A good coach makes a difference in a young athlete’s life.
A great coach makes his mark on an entire team.
A legendary coach leaves a lasting impression on a community.
But Elmer Ball wouldn’t want to be called good or great, and he definitely would have taken issue with legendary.
That’s because Ball, who coached Oxford High School’s cross country and track teams for more than three decades, was a humble man whose top priority was the people around him, not his own fame or glory.
“He was totally unselfish. It was never about him,” remarked his son Steve Ball, a 1976 OHS graduate. “It was always about somebody else or helping somebody else.”
“He was very unassuming,” said his son Mike Ball, a 1974 OHS graduate. “He always wanted to do whatever he could for other people . . . He wanted to give to this community.”
“It’s hard to be like him because most people are more selfish than that. I know I am,” Steve added.
Last week, the community mourned the loss and celebrated the life of Ball, who passed away on Feb. 28, 2017 following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 86 years old.
“Without a doubt, he was definitely my mentor,” said Ray Sutherland, a former cross country and track coach for OHS. “He taught me everything he knew.”
Many shared their thoughts on the Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors website.
“There aren’t many people whose words have stayed with me for half a lifetime, which is a testament to the impact he was able to have on each of us, by caring about us as individuals as much as he cared about helping us win,” wrote Mark Vibbert, who ran track under Ball from 1986-89.
“I owe so much to Coach Elmer Ball. He saw potential in kids that few recognized,” wrote Bill Moroski, a former athlete. “I was one of the fortunate ones to receive his firm grip on my ear. ‘Run through the pain’ – a life lesson that has seen me through to this very day. I am forever indebted to this man for his encouragement.”
“He was a great teacher, coach, mentor, and role model,” wrote Jon Martin. “He asked us to set goals for our sport and our lives. He encouraged us to work hard, and during the practices and competitions, the ups and the downs, he was always very supportive. My teammates all respected Mr. Ball and though our teams did not win championships, we knew we still had the best coach in the state.”
The outpouring of affection and admiration from former athletes and students is no surprise to anyone who knew Ball.
“He loved young people and being around them,” Steve said. “It was his life. It’s what he talked about. It’s what he loved.”
“He commanded respect and got it,” Steve continued. “He was a tough person. He didn’t take any baloney. On the other hand, he was as kind as anybody could ever be.”
“I don’t think there was an athlete that he worked with that didn’t respect him,” said friend Leaton Noftz, who served as Oxford’s athletic director from 1970-92. “He was a disciplinarian, but they respected that.”
Ball developed his passion for athletic competition early in life as a student at Reed City High School, where he earned five varsity letters in football, basketball and track and field before graduating in 1948.
Following high school, Ball studied at Central Michigan University and graduated in 1952.
He then fought in the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
Following his marriage to Gerry Sack in July 1954, Ball settled in Oxford, where he spent 36 years teaching drafting, woodworking and math until his retirement in 1990.
Ball enjoyed tremendous success as a coach for Oxford.
He coached the high school’s cross country team from 1963-74 and again, from 1995-96. He established a dual meet record of 123-21 and claimed four Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) regional championships, four league titles and the 1971 Class B boys runner-up state title.
He served as assistant coach for the track and field team from 1964-80, then took over as head coach in 1981. He stepped down following the 1992 season. Ball’s dual meet record for track was impressive at 101-18. He captured eight league championships along with the Oakland County co-championship and MHSAA Class B boys track state title in 1991.
“He was a coach’s coach,” Sutherland said. “He was never afraid to devote everything he had to his program.”
“He could be a fireball,” Noftz said. “He had a great deal of passion for what he was doing.”
In 1988 and 1991, Ball was selected as Oakland County Coach of the Year.
He earned Coach of the Year honors from the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association (MITCA) in 1983 and again, in 1991. He received MITCA’s Charles Sweeney Award in 1988 for his outstanding service to the sport of track and field, his school, his community and MITCA, for which he served as president in 1975.
“He truly loved track and cross country,” Sutherland said. “It meant a lot to him.”
In 2010, Ball was inducted as a charter member of the OHS Hall of Fame.
Over the years, Ball coached 12 individual state champions.
Although Ball was proud of his athletes’ successes and triumphs, he wasn’t simply focused on the standouts and stars.
“It didn’t matter if you were the best that he had or you didn’t have a lot of natural ability, he encouraged every single one of them exactly the same,” said Mike, who had the opportunity to run track under his father and spend a few years coaching with him.
“There was no favoritism. Everybody was expected to work hard,” Steve said.
Ball believed strongly in pushing his athletes hard in order to help them realize their true potential. “He got so much out of the kids,” Sutherland said. “They had no idea how good they could be, but he just kept working with them. He was such a great reader of the kids.”
Steve said his father was a “very, very intense” person who never gave up on the kids or let them give up on themselves.
“He brought out the best that anybody had to offer,” he said. “He wanted to make everybody as good as they could possibly be. He wanted to see other people excel.”
Mike recalled his dad loved watching those athletes who really tried and worked hard, then reached their goals. “That’s what made him the proudest,” he said.
There’s no doubt that Ball was a fine role model in every sense of the term.
He was a man of strong moral character.
Mike can still hear his dad’s words – “Do the right thing” – ringing in his ears.
“It may not be the most popular thing, it may not be the easiest thing to do, but do the right thing,” he said. “He would say that all the time. Don’t take shortcuts. Do the right thing and you’ll never regret any decision that you make.”
Mike also recalled his dad was “always positive and upbeat.”
“It didn’t matter what the circumstances were, he could always find the good in anything that he ran into,” he said.
Sutherland recalled Ball was always “very even-keeled and in control.”
“Even if he wasn’t happy with the situation or the performance, he always knew exactly what he wanted to say and what he wanted to accomplish,” he said.
What stands out most to Sutherland is the fact that in the three decades he and Ball worked together, they “never, ever” had “a disagreement or a harsh word.”
“That’s pretty doggone neat,” Sutherland said. “It was an amazing collaboration.”
Noftz paid Ball the highest compliment by calling him “a true friend.”
“He was your friend and he had your back,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever known anybody that was any better. What you saw was what you got.”
Steve described his dad as “a complete gentleman,” who was absolutely devoted to his family. “He was just a great dad. He did everything he could with us when we were young,” he said. “You didn’t have to call him or ask him, he would just show up.”
Sutherland said Ball constantly talked about his sons and his wife.
“He was extremely, extremely proud of his family and he often mentioned that,” he said. “I think that says a lot about the man, too.”
Steve was moved by his father’s love for his mother. After she passed away in 1999, Ball kept a photograph of her on the kitchen table and she was never far from his thoughts.
“He talked about her right up until the very end. That was his one love,” Steve said. “He was true to her.”
Ball is survived by his sons Michael (Christine) Ball and Steven (Kathy) Ball; grandchildren Ian (Laura) Ashton, Carlee (Ryan) Clinkenbeard and Kyle Ball; and great-grandchildren Rob and Kate Ashton.
He was preceded in death by his parents Veri and Marcia Ball; his sister Marcia Watkins; and his wife of 45 years, Gerry.
A funeral service was held on March 4 at Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors in Oxford. Interment at the Oxford Township Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial donations please be made to a scholarship fund, the Elmer Ball Foundation, care of Oxford Community Schools.