Butch Waller is ready to roar another basketball year

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Editor’s Note: In culture and literature, the lion symbolizes the astrological sign of Leo, which is said to rule the heart.

Courage comes from the heart.

Courage also comes from a person’s deep sense of personal authority, which creates the power to act in a way that meshes with that person’s spirit.

A lion of a man is one who acts truly from the heart: He excels at leadership, achievement and the kind of success that encourages the accomplishments of others.

Butch Waller, then, is truly “The Lion of Wi-Hi.”

Over in the small gymnasium at Wicomico High School just off Glen Avenue, William H. “Butch” Waller Jr. is preparing for his 49th year of coaching basketball. Even at age 74, Waller remains an amazing physical specimen, with a physique crafted from years of continuous physical activity.

Few people live can remember time when Butch Waller wasn’t coaching Wi-Hi basketball. As hundreds of players have come and gone, the coach has built a 730-335 record.

He’s the second-winningest active coach in Maryland. He’s won one state championship, finished runner-up in several state championships — most recently in 2013 — and has too many Bayside Conference and Regional Championships to list.

Additionally, Waller coached baseball at Wi-Hi for 13 years, and has been umpiring baseball for 32 years, since leaving coaching.

Wi-Hi’s longtime golf coach, he is about to be inducted into both the Eastern Shore Golf Hall of Fame and the Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame.

Born in Salisbury, he’s lived here his whole life. A Wi-Hi grad, his only real time away was when he attended and worked at East Tennessee State University.

Mike Dunn of OneSalisbury.com agreed to conduct this week’s Independent Q&A. Dunn was a successful athlete for Waller, playing baseball for him in the 10th and 11th grade, which turned out to be Waller’s last year at the helm of the Indians. Dunn and Waller have been friends for 37 years. — Greg Bassett

By Mike Dunn

Special To Salisbury Independent

Q: The recent renaming of the Charlie Berry Field at Wicomico Stadium was pretty important to you. Tell us about that. Why was that so important to you?

A: Well, that process started nine years ago, with a group of people: myself, and Tony Sarbanes, Dr. Nevins Todd, Dean Wells, Bob Sample … about 30 of us. We didn’t think it was going to be any problem at all when we first got started.

But then, we quickly realized it was going to be more involved than we’d imagined. Bottom line was, we got it on the agenda, we discussed it with Dr. (John) Fredericksen, the Board of Education put it on their agenda – and low and behold, when it came up – in front of a packed crowd at the Board Auditorium — it was voted down. By a 4-3 margin.

We were all shocked, and disappointed. Because this guy, Charlie Berry, was an icon.

In the weeks after that vote, I took a ride around town in my car, and I took a yellow legal pad with me. On it, I wrote down all the streets and buildings around town that were named for people.

I stopped when the list got to 108. Streets, buildings – you name it, all with people’s names on them.

So, I took that to our little committee, and I told them that, “look, the whole world names things for people. And if you don’t remember a little of your history it just evaporates.”

Well, Charlie Berry was the man responsible, along with then-superintendent of schools Royd Mahaffey, for bringing that Wicomico Stadium to life.

Charlie went to Royd Mahaffey, and told him: “Look, we’ve got to have a field.” This was after the original Wi-Hi Stadium, built where Route 50 now runs behind Wicomico Middle School, had to be torn down to make room for the (then) new highway.

So, Charlie got the field, the stands, the lighting, the press box built. And all he ever said at some point, years after that, was: “You know, all I’d ever want is for someday, for that field to be named after me.”

He was as humble as they came. We wanted to make his wish come true.

So, we stayed at it with the Board. And stayed at it. Finally, they took a year to develop a “naming” policy. Once it got approved, we were right there and ready to go.

In the end, we were successful, and there’s a beautiful new sign on that field that we’re sure Charlie Berry would be proud of.

It’s just a shame we couldn’t make it happen while he was still alive. All four of his sons were there during the dedication ceremony though, so that made it worth it!

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Q: Do you ever think the Wi-Hi basketball court might someday be named the Butch Waller Court? I doubt I’m the first person who’s ever asked you that question?

A: (Waller laughs.) Listen … when all of this got started nine years ago, I told the committee that I appreciated them asking me to be a part of it, but I shouldn’t be involved in this because it might look look like Waller’s trying to get something named for him.

And they said: “No, no, no…..you knew Charlie Berry as well as anyone, and you’ve got to be part of this.” So, I came on board – and I’m glad I did.

Q: You’ve been coaching for 49 years. When did you know that you wanted to be a coach? I mean, was it a moment that hit you? Were you a high school player when you figured it out?

