Thirty years ago, guard Kurt Christensen showed up on BYU’s campus, not knowing a soul on the basketball team, after transferring from the University of Utah as a walk-on.
Assistant coach Tony Ingle met Christensen and within an hour, Ingle “pretty much promised me that he would become a father figure to me and take care of me,” Christensen recalled.
For the next three years, Ingle did just that.
“He could tell when I was going through a hard time,” Christensen recalled. “Sometimes it would be a whisper in practice, ‘I love you, K.C. I’ve got you, K.C.”
Ingle was the first one to call Christensen “K.C.” The nickname stuck like velcro.
“Nobody called me Kurt at BYU,” he said.
Christensen was one of numerous players that Ingle coached during his 44-year career — and Ingle left an indelible mark on their lives.
“No one would care as much as he was going to care; no one was going to work as hard as he was going to work. A lot of coaches say that — but he lived it. … He left so many things behind, it’s almost like he’s still here because of his influence.” — Izzy Ingle on the way his father, Tony Ingle, approached his job as a coach
It’s been about seven months since Ingle died at age 68 after a battle with COVID-19, but those who played for him continue to think about him and they get emotional when talking about him.
There was an outpouring of support for the Ingle family when Tony passed away, his son, Izzy, said.
“It was really cool because people from all different walks of life in the basketball world. Big-name coaches, but the best ones were random people that went to a basketball camp in fifth grade. ‘Your dad made me feel like I was important.’ Those were even cooler than the big-name coaches that reached out. A lot of random stories. It’s cool to see the impact he had on so many different people.”
Now the head basketball coach at Timpview High, Izzy Ingle said his dad left him an amazing legacy.
“There’s two things that he always did. He always cared and he loved everyone. His players — he was always there for his players,” Izzy said. “No one would care as much as he was going to care; no one was going to work as hard as he was going to work. A lot of coaches say that — but he lived it. … He left so many things behind, it’s almost like he’s still here because of his influence.”
The lessons he taught his players are remembered today. Some of them had to do with basketball.
‘His life story is insane’
All of his life, Tony Ingle played the role of underdog.
Along the way, he orchestrated an underrated comeback story for the ages.
Born with a facial deformity caused by a tumor, Ingle underwent five surgeries. During his poverty-stricken upbringing in rural Georgia, Ingle forged big dreams, which included winning a national championship.
“His life story is insane, with his facial operations, an abusive, alcoholic father,” Izzy said.
Tony wrote a book about his life, “I Don’t Mind Hitting the Bottom, I Just Hate Dragging.”
According to Izzy, the director and producer of “The Other Side of Heaven” movie have been working to make Tony’s life story into a movie.
Ingle joked about growing up without much money. “We were so poor,” he’d say, “the rats lost weight.”
As a player, Tony starred at North Whitfield High in Georgia before playing at Dalton Junior College, leading the Roadrunners to state and regional titles. A knee injury cut his playing career short but it was at Dalton where Ingle met and married Jeanne Whitworth, who introduced Tony to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He eventually was baptized.
“When I joined the Church,” Ingle once joked, “Budweiser had to lay off the third shift.”
While a student at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, he started coaching a boys club team.
Following graduation, Ingle coached three different high schools in his home state. He guided Cherokee High in Canton to the state championship game in 1982.
Ingle’s success didn’t go unnoticed — he was hired as the head coach at Gordon College in Barnesville. His job was to resuscitate a program that hadn’t played a game in more than a decade. In three seasons, Ingle led Gordon to a 61-32 record. The Hilltoppers reached the Region XVII championship game.
Ingle became the head coach at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 1988. Then in 1989, he was hired as an assistant at BYU by coach Roger Reid.
‘We’d be laughing in the aisles’
For more than seven years, Ingle served under Reid in Provo. During this stretch, the Cougars enjoyed considerable success, including three Western Athletic Conference championships and four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
The self-deprecating Ingle had a way of making players and the media laugh. He was known in the coaching circle as “the Will Rogers of basketball.”
Ingle would joke about himself and the scars left by his childhood tumor.
“Tony would say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, don’t adjust your television sets, I really do look this way,’” Christensen remembered, laughing.
“He played ‘the Southern guy’ a lot,” Izzy said. “He could make fun of himself but he was definitely a lot smarter than he portrayed to a lot of people.”
Former BYU forward Mark Durrant remembers Ingle’s comedy routines, particularly on long road trips.
“We’d travel on the bus and he’d get up, take the little microphone away from the bus driver and as we drove along, he’d give us a comedy act,” he said. “He’d imitate (broadcaster) Johnny Most from the Celtics. It was hilarious. We would literally be laughing in the aisles. He was the funniest and sweetest man.”
