The Priest of Roundball

The scars on Phil Schumacher’s knees tell the story. This morning, Schumacher is seated on the first row of bleachers at Songer Gymnasium in a familiar pose, one reminiscent of his twenty-four years on the sidelines as head basketball coach of the Walker Vikings. Schumacher is clad in an IZOD knit, shorts, and sandals; years of intense competition have writ their scars on his body. Schumacher fidgets as he talks about his time at Walker, his massive hands clasping the bleachers as if he might suddenly make a substitution, or perhaps challenge a player.

But today, there is no game to play. Today, Schumacher will not pace the sidelines in his famous lumbering gait. He will not scan the floor with hands perched on hips. His tie will not wag erratically as he squats and sketches a clever play for a huddled, sweaty mass of young boys. His deep voice—a drawn-out, South-tainted Illinoisan—will not boom across the parquet floor as he begs “TIME OUT!” flicking his left hand casually across his right palm in trademarked fashion. Those days are gone forever.

The story begins in Sigel, Illinois, a small town two hundred miles south of Chicago and one hundred miles east of St. Louis, where Phil Schumacher was raised on a dairy farm. Sigel was so small that it furnished no high school, so young Phil was bussed to nearby Teutopolis, eighteen miles away. “The bus picked us up at 7:10,” Schumacher reflects. “My sophomore year, I’d have to hitchhike home, because my parents were milking and couldn’t get me. It’d be 5:30 or 6 before I got home, and there were chores to be done because dad wasn’t finished milking.”

Teutopolis was a public school where a Catholic nun was both principal and superintendent. “And many of my teachers were nuns,” Schumacher says. During recess, a priest would pitch softball to the children and participate in a wide variety of activities. Schumacher looked at the priest as a target life, one to pattern his life after. “I just thought he was the greatest guy in the world,” he says.

Because of this man’s influence, Schumacher entertained thoughts of becoming a priest. His ninth grade year, he attended seminary in Worthington, Ohio, but quickly learned that the curriculum (including Latin and German) was more difficult than expected. “Foreign language is not my cup of tea,” Schumacher says, “and I could not picture myself in Worthington for twelve years.”

The young scholar quickly turned to sports as an outlet. Excelling in basketball and baseball, Schumacher guided Teutopolis to a 19-6 record in basketball his senior year. At the time, his older brother was playing for the University of Alabama basketball team under head coach Hayden Riley. For years, Riley had been recruiting the southern portion of Illinois, relying on an old military buddy as a bird dog for talent. Getting wind of the younger sibling’s exploits, Riley dispatched assistant coach Wimp Sanderson to investigate. “Wimp came to the farm and encouraged me to go the junior college route,” Schumacher says. “He mentioned Walker College, and said that if I did a good job, [Alabama] would take me the last two years.”

It would take a little convincing. Schumacher and his father boarded the Illinois Central train and headed south to Jasper, Alabama, the whole world in front of them. His mother’s only instruction was to “find out the location of the local Catholic church.”

When the Schumachers arrived, waiting to pick him up at the train depot in Jasper was a raven-haired dandy, none other than the head coach of the Walker College Rebels, Glen R. Clem. “The first time you met Coach Clem, you couldn’t help but fall in love,” Schumacher said.

After visiting the “nice, pretty little campus” and soaking in Clem’s own matchless boasting of the “Cadillac of Junior Colleges,” the 6’3” guard decided to ink with the Rebels. But on the trip, he had forgotten one thing: he had forgotten to find the Catholic church.

His freshmen year, Schumacher was quickly introduced to junior college basketball at its finest. As members of the old Dixie Conference, Walker had a stable of fine teams with which to contend, and the Rebels soon found themselves 0-5 in conference play before they could turn around. Clem, the evident mastermind, would soon turn to psychology to reverse the trend. “The team that’s going to win the Dixie Conference is going to be 10-6!” Clem crowed proudly. Hiwassee College out of Tennessee was sitting at a peerless 7-0, and Schumacher was surprised at the aplomb of his head coach. Clem pointed out that Hiwassee had yet to make the road swing into Alabama. As Schumacher recalls this story, one gets the sense that the season did not end in disaster. “We ended up the season tied for first place with Hiwasee at 10-6,” Schumacher laughs. “I guess Coach Clem knew what he was talking about.”

