OGDEN — One of Utah’s most legendary and beloved high school basketball coaches died after a monthlong battle with COVID-19 Tuesday afternoon at a hospital in the community he served for more than four decades.
Philip W. Russell, who spent 42 years coaching and teaching at Ogden High, was one of Utah’s most successful girls basketball coaches, leading the Ogden Tigers to five state championships and 10 region titles.
“Dearest family and friends – It’s with an extremely heavy heart that I give this final update. My father passed away peacefully this afternoon after more than a month long battle against Covid-19,” wrote his son, Mike Russell, who is the head women’s basketball coach at Snow College. “My family dejectedly had to watch most of this fight from a hospital window, as our dad lay there alone for the last five weeks. So it brings us great comfort to know that this fight is over and that he’s no longer in pain. My family’s faith is rooted in Christ our Savior, and we know that families are eternal and that death is temporary.”
Mike Russell continued, “My sweet mom (Phil’s wife of 53 years), my brother and his family and of course me and my family, have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love, support and prayers on behalf of my dad and our family. We have found great strength in each of you and thank you for your love, kindness and many prayers.”
There was an immediate outpouring of love as other coaches, former players and officials paid tribute to a man who was known as competitive, fair, compassionate and capable of witty moments even in painful times.
“Oh Russell family ... I’m so heartbroken to hear this. What an incredible guy who made a lasting impression for good on so many,” said Anne Jones, a former player who now coaches at Davis High. “I will be forever grateful for the influence and impact he had on my life and athletic career. I will always treasure his support and friendship over the years for me and my family. Love him dearly. Prayers for him and all of you!”
In an interview with the Deseret News on Friday, Mike Russell said both his parents and his older brother tested positive for COVID-19 at the end of September. His father, who was 75, went to the hospital after struggling to breathe, and a few days after being admitted, he was moved into intensive care and put on a ventilator.
His family couldn’t visit him, but they came to his first-floor hospital window to spend time near him, and they expressed gratitude for pictures and updates from the nurses caring for him at Ogden Regional Hospital.
“With this whole thing, you think, it’s never going to happen to us,” Mike Russell said on Friday. “It’s not going to affect our family. We’re healthy. It’s been really eye-opening.”
Phil Russell started out coaching football and baseball, but in the winter of 1973, Ogden’s principal came to him and asked him to coach the girls basketball team. He knew nothing about the game and had never coached girls, but Mike Russell said his father bought “a bunch of books” and studied, eventually becoming one of the state’s most successful coaches.
“I would describe him as a big teddy bear,” Mike Russell said. “His players, he demanded the most out of his players, and he got it. But he really cared about his team. He loved his players. ... He is an emotional guy, and when his players would cry, he cried. When they hurt, he hurt. He just had a super big heart.”
Russell earned many honors and accolades throughout his career, and he was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame and Museum as a Distinguished Coach in 2013. He served as a board member for that organization, as well.
“Phil was just a hardworking member,” said Doug Toole, Utah Sports Hall of Fame board president. “Always involved, always a proponent for the Hall of Fame and the museum. He is an excellent board member.”
One woman posted on Mike Russell’s Facebook page, “We so appreciate the sweet impact your father had on the lives of our children. He will be remembered with love always. He fostered confidence that has carried on in their lives. What a dear man.”
Mike Russell shared a scripture in his Facebook post announcing his father’s death.
“But there is a resurrection, therefore the grave hath no victory, and the sting of death is swallowed up in Christ. He is the light and the life of the world; yea, a light that is endless, that can never be darkened; yea, and also a life which is endless, that there can be no more death.” — Mosiah 16:8-9.
Correction: In an earlier version, the last name of Doug Toole, Utah Sports Hall of Fame board president, was misspelled as Tooele.