“He kept our bus rides lively,” added former BYU forward Ken Roberts. “I remember driving from Laramie to Denver to catch a flight doing his Johnny Most impersonations. It was so much fun. He did that many times. He kept us laughing. He kept things light but he did have a certain intensity about him. He also knew when to shut it down and have a good time.”
Roberts liked the way he interacted with players.
“He didn’t play favorites. Everyone was the same and he treated everyone the same. That was cool. To have someone treat you that way was pretty refreshing,” he said. “He was a good mix of an intense coach and off the court he was a dad. His kids were young at that time. He was fun to be around.”
Durrant said Ingle played a vital role on BYU’s coaching staff.
“Roger had a soft side that people don’t know about. He was a tough coach. You need to be able to balance that on a staff. Tony was certainly that guy,” Durrant said. “The players knew how much he loved them. There was never any question in your mind. He was tough at times, too. But it was a great staff. Tony was the guy that made you felt loved and cared for. And he made you laugh, which was critical in those situations. He wasn’t just a clown, either. I learned a lot about basketball from him.”
‘The first time I ever saw him cry’
Early during the 1996-97 season, Ingle was named interim head coach when Reid was let go. He inherited a team with a 1-6 record and the Cougars went on to finish that season with a 1-25 record — 0-19 under Ingle, who used humor to diffuse what was a miserable situation.
“We’re like a cross-eyed discus thrower,” Ingle said during that season. “We’re not going to set any records, but we’ll keep people’s attention.”
Before facing archrival Utah that season, Ingle said, “It’s like getting a tux on and walkin’ to the coffin.”
Durrant didn’t play on that 1996-97 team but he is glad that Ingle was at the helm at that time.
“I can’t imagine how miserable and awful and horrendous to have gone through that as a player. I think it was almost inspired that coach Ingle was the guy to help them through it because I’m sure as much as the players wanted to win, they needed someone to lift them up,” Durrant said. “If anyone could have done it, it was him, to make even that experience tolerable.
“I’m glad he was there. They didn’t get any wins under him, but man, those players were blessed to have him during that time,” he continued. “That’s who he was. He just wanted to make people feel good about themselves.”
When Ingle was not retained at the end of the season, as Steve Cleveland was hired to lead the program, Ingle had that dismal 0-19 record branded on his resume as a Division I college head coach.
For Ingle, it was a difficult, painful period.
“That whole situation was just crazy. I remember everything that went down at BYU. That was just heartbreaking,” Izzy recalled. “We found out the night before that he wasn’t going to be named the head coach. We packed up all of our stuff. He didn’t want to be around. We were going to drive back to Georgia. That night was the first time I ever saw him cry. He wasn’t crying because he didn’t get the BYU job. I think he was crying because he felt like he let his family down. It was hard.”
Ingle’s return to coaching
Ingle was out of the coaching profession for three years before taking the job at Kennesaw State, a Division II school in Georgia. When he was hired in 2000, he boldly stated that the program, which was winning about 30% of its games at the time, would win a national championship within five years.
“Everyone laughed at him,” Izzy said.
Under Ingle, the program improved quickly and in 2004, Kennesaw State did, in fact, capture the Division II national title.
“I was fortunate to be on that team that won the national championship,” Izzy said. “He never gave up on his dream at all. He wanted to win a national championship or he was going to die trying to do it.”
Then in 2015, Ingle guided Dalton State to an NAIA championship. He also earned Division II and NAIA national coach-of-the-year honors.
Ingle spent 11 seasons at Kennesaw State and five at Dalton State. He finished his career with a 140-99 record.
Back in Utah, former BYU players, like Christensen, saw Ingle’s teams do the improbable and they cheered him from afar.
“As I watched Kennesaw State win that national championship, and I saw how his players reacted and responded to him in their celebration, I knew that it was all genuine. Because those were the feelings I had for Tony,” Christensen said. “One of the greatest parts of Tony Ingle’s legacy was what followed at BYU. He was let go, probably unfairly, and fell on some hard times. Then he had to live all the teachings that he had taught us about perseverance and belief. Then he had to pick himself up from his bootstraps and all the guy did was win two national championships. That, to me, was the most impressive thing about Tony.”
Added Izzy: “Coaches try to teach guys how to prepare for life. When he was coaching, he always uses things as lessons. Then he had to go do what he had been preaching. It’s awesome that he lived it out.”
Find a penny, pick it up
After Ingle lost his job at BYU, he started going for walks while listening to motivational cassette tapes. While walking, he started picking up pennies or other loose change.
His kids thought that was strange.
