By Bob Sutton
Special to The Alamance News
First as a player and then as a coach, Tommy Cole’s association with Williams High School has lasted almost a half-century.
He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“Forty-some years is a long time,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Every timeout, every morsel. It might not have looked that way all the time. But I did.”
“Forty-some years is a long time. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Every timeout, every morsel. It might not have looked that way all the time. But I did. . .
“I’m not the young whipper-snapper that I used to be. Physically, it has taken a little toll. I’m not as physically energetic as I used to be. All these things building up, maybe it’s a sign that it’s time.”
– Longtime Williams basketball coach Tommy Cole
The longtime basketball coach has retired, citing several reasons in what he admits is less-than-ideal timing.
Cole’s coaching led to two state championships and taking two other teams to state finals. He’s one of the winningest coaches in state history with a 787-387 career record that includes time with both the boys’ and girls’ teams at Williams plus a four-year stint with Graham’s boys.
Cole, who turns 73 in November, said he wavered for months on whether to step down. He wanted to wait until the start of school – which was delayed two weeks by the Alamance-Burlington School System’s mold issues – and get a better sense of where things stood.
“I’m not the young whipper-snapper that I used to be,” he said. “Physically, it has taken a little toll. I’m not as physically energetic as I used to be. All these things building up, maybe it’s a sign that it’s time.”
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Combined with an October surgery scheduled, he decided to step away.
So the records will show the 1983 state title with Graham and the 1996 championship with Williams. Then there was reaching the 2012 state final with the Williams girls and the 2019 title game with the boys.
“It’s hard to win the states,” Cole said. “It’s like a puzzle. Things have to fall into place.”
Those provided prideful moments and fond memories.
“I’m a competitor, as you well know,” he said. “One of the greatest accomplishments, I’ve only had five losing seasons, just three with Williams.”
He coached the Williams boys for 28 seasons and the Williams girls for 13 seasons (with both teams for the 2015-16 season). Almost 30 years have passed since Cole directed a team without a winning record.
In total, that’s 44 years on a high school varsity bench. A coaching record that reflects 45 seasons because of the dual role for one school year.
“You have to appreciate losing before you become a good winner,” Cole said.
Of course, he has seen changes, not all of them embraced. He said his goal was for program building, seeing players coming from Turrentine Middle School and then devising a plan to make it all work.
Nine would-be Williams players for the 2023-24 season are no longer at the school because of transfers or redistricting, Cole said.
“The culture has changed,” he said. “The only culture I know is the winning culture.”
His affection for Williams never waned.
“Not one time did I pursue college coaching,” he said. “I love coaching high school and high school-aged players.”
Full circle to Williams
After playing for Williams and graduating in 1968, Cole produced one of the greatest basketball careers in Elon history. He played under legendary coach Bill Miller, who had a fiery side.
Cole’s coaching began with six years at Southern Middle School before going to Graham. His first two teams with the Red Devils produced eight- and seven-win seasons, and that wasn’t easy to accept.
He recalled one frustrating halftime session at Graham when he became so upset he walked away from players and kicked a toilet so hard that it was jarred loose and water came gushing out. With that, he said he decided he no longer should try to replicate Miller’s demeanor.
“You always remember your first high school coaching job,” he said. “I loved coaching at Graham, and we won that championship.”
Then he moved on to Williams.
“That was my dream job,” he said. “The love and the loyalty that has come from that high school.”
Mike Beamon spent about 20 years as Cole’s basketball assistant, with some of the recent seasons in a volunteer capacity.
“There’s nobody like him,” Beamon said. “He’s fantastic. He has done it for years. He has been a force in North Carolina basketball.”
The big gym at Williams provides a unique setting for high school basketball. Cole’s presence on the home bench was part of that.
“What a facility,” he said. “They don’t make gyms like that anymore.”
Boys and girls together
Cole stepped away previously from the Bulldogs bench, retiring in 2003 as boys’ coach. That didn’t last long when former principal Gary Thornburg convinced him to coach the girls’ basketball team the next season.
He stayed in that role for 13 seasons.
Cole’s girls teams went 252-91, including a four-year stretch at 90-24.
He had a formula that had worked for the boys, so he mostly stuck with it.
“I didn’t change a thing,” he said. “Same drills, same plays, same structure.”
Well, there was a slight difference.
“I had to tone it down a little bit,” he said.
Soon, he gained a certain appreciation for the girls’ teams he coached.
“I enjoyed them,” he said. “They tried harder to please me. Their demeanor was different, always trying to please me. I thoroughly enjoyed coaching the girls.”
When the boys’ basketball job came open at Williams, he was pushed to return to that role. But he wasn’t done with the girls’ team, so that’s why he coached both teams for one busy season.
“They wanted me to give up the girls and take the boys,” he said. “But then I had the girls right where I wanted them.”
Ultimately, he stepped aside from the girls’ job and held just the boys’ job for the past seven years. His 2022-23 team finished with a 14-12 record.
“I wanted to end my career coaching the boys,” he said.
School and family
Cole was a track and field assistant at Williams before the golf coaching job opened in 1985. He has been guiding the Bulldogs, who’ve had state-championship success, ever since. He said he plans to remain as boys’ golf coach for his 40th season in the spring.
Cole said the Williams administration and later Alamance-Burlington School System were among the reasons he stayed so long in coaching.
“I’ve been through a lot of principals,” he said.
He praised the variety of assistant coaches. Jim Melvin was at his side for the championship at Graham. David Wyrick was the assistant for the Williams state title. Many others filled those spots along the way.
“It has been a joy to work with him,” Beamon said.
The Cole family took many roles, with sons playing for him. His wife, Kathy, has filled in the scorebook on game nights off and on for years.
“Williams is my next love,” Cole said. “Williams will always be No. 1 in my heart. I guess I proved that by being there 45 years.”