Phil Schumacher at Songer Gymnasium

Two moments in particular during Schumacher’s sophomore season stick out in his mind. “I had a terrible game in the semifinals of the state tournament,” Schumacher says. “After the game, I locked myself in my room. It was the Holiday Inn in Montgomery.” But Schumacher was prepared the next night, and Walker beat Snead by twenty-one in the state championship game. Schumacher had 37 points. “Maybe my mind was in the right place,” he says. Schumacher was later named MVP of the conference.

After Schumacher’s last game at Walker College, the Rebels spent the night at the Holiday Inn in Columbus, Georgia. The next morning as the team was eating breakfast, the Alabama basketball team walked in for pregame breakfast before their annual contest with Auburn, and Sanderson and Riley asked Schumacher to join them. “We watched your progress,” Riley told Schumacher, “and as it stands right now, if I’m back, I want you to know you have two more years of scholarship at the University of Alabama.”

Schumacher would have been happy, had the sentence ended right there. “…but the way it looks right now,” Riley continued, “I’m not going to be.”

Riley was soon out at the Capstone, and Schumacher hoped that new coach C.M. Newton would make good on the offer. Newton called Schumacher and scrappy Rebel guard Ott Knight into his office. “He said he was building the program back with all freshmen and that he wasn’t taking any transfers,” Schumacher said.

That left the door open for Centenary College out of Shreveport, Louisiana, “the only D-1 program that offered me.” But Schumacher’s time at Centenary was short-lived. For various reasons, Schumacher stayed there only one semester and transferred to Samford to finish out his playing career. “I transferred mid-year and did not have to sit out. One week, I was playing for Centenary, the next week, I was playing for Samford,” he says.

After Schumacher graduated, Clem approached him about coming back to Walker College to be his assistant. “Naturally I said yes,” Schumacher says. As this was only a part-time position, Schumacher taught Alabama History (imagine the irony of a native Illinoisan teaching the class) at Parrish High School during the day.

Two seasons later, in the fall of 1973, Phil Schumacher was offered the head basketball job at Walker High School. “When I first started, I thought ‘give me seven or eight warm bodies and my coaching expertise will carry us’. But I was badly mistaken.” The first few years, Schumacher says, were lean years in terms of talent, and to make matters worse, Walker had to compete in an area that was one of the toughest in the state. With losses piling up to stalwarts such as Tuscaloosa City, Jess Lanier, and Hueytown, some of the townspeople began to grow impatient. “People in the community thought they’d hired the wrong guy,” Schumacher says. But Clem, by then the Don of Jasper basketball, stepped in and assured the powers-that-be that all his consigliore needed was time.

Things began to slowly turn around for Schumacher’s Vikings in the 1980s. Two additions—a new gym and a new Clem—seemed to help matters. Walker had been playing in the old auditorium, a boxy edifice located in the current location of the WHS theater. Now, in Songer Gym, the Vikes had a swank, bleacher-filled cavity for roundball that was one of the largest of its kind—anywhere. Schumacher had the gym, the equipment; now he needed the players to make the engine run.

Enter Glen Clem Jr.

“Coach Clem’s son came along, and he had not really physically developed, but he had tremendous basketball savvy,” Schumacher reflects. “We had a nice team his senior year.” Clem, the best basketball player in the history of Walker High, went on to sign with Vanderbilt and was eventually drafted by the New York Knicks.

Across twenty-four seasons, great teams and players, too many to count, fell under Schumacher’s tutelage. Only one team went to the state tournament, the ’88-89 version of the Vikings that included Brad Reynolds, Stephen Fields, Harry Padbury, Shannon Pate, and Chris Cummings. That year, Schumacher made a bold midseason coaching move to change his offensive philosophy, and Walker, then a .500 team, ran off nine straight wins in January. Walker was eventually knocked out of the tournament by McGill-Toolen with just a few seconds left on the clock. The 1992-93 squad holds the best overall record and included Brandon Johnson, Demetrius Shelton, Josh Woodley, Kenny Vanzant, and Jimbo Cunningham. Fans old enough will remember the 1993 installment of “Pack the Pit” against Austin-Decatur, a 92-90 triple-overtime thriller that is considered by many to be the greatest high school basketball game they ever witnessed.

