Willard Tate, legendary basketball coach, preacher, communication professor and inspirational speaker, died Friday in Abilene after a long illness. He was 74.
Tate served ACU for more than 30 years in many different roles. He coached the ACU men’s basketball team for seven seasons, from 1973-80, before leaving the hardwood for the classroom. After his time as coach, he spent 24 years as a professor in the Department of Communication, retiring in 2004.
Tate was born Dec. 23, 1935, in Jefferson County, Ala., near Birmingham. The youngest of four boys, he graduated from Corner High School in 1954 and married his high school sweetheart, Bobbie Nell Campbell, on June 2 of the same year.
Tate graduated from Alabama Christian College in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in Bible and earned his master’s in secondary education from Troy University in 1965. He later returned to Alabama Christian and served as head basketball coach for seven years and as athletic director for 13.
In 1973, he took over as head coach of the ACU men’s basketball team. Tate coached the team for seven seasons, compiling a 119-79 record. His 1979-80 squad set the team record for wins in a season, with 27 en route to the NAIA District IV Championship. He was named Lone Star Conference Coach of the Year the same season and in 1996 was inducted into the ACU Sports Hall of Fame.
But Tate will be remembered as far more than a coach. He preached at Hamby Church of Christ for 28 years and also served as an elder. He also worked as a motivational speaker, delivering seminars to families and churches in 24 states across the nation. He was also a popular comedian, portraying a fictional banjo-playing character named Willer Wood at area events. His final sermon was delivered June 28, 2009, to a packed auditorium at University Church of Christ.
Current men’s basketball coach Jason Copeland remembers Tate not only as a legendary coach but also a great friend. He described Tate as a motivator who had the ability to get the best out of his players.
“Coach and I were very close from the moment I got to ACU,” Copeland said. “He was a man who went out of his way to build a relationship. We spent a lot of time together, whether it be basketball, spiritual talk or out on the golf course.”
Tate’s time on the sidelines was a short seven years, but for more than 20 years, he changed lives as an educator. Dr. Joe Cardot, chair of the Department of Communication, remembers Tate as an exceptional educator and an exceptional man.
“He was a phenomenal individual who connected with people at an emotional level,” Cardot said. “He was called Coach by so many, but in reality, his coaching career at ACU was short. What he knew about the school, who he knew at the school, his networking, his relations – all that is lost.”
Tate’s reach extended far beyond the borders of Abilene. Cardot said it is impossible to measure the impact Tate had on thousands around the country.
His classes always filled up quickly, Cardot said, and his impact on students’ lives was felt long after graduation. Robin Ritchie Peace, class of 1990, is among the many alumni whose lives were touched.
“I will never forget his Life Learning Skills class; one of the best classes I took at ACU,” Peace said. “His insight and inspiration to his students connected with us at the pivotal level in our lives where we were open to his wisdom.”
Tate’s grandson, Adam Tate, is a junior at ACU and remembers his grandfather as a man who had tremendous influence not only on his own life but also on the lives of many others.
“Daddy Tate was not only an inspiration to me, but the greatest man I ever knew,” Adam said. “He was a man filled unconditionally with faith and love. Countless people were touched by Daddy Tate. Since this past Friday, I have been sent many stories about Daddy Tate from people all around the U.S. They stand testament to the depth and magnitude of his work and his care to spread our Lord’s word and love.”
Some will remember Tate as a coach; others will remember him as a teacher. Still others will remember him as an inspirational speaker. For more than three decades, he played an integral role in the development of many students at ACU.
“I find it simultaneously amazing and fitting that the last words to come out of his mouth were ‘love you’ and ‘thank you,'” Adam said. “I feel, as did he, that these simple words can make this world a better place.”
A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at University Church of Christ.
Tate is survived by his wife Bobbie; his son, Mark, and wife, Celia; his daughter, Elisabeth Pringle, and husband, Rod, all of Abilene. He is also survived by six grandchildren: Amber Tate of Fort Worth; Adam, Andrew and Aric Tate of Abilene; Joshua Pringle and wife, Kallie, of Abilene; and Logan Pringle of Abilene. He is survived by two brothers: Alvie Tate and his wife, Ivadell; and Odus Tate and his wife, Connie; and many nieces, nephews and cousins.