Bill was a play or two ahead of the game. But most of all, I knew how much of a class act he was and always operated with the highest integrity. He is someone that every parent would want their sons to be coached by.”

The 1975 and 1977 titles came when Fox was a new face on the local coaching scene, having played under Paul Westhead at La Salle before graduating in 1973. He would serve as an assistant at American University under Jim Lynam before getting the Judge job at 25 years of age.

Despite a sluggish start, Judge would win the ’75 title with a group highlighted by first team All-Catholic Al Clancy, second team All-PCL Mo Connolly and Bob Convey. The ’77 team would feature Convey in the lead role with Mo Greenfield and Ed Costello.

After that, there was a series of near misses. An overtime loss to Roman Catholic – led by DePaul signee Dallas Comegys – in 1982 was “the toughest” of Fox’s career, according to Koch. A few other near misses in the North final would speckle the landscape until 1998. That year, Judge made it back to the semifinals behind a powerful inside-out tandem of power forward Jim Reeves – who played two years at La Salle before transferring to Judge for his final two seasons – guard Kris Dufner and swingman Brendan Ferns.

The Crusaders ended a 15-year title game drought by beating Roman Catholic by nine (57-48) with 14 points coming from Brian Fox in the semifinals at the Palestra. That was followed by a 62-48 win over Cardinal O’Hara behind 21 points and 10 rebounds from Reeves.

And before that title game, how nervous was Fox? “He ended up falling asleep in the (Palestra) locker room,” Koch chuckled when he recalled on Monday. “Everyone was outside for the girls game and he was just stretched out. We had to nudge him awake before guys came in to get him ready.”

Since that point, the Crusaders have made the PCL semifinals only once – the following season – as the landscape of the league, its playoff structure and a more open recruiting environment made it extremely difficult for the Judge program to return.

“I think that title game (in 1998) was the last one we could look at before the landscape really ended up changing and open enrollment really took hold,” Sette said. “Those kids had played with each other in the feeder systems for years. They had such a chemistry and it worked so well. Really, that team is – looking back – historic for that reason.”

By then, Fox’s legacy was secured as a coach. In a league that has been blessed with incredible coaches – Morris, Heimerdinger, Gardler, Tom Ingelsby at Carroll, Dennis Seddon at Roman Catholic – he has always occupied a high place of honor.

“All those guys are good coaches,” Heimerdinger said. “But Bill Fox was a great coach. Just an absolute great coach.”

Fox is survived by his wife of 46 years, Maryellen. Together, they had two sons (Brendan and Brian) and two daughters (Bridget and Maura). There will be a viewing Friday at Judge’s Bill Fox Gymnasium from 4-8 p.m. On Saturday, there will be a viewing from 9 to 10:30 a.m. at St Christopher Roman Catholic Church, 13301 Proctor Road. A funeral Mass will follow. ••