Beloved coach, teacher Willard Tate dies

Tate_Willard blogLate Friday night, former ACU basketball coach and communications department faculty member Willard Tate died at age 74 after a struggle with cancer. The news was noted on ACU’s Facebook fan page, and comments from former students and friends are pouring in with personal memories of one of Abilene Christian’s most beloved people of the past four decades.

A memorial service for Tate 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.

Tate was a marvelously talented man who coached and mentored young men on the basketball court as skillfully as he taught in his ACU classes, and preached at the nearby Hamby Church of Christ and in other pulpits around the world, and as a motivational speaker to all kinds of civic groups and gatherings. His sermons and speeches were peppered with homespun humor and stories, often punctuated with spontaneous a cappella singing before, in the middle, or afterward. The books he authored focused on learning to love oneself and others. He taught a featured class at ACU’s 1993 Bible Lectureship (now called Summit), adapted from his book, Habits of a Loving Heart. His presentation ended, poignantly, with this story:

We need a central reference point, Jesus Christ, and we need to stay focused on that point so that everything we do is in proper perspective. Questions raised earlier like “What would you do differently if you knew your had only six months to live?” and “What would you want to be remembered for?” will help you clarify your focus. I find that it also helps to remember that I’m never alone, never really by myself. The God who knows and cares about the intents of the heart is always with me – and you.

Years ago, I heard a story told by a college football coach named Lou Little. He had a player on this team who wasn’t very good, just a third-stringer. But the young man’s father died, and just before the next game this young man went to the coach and asked, “Coach, is there any way I can start today against Fordham?”

Coach Little thought, “It’s a big event, an emotional time for this yougn man. What could it hurt to let him start and be in thre for just on play? Then I’ll put the regular starter back in.” So he told the young man, “Son you know I can’t let you play for long, but sure, you can start and go for a play or two.”

Well, the young man went out and played the game of his life. From the opening kickoff, he was in on every play. He was all over the field, blocking and tackling like a monster man. Coach Little left him in the entire game, which they won, and that player was the key to their victory.

After the game, Coach Little met him in the locker room, put his arm around him, and said, “Son I can’t understand. You never played like that before. What in the world happened?”

“You know that my dad died,” the young man answered.

“Sure, I know,” the coach said.

“And you saw my dad and me when he visited the campus and we walked around the grounds a lot, always arm in arm, with me leading him.”

“Yes, I remember.”

“Well, what you didn’t know – very few people did – was that my father was blind. So today was the first time he ever saw me play.”

If we can understand and remember that life was played out in a big stadium called earth and that our heavenly Father is watching us, it will make a tremendous difference in what we do and why we do it.

It was classic Willard, knowing how to inspire as well as inform. We invite you to leave comments about him here or on ACU’s Facebook fan page.

Tate Final Season - 30M
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7 Comments

  1. Mark Hughes
    Posted February 14, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    A man I want to be like.

    I’ve been blessed in my life in so many ways it’s impossible to name all of them. My purpose here is to remember a very specific blessing and a profound impact on my life, Willard Tate. I’m fortunate because I can say Willard knew me all my life, or more accurately I knew Willard all my life.

    My Dad and Willard were best friends. This led to an endless assortment of opportunities for me to associate with Willard over the years. My earliest memories are filled with images of going over to the Tate’s house for games, music, and homemade ice cream. I fished with Willard and his son Mark at Ft. Deposit. I learned to play Monopoly with Mark and Elizabeth all the while listening to our parents play a game called Rook while discussing the titles of books like; “How Green is My Valley” “Where the Red Fern Grows”, or “Black Beauty”. It wasn’t until later that I understood the reason for their laughter or what the phrase “talking across the table” really meant. I didn’t understand much at that time but I knew my Dad respected Willard and my family enjoyed his company and that made him a man I wanted to be like.

    Willard was the basketball coach at Alabama Christian College. He had great players with names such as Charles, Jake, and Mutt. He coached a fast paced type of ball that produced enthusiasm you could feel. He had keys to the gym. He was so famous that when my Dad and I attended an Auburn basketball game he introduced me to Shug Jordan. Since Willard was so famous Shug gave me sweatbands from Pat Sullivan and Terry Beasley. Willard was definitely “a man I wanted to be like”.

    Willard left one ACC for another, moving to Abilene in 1973. I didn’t think of him much until in 1974 or 75 Willard took the Wildcats to Hawaii to play The U of H Rainbows. You see, my family had moved to Hawaii in 1974 so the trip over for basketball was an opportunity to eat more homemade ice cream together. I’ll never forget the look on one player’s face when after his second large serving he learned what tripe was. Being known in Alabama was one thing, being asked to Hawaii was quite another. I knew for sure that Willard Tate was “a man I wanted to be like”.

