The time of his life Al Bailey built great programs at Spencer and Geneva, then moved to college and the pros
By CHRIS LARICK Staff Writer Al Bailey didn't know it at the time, but the best and happiest coaching times of his life would come at Spencer and Geneva High School from 1954 to 1967. Bailey, who died in 1987 at the age of 57, will be one of the inductees at the first Hall of Fame class of the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation on April 6. For good reason. Bailey won 189 games against 78 losses (.708 percentage) in seven years at Spencer and six at Geneva. His achievements at each school were similar: A 98-42 (.700) mark at Spencer with two Western Reserve League championships and three sectional titles; and a 91-36 (.717) record at Geneva with one NEC championship, one co-championship and four sectional crowns, moving to the district finals twice. His 1957-58 Spencer team went 20-3 and won the WRL and sectional titles. The next year, the Wildcats were even better, winning their first 22 games before losing in the district semifinal to Northwestern, whose star, Dean Chance, later pitched for the Minnesota Twins, California Angels and Cleveland Indians. "I think my first year, we were 8-10," Bailey said in an interview in 1982. "It was very, very difficult. But the interest of the players created some success the following year (when Spencer went 12-5). They were so ambitious. They wanted to play and they wanted to win. It wasn't easy the first couple of years, but the kids worked extra hard." Lyle Pepin, the star of the 1958-59 team, would go on to play at Bowling Green with Nate Thurmond and Howard ("Butch") Komives. At Spencer, he combined with Gale Alderman, Ed Kropf, Dick Pruden, John Weaver and Pete Balint as the six Bailey played until the issue was decided. Ron Randa, Bob Weaver and Bill Peters were also members of the team. "I was like a guard-forward," Pepin said. "I was 6-2 and Pete Balint and Johnny Weaver were about the same height. "Bailey also coached track and football. He wasn't the head football coach, but he was head track coach, though I don't think he knew anything about track. He taught history. He was a disciplinarian, but I thought he was a pretty fair person. In the classroom he ruled with the same iron fist he used on the basketball court." Throughout his high-school coaching career, Bailey became known for taking his displeasure out on the officials "I expect people to do the best job they're capable of doing," Bailey said in that 1982 interview. "I don't think I got that from officials. I thought they relaxed too much and I let them know about it. "We had guys who were not in control, who were out of position to make the call, who didn't know the rules. I was a little bit more vocal than some about it. I think the officiating improved immensely when I was there." Pepin isn't so sure Bailey helped the situation. "I thought he kind of hurt us and I (as captain) hurt us too, got on the refs following his lead. He had a quick temper, a hot temper." Don Pruden, who was his sponsor when Bailey played for a local team, the Pruden Chicks, recalls that the opponents' fans could become irate at Bailey. "Once the fans got stirred up at Ashtabula's gym and started throwing pennies at him on the bench." 1/25/2018 TheACBF.com - Hall of Fame Archives 2/2 At Geneva, his first team, after Spencer and Austinburg consolidated with Geneva for the 1961-1962 season, won its first 13 games before losing its perfect record and eventually the Northeastern Conference championship to Willoughby South by a few points. That team, which included four starters from Spencer that Bailey accompanied to Geneva, finished 17-1 in the regular season, 18-2 overall. He followed that with seasons of 13-9, 15-8, 15-5, 14-7 and 16-5 before leaving to become an assistant coach at his alma mater, Duquesne. Bill Coy played for Bailey, first at Spencer, then moved to Geneva with him when the teams consolidated for his senior year, with Dan Tirabaso, Bob Legg, Jim Osborn, Bill Keener and Jim Prill, among the top players on that team. "Al was a very disciplined coach and expected a lot out of you," Coy said. "But he would back a player 100 percent, he would go the extra mile for players that gave 100 percent for him on the court. "There was no favoritism; he was just a hard-nosed coach. He was out to win." "We had a good time," Pepin said. "He was an excellent coach, I thought. I've often told people that in high school coaching is 80 percent coaching and 20 percent playing. In college it's probably 50-50 and in the pros it's probably 80 percent playing and 20 percent coaching." Bailey liked to win so badly that one year during a tournament game when he was coaching Spencer against Grand Valley and the Mustangs had rallied from a big deficit to beat the Wildcats, Bailey refused to go back on the floor and accept the second-place trophy, Pruden said. While he was in Geneva, Bailey played on that Prudens Chicks team with players like Pepin, Bill Coy, Mike McHugh, Ray Ellis (the father of current Geneva High School coach Brad Ellis) and other former Geneva and Spencer High School stars. "He played here in that league for 10 years and people saw what a good shot he was," Pruden said. "When he passed to people, sometimes they weren't ready. He did no-look passes; he was a terrific player. He always wanted to win." Bailey had been a great player at Duquesne, a three-year letterwinner. The Dukes teams he played on qualified for the NIT and NCAA tournaments in his junior and senior years, respectively. He served as captain his senior year at Duquesne, became an honorable mention All-American and was drafted by Syracuse of the NBA, a team which has since become the Philadelphia 76ers. When he went back to Duquesne to coach under John "Red" Manning, Bailey thought Manning would retire soon and that he would replace him. Six years later, he was still waiting, serving as freshman coach. His five-year record as freshman coach was 72-8 (.900), with four of the losses coming in one year. When old friend Al Bianchi became head coach of the Virginia Squires of the old American Basketball League, he asked Bailey to become his assistant. Disappointed in not becoming a head college basketball coach after six years with the Dukes, Bailey accepted. "As a coach in the pros, I'd be coaching the best players in the world, travel a lot," Bailey said. "It was another stage of interest to me. I wasn't getting any younger at the time. I just felt it was another stage in life I should undertake." He spent three years with the Squires, Bianchi and Bailey were fired. "It wasn't a successful franchise," Bailey admitted. "They needed a change and made a change." Bailey was out of a job for a year, then went to Salem, Ohio, where he taught and coached. A year later, he moved back to Virginia Beach, where he spent the rest of his life, coaching in Virginia Beach for a year, then continuing on as an American government teacher, a job he still held at the time of the 1982 interview. "I just about went crazy," Bailey said of his final high school coaching job. "A kid would miss a game because he went to a rock show. I felt it was too different. I never had that problem in Ohio. Here I had a difficult time living with myself because of the leeway kids had. "I had kids who missed practices, who were drinking or smoking. These things preyed heavily on my mind. I don't think I could coach the way I did (at Spencer and Geneva) because of the liberties kids had. I think I was ready to get out." He spent his non-teaching time puttering around his garden and running and walking on the ocean beach near his home in Virginia Beach. Late in his life, Bailey became a vegetarian and physical-fitness enthusiast, playing a lot of tennis, according to Pruden. But not long after, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died within a year, at the age of 57. Pruden recalls that Steve McHugh, one of his old players, went down to visit Bailey at Virginia Beach. "Steve said he had lost weight and was wasting away," Pruden said. Bailey and his wife, Mary Lou, never had children because Mary Lou was unable to give birth. His legacy remains the players he coached. "Those were good years for me," he said of the time he spent in Geneva. "I thoroughly enjoyed them. Probably of all my years of coaching, they were the most rewarding. "I probably wasn't satisfied at Duquesne and certainly wasn't satisfied at Virginia. High school coaching is probably the epitome of coaching. College coaching is all recruiting and in the pros, there's not a lot of coaching. It's more like babysitting."