A: I was born and raised in Salisbury. I went to Wi-Hi. I always wanted to be involved in something that involved physical activity.

I attended the old elementary school at Caruthers Hall at SU. Come recess, I was knocking people down, ready to get outside and get started on the track, or playing baseball or kicking a soccer ball, or whatever.

The crowd I grew up in, it was all about sports. Saturday mornings we were up and about, always doing something. I was fortunate enough to play on the first Little League team in Salisbury.

Hit my first home run over the Wi-Middle School fence. I always think of it when I drive by.

After that, I was fortunate enough to play in the first Pony League team Salisbury ever had. I got to play for Gene Corbett, a local legend who once played in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.

Then I played high school football, basketball and baseball at Wi-Hi. Then played a little basketball and football in college (at East Tennessee State University.)

And then, golf started to creep into my life. At first I told my friends who were playing it: “Look, nobody’s even throwing the ball. This has got to be easy!” A lifetime of pain and misery later, I know how foolish that thought was!

So, clearly, I liked sports. Coaching seemed a logical fit.

Q: When you got started coaching, could you in your wildest dreams, imagine that you would still be doing it all of these years later, with all of this success?

A: Look, I graduated from ETSU, and was fortunate enough to get offered a Graduate Assistant gig, teaching of all things gymnastics and archery. (Waller laughs.)

I thought I had it made. I had a secretary and an office. Here I was getting my Master’s Degree, and it wasn’t costing me a thing.

Charlie Berry sent me a letter. I had played for him. Now, as the Supervisor of Athletics and Physical Education for the Wicomico Board of Education, he wanted me to come work for him.

He told me they had a job opening. I wrote him back and said it looks like everyone’s headed to Florida, so I think I’m going to head down there with some of my friends, and take up coaching there.

Berry wrote me back, and sold me. He told me I’d be teaching a half day at my alma mater, and working the other half at Glen Avenue. And that I could coach at Wi-Hi.

Well, I had no money, and I relented. I came back. I wanted to coach it all. I was young and thought I could do football and basketball and baseball.

Ultimately, I could only do two of them – basketball and baseball. So, I did that first year and … well, 49 years later, here I am. And I used to laugh about that.

Q: As you know, I grew up on Wyman Drive, right behind Wi-Hi. I remember your first days on the job. I remember coming and watching practice after school.

I was about 7 when your Wi-Hi coaching career began. Your practices, and all of the practices at Wi-Hi, were like recess for me. I loved it. I later got to play for you.

One of the things I noticed early – both as a kid who was watching for fun and later, as a player — was that organization and discipline were a big part of what you did, and what you do, as a coach. Tell me about that.

A: I’m not sure I ever had a revelation which said, “you know, this is the way I want to coach.”

During my college days, I started out as a business major. Well, it didn’t take me long to figure out that I didn’t want to do that. So, I got thinking about what I might want to do.

I thought perhaps being a teacher and a coach would work out. And, I’ve always been organized. I can’t stand when something’s out of place. My car’s clean. My office is clean.

Sometimes when I get down in the dumps or something, and I let things go – I can’t stand it. So, that carried over to coaching. It was easy for me to be an athlete.

But it wasn’t so easy taking a bunch of young kids – young adults really – and know that they’re going to be looking at me, so I’ve got to have everything organized. Not just one or two things, I’ve got to have it organized almost to the minute.

Being organized really helped me in coaching, I can tell you that. I’ve had a lot of assistant coaches, and I kind of thought everyone was organized. I’ve come to learn that that’s not the case – everyone is not as organized as me.

I don’t know how you can function in anything if you don’t have some sort of game plan – so to speak – on how to get things done.

Q: As I view your coaching, and having played for you and watched you for all of these years, it seems to me that your style of play is aggressive. It’s preparation. But it seems to me you want to force the other team to react to what you’re doing.

A: “What you’re saying is I’m a control freak?” (Waller laughs.)

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Q: No, I’m saying you’d rather push the buttons to get the other team to react. You’d rather be offensive than defensive. You want the other teams to react to what you’re doing.

A: Mike, there’s a lot of truth to that. I want to dictate the action. I want to make sure that I’ve got control of my team.

And if there’s any way possible, I want to have control of your team, a little bit.

To this day, to this day, in basketball – and I used to do it in baseball too – I’ll scout a lot, personally. I want to see what the other team’s doing, especially if they’re better than me. I want to see what I can possibly do to incorporate in my team taking away something that they can do.