    We moved to Abilene before my freshman year in High School. I went to school at ACHS which was on ACU’s campus at the time. Willard was coaching his most successful teams with players like Randall, Kevin, and Rodney. He was teaching young men the game in summer basketball camps that I was able to attend. He taught the need for teamwork. He taught us to set and achieve goals. He taught us how to become “the men we wanted to be like”.

    I graduated High School and went to college at ACU. Coach Tate was no longer coaching. He was teaching a class called Life learning Skills during the week and serving as the Pulpit Minister at Hamby Church of Christ on Sundays. He spoke in such a plain manner, with such obvious sincerity he could communicate right through to the core of a young adult. He talked of following God in a way that made all of life service to him. No matter what happened you do the right thing because you’re God child. He helped so many of us to see “the man we wanted to be like”.

    Willard sang at my wedding. He sang every word of “Bless this house”. He sang it so well that on my 25th anniversary our 8th child is due. When I left Abilene to pursue a career in golf he was supportive. When I visited my parents over the years Willard and Bobbie became great friends of my wife and children. When my Dad had a career change in the early 90’s Willard encouraged him all the way. He showed what a true friend is, another reason he was “a man I wanted to be like”.

    Willard taught a series called Learning to Love. With such passion and sincerity he encouraged millions through speech, films, or book to live their lives giving Love at every turn. Marriages on the rocks … love. Troubles at work … love. Love is what our heavenly Father has given us when we don’t deserve it and Love is what he expects from us towards others. I saw Willard model this for years. He was “a man I wanted to be like”.

    Willard was a joy to be around. He was successful in his career. He affected lives for good through his speech and actions. He raised faithful children. He modeled a Christian life for all to see. The second greatest compliment I can pay Willard comes out of my background as a Golf Professional. Being a club pro I am constantly in a position where I am exposed to jokes that have a “locker room” type of humor. The second biggest compliment I can pay Willard isn’t that he never told me a joke like that though he loved to laugh. The second biggest compliment I can pay him is I don’t know one person who would consider telling that kind of joke in Willard’s presence.

    The biggest compliment I can pay Willard is that both my father and I can look to our son and say “Willard Tate is a man you want to be like”. God bless you Willard. I’m glad your home with him today, I’m thankful your family has the comfort of your salvation and I’m blessed to have your model in my life.

  2. Robin Willingham
    Posted February 27, 2010 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    My dad, Ron Willingham, and Willard became friends, and Willard became certified to teach my dad’s course, “Adventures in Christian Living.” Since I had grown up with the program, I was enlisted to be Willard’s class assistant several times. It was a pleasure, and he was the consummate gentleman, mentor, and coach. And Bobbie-what a dear, beautiful lady. What a class act. And thank you for being my dad’s friend continually over the years.
    Robin Willingham ’78

  3. Posted October 12, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I carry Dr Tate’s words of wisdom with my on a daily basis. The knowledge he shared in the classes I had with him, are those I will always remember. I wrote a blog post tonight here in Sweden and found this post. So sad that to hear that a great man is gone from our earthly presence. I take comfort in the fact that he left many loving words behind that will live on forever.
    Victoria Ahlén (Ekegren)´98

  4. Richard Adams
    Posted October 27, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    My daughter, Karla Adams, was a student and graduated from ACU. While she was a student there, my wife and I would visit her from time to time. When we were in Abilene we would always attend the Hamby Church of Christ. We did this because Willard Tate was the minister. We found him so interesting and encouraging. I remember one Mother’s Day when he was preaching he broke out in song. He sang beautifully. It was so enjoyable and we were blessed by being there.

    I just learned of his death in February and wanted to let people how much he meant to us.

    Dick and Avon Adams
    Tyler, Texas

  5. Robin Willingham
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Willard was a close friend of my father’s, and in getting to know him, it also enriched my life! I still remember the wedding gift the Tates gave me, an electric bread warmer, and when it wore out I got another one just like it.

    What a class act!

  6. Posted April 29, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    I heard this news. My husband and I are from ACU, we had a goos memories of this great man. It is regretful to know that ACU lost a great teacher and an asset.

  7. Posted January 14, 2014 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    Our church bought the Willard Tate series and we watched each and every one of these beautiful lessons. Willard Tate had a gift few men will never know or acquire. Thank God we have great men that change and influence our lives. Thanks!

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