Ron Billings won quite a few games as a student-athlete at Lincoln High School and Pacific Lutheran College, and went on to become one of the most successful head coaches that the City of Destiny has ever produced. On Monday, Aug. 20, Billings passed away at the age of 88. Tacoma has lost one of its finest sons, but his legacy will live on through the hearts and minds that he touched over the decades.
Billings was a respected man, teacher, mentor, councilor and leader of young athletes. While he was a very intense figure as the coach on the sidelines, he was an easily approachable and interested figure outside of the gymnasium.
It was his 16 seasons at the helm of the Lincoln Abes’ basketball program that cemented his legendary status. In those years, Billings would lead the Railsplitters to 272 victories against just 79 defeats. His .775 winning percentage at Lincoln ranks among the best in state history.
As a young head coach in 1968, Billings would lead a tough, underdog squad from Lincoln all the way to the state championship game. The Abes would lose to a sensational Central Valley squad, but Billings grew from the experience. Later, his Abes would advance to the 1975 state championship game and take the crown with a 63-58 victory over a strong team from Everett. Billings would be named the Washington State Coach of the Year following the title run. Lincoln’s bid for a championship repeat fell just one point short the following season against a juggernaut Cleveland squad.
It would take 26 more seasons at Lincoln before the Abes claimed another state basketball championship.
After his run at Lincoln, Billings took his talents to the college ranks with the Tacoma Community College Titans for 11 seasons. The winning ways continued, as the Titans claimed the NWAC championship in 1982, 1983 and 1986.
Following a 1982 tournament game in Walla Walla, the local paper (Walla Walla Union Bulletin, March 7, 1982) had quite a bit to say about Billings and his talented young men from Tacoma. I found the following excerpt to say quite a bit. “Tacoma Community College Coach Ron Billings just completed his first season in the CC ranks by leading the Titans into the state tournament. Not a bad beginning for the long-time Lincoln High School mentor, who admittedly wondered if he was making the right decision when he changed jobs. “There’s no doubt now,” he said after Friday’s mild upset of Highline. “I like coaching at this level. The players are more predictable and you can control your own destiny.” Billings’ first-year accomplishments are impressive, indeed. He made a committment to use local talent at Tacoma and that strategy has apparently succeeded.”
I met Billings the summer before my freshman year in high school 30 years ago. His high school summer leagues at TCC brought out the best players and were represented by all the area schools spanning from Olympia on up to the Kitsap Peninsula. He’d often be found hanging around the gymnasium, keeping an eye on the action, and ready to chat with whomever wanted to bend his ear a little. He went to high school and college with my Uncle Thomas “Smoky” Campbell, and from that first moment, he’d always have something nice to say to me and would ask me how my family was doing.
Of course, he would also tell it like it is, and following another eyebrow raising performance on the court, he made sure to let me know that I would be a much better player if I didn’t hot dog it so much out there. I can’t say that I stopped the hot dogging entirely, but coming from this coaching icon that I had known about since a young child, his words definitely made me think twice more often.
All that coaching wisdom began as a player. After lettering in three sports at Lincoln, Billings would become an even better collegiate athlete at Pacific Lutheran College, where he was All-Evergreen Conference in baseball and a Little All-American in football. He was also a stud on the basketball court. Billings was inducted into the Pacific Lutheran Hall of Fame in 1992, just two years after legendary coach Marv Harshman was enshrined. He is also a member of the Washington State Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
I contacted a few Tacoma sports locals to get their take on their own memory of Ron Billings.
Doug McArthur, Lincoln High School alum, former UPS athletic director and former president of the Tacoma Athletic Commission:
“Ron Billings has been my next door neighbor for more than 50 years. Our kids grew-up together. Played together. He was my friend before his marriage. Borrowed my suit to wear when he said “I do”.
He played baseball for our Stanley’s Shoemen, city champs of 1955. Would have been in centerfield on our national championship team the next year except he went into the service. He was an All-America in football at PLC but chose basketball to coach, and he was one of Tacoma’s all-time great coaches.
At Lincoln high, Tacoma C.C. or in the AAU ranks with the Cheney Studs, he regularly won championships. His teams played just like their coach – fundamentally sound, highly competitive, and all-out in the “hustle” department. Playing or coaching, Ron gave it his all!”
Dave Harshman, former Washington State, Spokane Falls, Michigan State and Pacific Lutheran basketball coach and son of Marv Harshman:
“Ron was a great athlete who became a great coach, which is very rare. I loved watching his Lincoln teams compete. They really did take on the personality of the coach. They were excellent defensive teams which allowed them to compete with and defeat opponents with much better talent. He was a great teacher of the game and there are very few today.
Pop (Marv) felt that he could have played major college football. He was a lockdown defender in basketball and a very solid baseball player.”
Aubrey Shelton, former Lincoln basketball coach and current UPS head coach:
“Just a legendary figure. I only met him in passing a couple of times but lots of people over the years from my time as a player at Lincoln to coach would always speak about him with such reverence. He really put Tacoma basketball on the map and gave the city so much pride, especially how tough and defensive minded his teams were.
Every guy I ever spoke to that played for him just had the utmost respect for him as a man, coach and mentor who impacted their lives. It was so cool as a player to be on a team that won the first title (at Lincoln) since his 1975 team, and be somewhat in the same company. Easily one of the greatest coaches to ever come out of Tacoma.
So special that he played at Lincoln too.”
Byron Shamp, former TCC Titans basketball player under Billings:
“Bow your neck, lock your jaw and point the pistols. That was one of the famous lines from coach Billings. He would also tell us to steel our mind. Everybody on the team would be like what the heck is he talking about? But we all found out.
Coming out of high school, I honestly knew pretty much nothing about hoops until coach Billings got a hold of me. I just wish that I could have had him sooner.
I would go work on his pool equipment over the years and we’d talk about hoops and the old times. He would always ask me if I had heard from any of the old mates and how they were doing. As a fellow Pacific Lutheran alum, he knew my Dad and always wanted to know how he was doing.
One time, we were playing a playoff game, and before the start he said I really want you guys to be sharp tonight, because my old college coach is here to watch the game. I looked up in the crowd and there was Marv Harshman.”
* A celebration of life will be held on Saturday, Sept. 22, at the Lincoln High School Gymnasiium at 2 p.m. The family requests that attendees bring their great memories and stories, as well as any good pictures that you may have of Ron.