To me, that’s the thrill I get in coaching. I’ve got to take these 10 or 12 individuals in basketball, and somehow I’ve got to mold them. I’ve got to figure out what they can do that works best for them.

Today, with these kids, who are cell phone fanatics and gaming fanatics, they sort of have the feeling of “What have you done for me lately? Let’s have success … instantly.”

Now in baseball, that kind of came more easily to me. I just felt I could manipulate not only my team. I could maybe manipulate the other team, and maybe the officials. (Waller laughs.)

Because I read that rule book and tried to figure out in it just what might work for me, what can I take advantage of?

Now that I’m umpiring, it’s just the other way around!

Q: Do you have a win — in either sport — that stands out for you as a coach? I mean, is there a game that says to you, that’s the one I remember?

A: There’ve been so many games. You would naturally think it’s the games where you “almost” won the state championship.

Shoot, when we started in baseball, there was no state championship, there was no Bayside Conference. And, we had some teams that could have really done some damage. You would think, in basketball, it would be the year that we won the state championship with an undefeated team.

But, there was a year, when we had Brian Butler and a lock-down team, and we’re playing Southern of Harwood, and Tom Albright, at Cole Field House in the state championship game.

We’d blown out some team in the semi-finals, and we lost the final in double overtime. And I was crushed.

Because good coaches – not to say that I am one – when it’s all over with, you say: “Well, what could I have done? What could I have done differently?” And, it’s never blaming it on a player. It’s what could I have done better.

There’ve been a lot of games Mike, in basketball and baseball, where I know that the move I made – whether it was a substitution or a play or whatever – where I could have won the ballgame.

Whether it was spending an hour in their gym, or at their field – just something where I might have picked up on something that I could have used in the game. Gosh, when you’ve played over 1,000 basketball games, and almost 400 baseball games, you’ve seen a lot.

Q: Was there a favorite player?

A: I get asked that all the time. The problem is if you name a couple, you forget a thousand.

I’m just going to say this, and it’s a little cliché: But every player that I’ve had the opportunity to coach, in basketball or baseball, has contributed in one way or the other.

One of my best basketball teams had a player, bless his heart, who almost never played. But what great teammate he was. Always positive. Always encouraging. And I thought, you know what, we wouldn’t have been successful without him. And I told him that.

“Hey Coach, I really appreciate that” is what he told me.

Q: Tell me about school in today’s world, as someone who’s been there. What are the challenges and the positives at your alma mater today?

A: It seems to me that, today, everyone has to be accomplished. Everyone has to pass these tests.

I wouldn’t want to be in school today because I don’t think I could make it. I mean test after test after test. These kids today are learning ABC so that they can answer DEF. They’re getting their credits and their moving on

I see that’s how it works, all over the world.

Somehow, I don’t think the kids are having as much fun in school. It’s more like a job today. I don’t see school spirit anywhere like it used to be. Not just at Wi-Hi, but throughout the county.

We used to have pep rallies and assemblies. Now, they sort of shy away from assemblies because they bring everybody together and there’s potential for problems.

It just seems like we’re walking on eggshells. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just how the world is. Look, you can’t get up in the morning and turn on the TV and not see something horrible somewhere in the world. I mean, it’s just sad.

How did we get like that? What a great world this would be if everybody just got along.

Q: How does a 74 year old man still reach the kids of today? How do you keep winning?

A: Well … first of all, I’m pretty simple minded, and I still consider myself a kid. I still jog, play ball, ride my bike, golf. I still like doing the things the younger people do.

Age, to me, is disgusting. It’s just a number.

I still remember how it feels to be an athlete, and I can still put myself in their shoes. They’re not doing anything I haven’t done. And I try to keep that fact in mind.

So … I like to take these kids … they all came out, and they all want to play. No. 1, let’s make ’em feel important. No. 2, I want you to know why I’m here. I tell them I’ve done it, my assistant coaches have done it, and we’re going to do everything we can do to make you successful.

But I’m going to hold them accountable too. I like to put a little pressure on them. I tell them if they’re going to put the time in, let’s get something out of it.

And I remind them that this gym, or this baseball field, or the football field you play on is the biggest classroom on campus. It just doesn’t have books or a desk.

Q: How long are you going to keep coaching?

A: Let’s see … the next eclipse of the sun is … 2041 (Waller muses.) Let’s just say it’ll be a while. It’ll be a while.

Q: I know how important golf is to you. Tell me about winning the Green Hill Club Championship (he’s won it three times, and won the Senior Championship twice.) Did you want it as much as you wanted a state championship in basketball?

