Former coach, mentor, teacher Willard Tate dies

Posted February 13, 2010

Willard Tate, beloved teacher, minister, motivational speaker and coach of the Abilene Christian University basketball team with the most wins in school history, died Feb. 12, at his home after a long illness.  He was 74.

A memorial service honoring his life will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18, in the auditorium of University Church of Christ in Abilene. Visitation will be Wednesday from 5-7 p.m. at Piersall-Benton Funeral Home. Burial will be at the Elmwood Memorial Garden of Remembrance.

Tate was born Dec. 23, 1935, in Jefferson County, Ala., to G.N. and Mable Tate, the youngest of four boys. He graduated from Corner High School, near Birmingham, in 1954.  He married Bobbie Nell Campbell June 2, 1954, and the couple had two children, Mark and Elisabeth.

Willard enrolled at Alabama Christian College (now Faulkner University) in September 1957 and received his bachelor’s degree in Bible there in 1961, a second bachelor’s in social science from Auburn University in 1963, and the M.Ed. in secondary education from Troy State University in 1965.

Throughout his career, Tate found ways to combine preaching, teaching and coaching. After graduating from Alabama Christian, he was asked by Alabama Christian to begin an athletics program there. He coached high school and college basketball, running practices on a dirt court and playing games at a local junior high school gymnasium.  Meanwhile he preached on Sundays and commuted in the summers for graduate study. 

The Tates remained in Alabama until 1973, while Willard served 13 years as athletic director and seven as head basketball coach at Alabama Christian. After moving to Abilene to become head men’s basketball coach at ACU, he preached for 28 years at Hamby Church of Christ where he also served as an elder.  

He coached the Wildcats for seven seasons (1973-80), winning Lone Star Conference championships in 1974-75 (west zone title) and 1979-80.

The 1979-80 team set the school record for wins in a season with 27 as it finished 27-5, won the LSC regular-season title and went on to capture the NAIA District IV championship.  That team went on to the NAIA Division I national tournament in Kansas City, Mo., winning its first game, 75-55, over Illinois Wesleyan before falling in the second round, 56-55, to LeMoyne-Owen.

Tate compiled a career record of 119-79 in his seven seasons, finishing with the third-best winning percentage (.601) of any coach in ACU men's basketball history.  During his ACU career he was the LSC Coach of the Year in 1979-80, coached three all-America players (Andrew Prince, Randall Moore and Rodney Fedell) and the university's former career scoring leader (Fedell).

Tate was inducted into the ACU Sports Hall of Fame in October 1996.

Tate enjoyed as much success in the classroom as he had on the basketball court.  Beginning in 1980, he taught several popular courses in the Communication Department at ACU: Adventures in Christian Living, Life Learning Skills and Communicative Attitudes, until his retirement in 2004.  He was honored as Teacher of the Year by the College of Professional Studies in 1993. He often said he was still coaching, just a more important game with more players.

He developed several motivational workshops and spiritually focused family seminars that he presented to churches, family retreats and conferences, and for Christian organizations in 24 states and six nations.  He was a frequently featured speaker at university lectureships, including eight years at the Pepperdine University Lectures in Malibu, Calif.

Three of his workshops were converted into books published by the Gospel Advocate Co., Learning to Love, How to Get What You Want and Want What You Get, and Habits of a Loving Heart. Four others were released as audio cassette series. 

Tate was also a popular humorist, in demand for Chamber of Commerce banquets and other civic events, sometimes appearing as “Willer Wood,” a homespun character clad in overalls, toting a banjo that he played with skill.

His speeches and sermons were often punctuated by song, including his final sermon, preached June 28, 2009, at University Church of Christ to a packed auditorium.  Seated on the stage because standing for extended periods had become too difficult he reprised his lessons from Learning to Love and Habits of a Loving Heart, twice singing a favorite hymn in a strong, clear tenor. 

He is survived by his wife Bobbie, his son Mark and wife Celia, his daughter Elisabeth Pringle and husband Rod, all of Abilene; by six grandchildren, Amber Tate of Fort Worth, Adam, Andrew and Aric Tate, Joshua Pringle and wife Kallie, and Logan Pringle, all of Abilene; and by two brothers, Alvie Tate and his wife Ivadell, and Odus Tate and his wife Connie, and many nieces, nephews and cousins.

He was preceded in death by his half brother Noah E. Tate, brother Arnold Edward Tate, nephew Ray Tate, and great nephew Jeremy Cook.

The family has requested that memorials be made to the ACU basketball program or to the Disability Resources Inc. pecan orchard.

Read more about Willard Tate's impact on ACU students at ACU Today online.

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