Induction Year: 1991
A lot of people think Ralph Owen Ward learned the tough man-to-man defense that became the trademark of his McNeese State basketball teams when he spent one year as an assistant to the legendary Hank Iba at Oklahoma A&M.
But that's putting the cart before the horse.
Ward had Iba's defense before he met Iba, getting it in dozens of 1948 “Xs and Os” doodling sessions at Leonard Fowler's kitchen table when Ward was coaching at many High and Fowler, a former coach, was the principal at Marthaville.
Many used the defense to win the Class A state championship in 1949, beating a Bossier High team coach by Frank Lampkin (who had been Ward's roommate and teammate at Northwestern State ) 46-27 in the finals as Leo McDonald and Gerald Bryant combined for 33 points. Many's girls also won the championship – the first time the same school swept both titles since Baton Rouge High did it in 1911. The fact that neither team won the Northwest Louisiana Rally at Natchitoches two weeks before the state tournament at Lafayette made the sweep even more remarkable.
Ward then spent two years as an assistant to Presley Askew at Arkansas and one as an assistant to Iba at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State ).
He was born in Jena , played high school basketball in Natchitoches and college basketball at Northwestern State before and after a stint in the service during World War II, when he was a member of the Signal Corps unit that met the Russians at the Elbe River on April 25, 1945 -- the day the United Nations was born.
Ward had already launched his coaching career, handling the junior varsity team at Natchitoches High during his first stint at Northwestern. Before he returned to the U.S. after the war, he coached a service team.
“Zone” was a dirty word in Ward's vocabulary.
Tony Byles, who played at Arkansas and coached at Marthaville and LaGrange, said Ward believed in the value or repetitions. “Do it a million times,” Byles recalled, “and you'll do it right. That was Iba's philosophy, and Ralph espoused it to the fullest.”
The highlight of Ward's coaching career was the 1955-56 season, when his McNeese State Cowboys won their first Gulf States Conference championship and then won their first Gulf States Conference championship and then won the 32-team National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament in Kansas City .
Despite the loss of two-time all-conference Roy “Toddy” Moore , who held school career scoring records, the Cowboys were preseason favorites for the GSC title. They lived up by their billing, as the only losses in 36 games were an early-season home game with New Mexico A&M, 75-71, and midseason road games at Lamar Tech, 61-60, and Northwestern State, 78-66.
After the loss to the Demons, the Cowboys; closest game in GSC play was a five-point victory over Louisiana Tech at Lake Charles .
Their closest call in their last 18 games, including five in the NAIA tournament at Kansas City , came in the opener of a best-of-three with Centenary College for a berth in the national tournament.
Trailing by nine points at halftime, the Cowboys came from behind in the last 44 seconds with five free throws -- two by Ruble Scarborough, one by Frank Glenn and two by Bill Reigel, who set a Haynes Memorial Gymnasium record with 43.
That was just another day at the office for Reigel, who led the nation in scoring that season with 33.9 points per game as the Cowboys' designated shooter.
Reigel and Dudley Carver, both 6-5, were the tallest starters on the championship team. Glenn, who broke the school record for rebounds, was only 6-2. One coach in Kansas City described McNeese as “the smallest, the scrawniest and the most under-nourished looking team in the tournament.”
Reigel, who played for half a season the previous year, and Glenn both went to McNeese after stints in the Army. Carver, a three-year letterman, was the No. 2 scorer with 12.5 points per game and Glenn averaged 10.6. Guards Richard McGowan and Richard McNabb averaged 8.5 and 5.1, respectively, and guard Charlie Decker, another former serviceman, averaged 4.6
The Cowboys were enraged when John Lance of Pittsburg Teachers was named “Coach of the Year” before the semifinal game matching his team against McNeese.
“Don't worry,” they told Ward. “We'll show them who the real Coach of the Year is.”
The Cowboys' march to the national title had political repercussions back in Louisiana, because their last three games in Kansas City were against black teams – Tennessee A&I, Pittsburg Teachers (Kansas) and Texas Southern.
While McNeese State was celebrating the second national championship ever won by a Louisiana team (Loyola of New Orleans won the NAIA tournament in 1945, and Grambling would follow suit in 1961), the Louisiana legislature responded by passing a law prohibiting integrated athletic events. Coming only two years after the Supreme Court's ruling that segregated schools were unconstitutional, the law was one of many efforts to stave off integration.
Ward's teams won four other GSC titles in an eight-year span, posting a 148-53 record in that run, and captured another conference championship in 1968 with a 20-5 record and a berth in the NCAA Division II playoffs. In 19 seasons at McNeese, Ward's teams won 262 games and lost 194.
After he retired in 1971 and spent eight years at a farm in the Mittie community, 10 miles West of Oberlin, Ward coached another national championship team. When he was asked to coach a team of 13-14 girls in “Little Dribbler” basketball, Ward was frustrated in his first season by a rule requiring every girl to play one complete quarter. He solved that problem with recruiting the next year, weeding out the weak links. That team won the national title.
Ward died in 1985. he was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame posthumously in 1991.
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