“He’d pull off to the side of the road and if he saw a penny, he’d run out and get it,” Izzy said. “He told me, ‘Nobody knows why I do this. They think I’m crazy. Pennies, to me, is a reminder to have faith. Because on every penny or dime, it says, ‘In God We Trust.’ Anytime I see a piece of change, it’s a reminder for me to have faith in God’s plan.’ It went from my dad’s insane to, wow, that’s a pretty deep meaning behind it.”
Tony also found worth in those he surrounded himself with during his life.
“He always said, ‘Whenever I meet someone, I pretend there’s an imaginary sign that says, ‘Find something good in me,’” Izzy said. “Every person he came in contact with, he tried to find something good in them and help them get it out.”
Tony Ingle’s coaching career ended in 2018 at Dalton State and he returned to Utah to be close to family.
Last December, Ingle contracted COVID-19. By January, he had been sedated and placed on a ventilator. Ingle died Jan. 18 at the age of 68 in Provo.
“I had heard he was sick,” Roberts said. “I figured he’d be OK. I hadn’t seen him for a long time. When I found out that he passed, it was shocking.”
Durrant said he was deeply affected by the news of Ingle’s passing.
“I was really shook up about it. I can’t imagine a coach more universally loved than Tony Ingle,” he said. “He was such a good person — so funny, so gregarious. He was a completely unique and wonderful person.”
“To think that Tony’s gone, I think about it every week,” Christensen, his voice cracking with emotion. “He was too big of a light to be gone. Not Tony, right? A group text chain started with a bunch of his former players. That’s all that I could write: ‘Not Tony.’”
Ingle’s popularity among the coaching fraternity was evident because of the way he treated people, regardless of their titles.
“That’s what was so special about him. He could be friends with Tubby Smith, a national championship coach, but he would do anything he could to help someone that was just getting started in the business,” Izzy said. “He saw a lot of himself in younger people and how tough it was to get going. People that felt like they were not significant at all, he would try to do whatever he could to help.”
Tony is survived by his wife, Jeanne, five children and five grandchildren.
A lasting legacy
Former BYU players remember the way Ingle made them feel about life, and about themselves.
“I got to spend some time in his home in some gospel settings. He’s an amazing person. Every time he would see me — and he did this with everybody — he’d say, ‘I love you more than you love me.’ I’d tell him, ‘Coach, there’s no way.’ That was because I knew how much I loved him,” Durrant said. “But as I thought about it, I think it was true. He had a capacity to love people that I just don’t have. Even though I loved him with everything I had, his capacity to love other people is greater than what I could possibly have. I believed him when he told me that.
“I think everybody that came in contact with Tony Ingle felt that he really did mean it. That’s what I’ll remember,” Durrant added. “I was so devastated that the world was robbed of Tony Ingle for another 20 or 30 years. Some people want to do good but he did so much good. It broke my heart. I’m sad for his family. I loved Tony Ingle.”
Izzy knew his dad as both a coach and as a father. But he was always a father first. Izzy saw his dad become a father figure to his players.
At Kennesaw State, when Izzy was playing for his dad, he remembers a fight once breaking out at 3 a.m. in an apartment building where a bunch of athletes lived.
“My dad got out of bed and got his car to check on everyone,” Izzy said. “He’d go the extra mile to show that he cared. When I was younger, when he was coaching in high school in a rough area, kids would get kicked out of their house and he’d let them sleep on our couch if they didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
What does Izzy want people to know about his dad?
“That he was my hero. His whole thing was ‘legacy over currency.’ What are you leaving behind? He’d alway say, ‘I could give you $20 and you could spend it in two minutes,” he said. “I could give you $100 and you could spend it in five minutes. But if I influence your life, it will last forever.’ That was his whole thing, trying to influence as many people and hopefully that lasts forever.”
Christensen recalls a European trip the BYU team took just after he finished his college career. He was allowed to participate because the team was shorthanded.
While in Europe, Christensen said he played freely like he never had before and averaged 16 points per game.
After one of those games, Ingle sat by Christensen on the bus ride back to the hotel in Slovenia.
“Tony told me how proud he was of me and what I accomplished in transferring from Utah, having to earn a scholarship and going through some of my opposition,” he said. “Tony told me, ‘I knew that you had the ability to play like this. I believed in you from the beginning. I want you to count me as a friend and a resource for the rest of your life. You can always count on me.’ That’s one of my favorite memories.”
Christensen said when he played at BYU, Ingle always preached about dealing with opposition and discouragement during a basketball season. It’s a lesson that remains with him to this day.
“He would always encourage us in moments of opposition and discouragement,” Christensen said. “Tony found himself in his personal life facing opposition and a ton of discouragement. The guy picked himself up and won two national championships. How inspiring is that?”