A:  Oh I don’t know about that!  I’m sure I did that day!! (He chuckles.)

My bunkies in Salisbury were playing golf while I was away at college. The first time I played, I went out there in my old Converse basketball shoes, my rolled up white socks, gripped the club like a baseball bat, and let her rip.

I said to myself, if these guys can do it, I can do it. I’m a better athlete than they are. I soon found out, my approach wasn’t working!

My friends David Wyatt and Charlie Twilley and a myriad of other guys, helped get it in my blood. I never did get a lesson, which was probably a mistake. Look, golf was another athletic competition. A way to compete against somebody else, and at the same time compete against the course.

And as I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older, you’re really competing against yourself. To me, golf is a lot like life: You go up to the ball, you analyze the situation, and you try to execute. The majority of the time, in that game, it doesn’t work out. Well, in life, it doesn’t always work out either.

So you get a chance to begin again, every time you play another 18 holes. Just like in life, every day you get to begin again.

Q: My gut tells me that you wanted that club championship as a way to measure yourself against your peers. Some of them had won it, some a few times, and you had fallen short.

A: It was very much an ego thing. My good friend, the late Bob Bradway, was one of the best athletes I’d ever known, out of Cambridge, was playing fast pitch softball at Harmon Field next to the Elks golf course.

He used to tell me he’d look over there, and like me, say to himself: “I’m a better athlete than they are.” So he took the game up.

He started as a high handicapper like we all do, but he was a bulldog. And he became a scratch golfer, and a club champion. He won it like 5 times in a row, and I was a distant second to him 5 times in a row!

I was trying to measure up to him and the other good golfers. I wanted to emulate them. Then, after Bob’s run, Mitch Wyatt started his dominance. His late father David was one of my dearest friends, and Mitch is probably as good an amateur golfer as we’ve ever had around here. He’s won like a dozen Green Hill Club Championships, and played in the U.S. Amateur.

My first club championship, he was in the field. So, when I beat him, I said: “Whew I must be something.” (Again, laughing!) It’s been a lot of fun.

Q: If you could play one round, on any course, which course would you play?

A: Again, it sounds corny, but whatever course I’m on in any given day is my favorite course.

Q: Is there one basketball arena that you’d like to coach in?

A: Yes. It’s the Xfinity Center, at The University of Maryland. (Site of the annual state high school championship finals.)

Q: Why has Salisbury/Wicomico County been blessed with so many iconic coaches: Charlie Berry, Barbara McCool, Tom Bailey, Andy Hall, John Usilton, Jim Rayne, Chesty Squires, Denver Knapp, George Schoepf?

A: Well, I think they all had a burning desire to achieve. Not for themselves personally, but they got satisfaction for what their teams were doing.

They just loved what they were doing. And they wanted their kids to be successful.

Take Barbara McCool. What a bulldog. I mean, look, she scared me!

Going back to Charlie Berry. You couldn’t be any tougher than he was. There are still good coaches today. So the tradition continues. You just have to be interested, enthusiastic and innovative – and you’ll succeed.

People ask me all the time how I’ve notched all of these wins in basketball. I tell them it’s simple: I’ve been at it for 49 years. You doing anything that long, the numbers will add up.

Q: If you could do it all over again – would you?

A: Absolutely. There’s no question. If I hadn’t coached, I don’t think I’d have had any personal identity. Everywhere I go now, it’s “Hey coach.”

Q: What your favorite memory growing up in Salisbury?

A: Living in this town. Growing up on Monticello Avenue. Having pine woods across the street that I was a cowboy in. And on the other side of the street, jungle type woods with vines where I could be Tarzan and all of that kind of stuff.

Snowstorms as a kid – looking at the pitiful little lamp post we had and being mad when the snow quit.

Being able to go to the campus school at SU and being taught by those great teachers. Being fortunate enough to grow up with the kids I grew up with. Being fortunate enough to go to good schools, and to be able to associate with athletics early, and get a chance to get a taste of the other side of the classroom.

Having good coaches. And having a really great mother, who I miss big time. Big time.

I hear people all the time, say “Butch, you’ve never been anywhere. Don’t you want to go here … here or here?” I tell them: “You know what? I live in Salisbury. It’s got most of everything I want.”

I’ve got Ocean City, which is like another world. There’s Annapolis. I can go to Baltimore to see the Orioles. Go to see the Terps. That’s enough world for me.

I always said when I retire, I will go out west to one of those expensive golf schools, so I can come back and be the EXACT same golfer I was before I left.

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