Schumacher coached for a few more years but was unable to rekindle the greatness of these teams. At the end of the 1996-97 season, he felt that it was time to hang it up. “I enjoyed all the years I coached, but I guess maybe that year I began to have thoughts about why am I doing this,” Schumacher says. His decision hanging, the old ball coach, who had become a mainstay on the Walker sideline, took Spring Break to think about it. Schumacher eventually concluded that it was time to bow out. He continued to teach for three more years and eventually retired from teaching in 2000.

While Phil Schumacher will be remembered primarily as a basketball coach, many will say that Schumacher was one of their favorite teachers. Across nearly thirty years, Schumacher taught biology, economics, World History, and government. “I’ve taught just about everything in the social studies department,” he says. For many years, Schumacher, alongside Callie Sue Brakefield, taught American Government to high school seniors. Students were able to see a much lighter side of Schumacher than his basketball players; in addition to teaching the three branches of government, Schumacher shared hilarious anecdotes from his playing days that produced rockets of laughter.

Coach Phil Schumacher pivoted in the year 2000 and began to work full-time in tax preparation, a second career of sorts. Fellow teacher Steve Smitherman had introduced Schumacher to “a little side business” and Schumacher was able to parlay this experience into gainful employment after he graduated from the H&R Block tax course. Schumacher now works at Jasper Accounting Services owned by Tommy Kimbrell.

Schumacher says he still watches basketball, but his biggest fascination is St. Louis Cardinals baseball. “If I wasn’t able to buy the Major League Baseball Extra Innings Package,” he says, “I don’t know what I’d do.” Schumacher has been an avid Cardinals fan since childhood, when he and a group of friends would load up on Sundays for a doubleheader at Busch Stadium in St. Louis to watch the likes of Stan Musial, Lou Brock, and Bob Gibson.

He says he has few regrets, and that he misses the camaraderie of teaching and coaching. He misses the players who played hard for him, the coaches who coached hard against him, and the teachers who taught alongside him. He regrets not being able to attend more of his son’s wrestling matches because he was tied up with basketball obligations. “But I don’t miss the long drives back from Tuscaloosa County after you got beat by fifteen.”

Where do the old coaches go? Yes, there is a sadness that exists when a coach walks away from the game he loved, to live out his life among cable packages and newspaper clippings. But do not feel sorry for Phil Schumacher. He is fine to live out his days investing in the lives of his grandchildren, taking an occasional fishing trip, or smoking Boston butts for charity with the Knights of Columbus. A teacher once told him when he was considering retirement, “when you know, you’ll know,” and Schumacher embraced that end with the same class he brought to the basketball court for three decades.

Coach Phil Schumacher is one of the last of a dying breed. He played and coached in the greatest era in American sports, his life oozing with tales of Musial, Bobby Knight, Bill Madlock, and many old names that today have faded into obscurity. Listening to Schumacher tell these stories is like opening an old trunk with hundreds of artifacts inside, or spending a Saturday cleaning out a box filled with dusty scrapbooks. This was a time in Sport before commercialization tainted its purity, when you played for the love of the game. It was a time when coaches could be coaches, and their word was nonnegotiable and final. You didn’t argue with them, and there was a line of intimacy you did not cross.

Phil Schumacher found a Catholic church. “St. Cecilia’s,” Schumacher says. “I didn’t have a car my freshman year, so I would hitch a ride with Vic Karabasz’s family. Sometimes I would borrow George Miller’s ’56 Chevrolet and drive to church on Sundays. I always found a way.”

And he’s been finding a way for the last forty-eight years.

Why did Schumacher become a coach and not a priest? Perhaps because God understood that you don’t have to be a priest to impact lives.

And the mission field is any place that leaves scars on your knees. 78

Comments

comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.