You're branded a loser. It's a tough thing to carry with you. I'd like to think I've shown I can win. – Tony Ingle

Maybe you missed the news earlier this month: Tony Ingle, the former BYU basketball coach who is now at tiny Dalton State in Georgia, was named NAIA National Coach of the Year. It marks the fourth time in 14 years he has won such an award. He also has won two national championships, thus making good on a vow he made — twice.

For Ingle these are all affirmations of his coaching ability, which was once subject to considerable doubt. He won the NCAA Division II championship at Kennesaw State in 2004 and collected two Coach-of-the-Year awards. He won the NAIA national championship in 2015 and was again named Coach of the Year. He won the award again this year after the Roadrunners won 29 of 34 games and advanced to the Final Eight of the NAIA Tournament.

You remember Ingle, don’t you? He’s the man BYU turned to early in the 1996-97 season when the school rashly fired Roger Reid after a 1-6 start. The Hindenburg was on fire and they asked him to take it in for a landing. It went about as well as you’d expect. They never won another game and for 20 years Ingle has carried the 1-25 blemish on his résumé.

He was told by people (he won’t identify them), “Maybe you’re not cut out for it.” “Why don’t you go back and coach high school?” “College coaching isn’t for everyone.” “No one will hire you.”

It took him three years before he took another coaching job, and he had to start at the bottom with low-level jobs in his native Georgia. At Kennesaw State, he lived in the coach’s office for a season while his wife remained behind in Utah with their children.

He kept telling her he’d rent an apartment, but he never did. He slept on a couch, using rolled-up T-shirts for a pillow. He showered in the locker room. Anyway, he produced four straight 20-win seasons at a school that had had a grand total of three, and he won that national championship.

Ingle made the program so good that the school decided to jump to Division I, which proved an ill-timed, ill-prepared move that cost him his job a few years later.

After spending another two years out of basketball, he was hired by Dalton, which meant Ingle had come full circle. He had played basketball for Dalton four decades earlier when it was a junior college. Dalton dropped its athletic program a few years after he left the school, and in 2012 he was hired to start a new program.

This was nothing new for him. Early in his career, after coaching at the high school level, Ingle was hired by Gordon College to start a basketball program with a $3,000 budget. Faced with the same task at Dalton, it was a year before he could hire an assistant or put a team on the floor.

In addition to recruiting, he started a booster club, sold season tickets, raised funds, and did countless speaking engagements. He had “VIP guest pass” printed on the back of his business card and handed them out like candy. He was a one-man marketing department.

Someone asked him once how it was going that first year and he said, “Well, I have three players and six basketballs ...” During pre-game introductions for the first game, he told the public address announcer it would be faster if he just introduced the crowd instead of the players.

Some nights he worked so late that he slept on the floor of his office on a stack of T-shirts because there was no point in going home when he’d have to be at work again in three or four hours.

“I was thinking, ‘Man, I’m 60 years old sleeping on the floor with no pillow,’” he recalls. “I couldn’t walk for a couple of days.”

It all paid off. The two national championships. The 84 wins during a three-year span at Kennesaw. The 106 wins in four years at Dalton.

“You’re making lemonade out of lemons,” one observer told him. “What could you do if you got a D-I job and all you had to do was coach?”

Ingle still hopes for a D-I job, but there is that 1-25 season and the difficulties he encountered as a D-I coach at Kennesaw. In recent years he did manage to get interviews for two Division I coaching jobs in the South, but nothing came of it.

“You’re branded a loser,” Ingle says. “It’s a tough thing to carry with you. I’d like to think I’ve shown I can win.”

Ingle was an assistant coach at BYU when Reid was fired. In retrospect, Ingle probably should have declined the offer to be interim head coach because there was little chance of winning and it only put his own career aspirations at risk. But what assistant could refuse the offer, especially one who felt loyal to the players and school?

He continued to live in Provo the next three years, but he was embarrassed to be seen in town, and he was struggling to make ends meet. He lost his job, his courtesy car, his cell phone and eventually his home, which went into foreclosure.

"I maxed out my credit cards just striving to survive," says Ingle. He credits Frank Layden, the gentlemanly long-time executive with the Utah Jazz, for throwing him a lifeline. He offered Ingle a part-time scouting job with the Jazz. Ingle also sold carpet, did TV color commentary for college games, and began a side career as a motivational speaker. But, as he says, “All I wanted to do was coach.”

This is a man who wanted to coach so badly that early in his career, when his meager coaching salary wasn’t enough to take care of his family, he pawned the family TV. Basketball had been good to him, and he didn’t want to let go of the game.

He had been born with a facial deformity on the left side of his face. It was on the basketball court that it didn’t matter, that he found love, camaraderie and success as a player. He was offered one scholarship, by Dalton State. With Ingle at guard, the Roadrunners were 34-0 when they lost in the national championship tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas.

They returned to the tournament a year later ranked No. 5 in the nation, but Ingle suffered a serious knee injury in the first game and the Roadrunners lost again.

“That’s the only time I’ve seen my Daddy cry,” recalls Ingle. “It broke my heart. He had borrowed a thousand dollars to drive to Kansas to see the game. I vowed, I promised, that one of these days I was gonna win a national championship. It took me 31 years.”

He made a similar vow after being fired by BYU. Ingle can still remember the day right down to the time — 7:05 a.m., March 10, 1997. He was walking to his car in the Marriott Center parking lot, trailed by Merrill Bateman and R.J Snow, the men who had just let him go. He stopped and turned to both men and said, “If you ever want to win, give me a call because there’s a national championship in me.”

Bobby Cremins, the Georgia Tech coach, tipped him off about the Kennesaw State job. Ingle told him he wanted to wait until his kids were finished with high school before he resumed his coaching career. Two weeks later Cremins called again and urged him to apply for the job. When Ingle’s sons, Tony Jr., and Israel, caught wind of what was happening, they also urged him to apply.

“The next day I took $2.90 that I found while walking and put it on the counter at the post office and mailed my résumé to KSU,” he says.

Aside from the BYU years, Ingle has made a career of coaching small-time college basketball, so the challenges at Dalton are not new to him. His office isn’t even on campus — he’s in a trade center. He has no office phone — all calls are on his mobile, which he pays for.

During Ingle’s first season, the team practiced at nine different gyms — churches, rec centers, elementary schools, high schools, convention centers. Even now, despite the team’s success, the Roadrunners must arrange practice in the school gym around a yoga class, intramurals and the women’s volleyball team, which means some practices are held in the evening or at a high school. There is no locker room — the team dresses behind curtains by the pool.

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“You can’t make this up,” says Ingle.

All this notwithstanding, when Ingle looks at the whole of his career — he might be the only man ever to hold head coaching jobs for high school, junior college, NAIA, NCAA Division I and NCAA Division II — he finds fulfillment. He just wants more.

“Never give up,” he says. “Never means never.”

Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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