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The Rolla Daily News - Rolla, MO
  • Remembering Coach

  • Former players, colleagues, coaching peers comment on Billy Key.
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  • As word began to spread concerning the death of former Missouri S&T coach and athletic director Billy Key, tributes and well-wishes from around the country started pouring in.
    Key, who served from 1964-1990 as either men's basketball head coach, athletic director or in both roles, passed away on Friday at the age of 88.
    He left a huge legacy at the school and, in particular, around the college basketball world.
    The word "integrity" seemed to be most often used by persons who have been close to Key attempted to describe him.
    The Daily News sought out comments from many of Key's former players, former colleagues at the university and former coaching peers.
    Here is some of their comments, along with some bio information in each:

    Dale Martin: Replaced Key as S&T men's basketball head coach in the 1987-88 campaign and spent 22 seasons in the job. Prior to that Martin served as Key's assistant coach for 1980-87 and recruited two All-America players who played for Key, Curtis Gibson and Duane Huddleston: "Coach Key had such an impact professionally on my life and personally on my life," Martin said. "I was at UMR for 29 years and Coach Key gave me my second college job. I was fortunate to be in that position for a lot of years. The thing about Billy Key was his integrity; not just in athletics but the way he lived his life. (Former S&T Chancellor) Martin Jischke put it best when he said Coach Key exemplified S&T athletics. His legacy will live on, as the court at S&T is named in his honor. And rightfully so."

    Mark Mullin: Replaced Key as full-time S&T Athletic Director in 1992, the position he still holds. Key brough Mullin on board as the Miners' swimming head coach, a position he held for 12 years before becoming AD: "Coach Key has been one of the most significant people in my life. Outside of my family, no one has had a greater impact on me. Billy hired me and I am thankful for that, but I am more grateful for what he has given me since then. I was fortunate to work for him, but I was even more fortunate to spend time with him after he retired. We had hundreds of conversations. I enjoyed spending time with him. I learned a great deal about him, his family, and more importantly, what is truly important in life. Family was at the center of his life. He spent 68 wonderful years with the love of his life and it was evident to everyone how much he adored her. He cared about others and positively touched so many, many lives including student-athletes, coaches, staff, colleagues, and friends. I will miss Coach Key, but he will continue to live prominently in my heart. The way he lived his life serves as a great example for all of us and has made me a better person. I am eternally grateful for that. I love you Coach."
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    Sarah Moore: Worked for Key longer than anyone else currently on the Miner athletic staff, being hired by him in 1979 as a coach. She has since worked as a head coach, assistant coach, intramural director and senior women's administrator at S&T and the past decade has served as S&T Assistant Athletic Director: "Since I came to UMR in 1979, I remember Billy as a leader in the addition of women's sports and the transition of women's sports competition from the AIAW to the NCAA which involved dramatic changes for all involved. Because of the foresight of Billy and others, that transition was handled very fairly and smoothly both on campus and at the conference level. I really appreciated the acceptance and positive environment for myself and the female student athletes in the department at a time when that wasn't the national norm. Billy was instrumental in laying a firm foundation for equality in athletic competition with both varsity athletics and intramurals which prevails even today. Billy invested the majority of his career at UMR because he loved the institution and 'bled Miner blood.' He helped create an environment where athletics and academics co-existed to the advantage of the students, as well as, the institution. I saw him provide generations of coaches and students with opportunities for growth and development on a personal, professional and athletic level. I will remember Billy as a mentor, scholar and gentleman and will sorely miss him."

    Mary (Ortelee) Tappmeyer: Started the University of North Florida's women's basketball program in 1991 and has been there as head coach ever since; helping move that program to the NCAA Division I ranks in 2006. Prior to that she served as Lady Miner basketball head coach from 1984-91: "Coach Key took a chance on a 25-year-old with no head coaching experience," she said. "I think about him all the time. He was always so helpful to me. I would always go into his office and he would give me advice and information. He always told me to trust my instincts. And he told me to go to the women's Final Four as a reward for the season and to network. Since he told me that I haven't missed a Final Four yet. And I make all of my assistants go, too. That was great advice he gave me."

    Randy Vessell: Was a member of Key's first recruiting class at S&T. He played for the Miners from 1964-68. After graduating and while waiting for his military assignment, he served one season as a volunteer assistant coach for Key: "I've been told I was his first actual signee (at S&T), but I don't know that for sure," Randy Vessell said. "He recruited my three brothers (Royce, Roger, Rodney) and we had about a 20-year period of him being the coach of somebody in our family and probably a 45-year association with all him and my family together. He sat at our kitchen table in April of '64 and we signed a scholarship to Rolla. It was very meaningful for the family; I was the first person from my family to ever attend college. Kind of the American dream thing. It was a family highlight, when we signed to go to Rolla. I have had a very good relationship with him for all of those years. Everybody knows all the coaching stuff that Billy did; all of those things. But if you're able to stay attached to him for a period of time you understand the character of the man. And the character of the man is what I remember greatly. The year I assisted him waiting to go to the military, we took a road trip to Texas, playing in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and then heading to San Antonio. During that trip one of the players had a family tragedy. The young man was a freshman, wasn't a star player at that time in his career. The focus – the priority – completely changed on that trip to that young man. Coach had a team meeting at the hotel without the young man there; he told the players about the tragedy and told them we were going to take care of the young man. He made sure he found alumni to escort the young man back home, had someone there to meet him at the airport. The whole thing. I always remembered how Coach responded to that tragedy. That's the kind of person he was."
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    Royce Vessell: The point guard for perhaps Key's finest team ever, the 1975-76 MIAA champion and national tourney qualifier, Vessell is a member of the S&T Athletic Hall of Fame: "I always felt lucky, I was there the four years we had the best players for a four-year rotation. A couple years with Ken Stallings (Key's only NBA-drafted player) and then a couple of years where we went to the NCAA Nationals. And earlier we had John Gibson and Rich Peters...It was just a fun time to be there. I always thought afterwards, you may not realize it while you're there, but the program was run properly and Coach Key treated everyone fairly. When the ex-players all get together it's always nice memories. And it was all because of Coach Key.

    Rich Peters: One of the Miners' all-time greats, Peters graduated in 1973 and after red-shirting his first year played for the Miners from 1969-73. He is a member of the S&T Athletic Hall of Fame: "He got me going on the right track. Late in my freshman year I was kind of going through the motions. He talked to me and got me going and I ended up having a pretty successful career there. After a tough loss I remember him telling us, 'Don't get your dobber down.'"

    Terry Buzbee: Graduated in 1977 and played for Key's two NCAA Division II National Tournament qualifying teams. He played from 1973-77. "Coach was a real respected figure to the team; almost fatherly to me personally. When he thought you weren't towing the line, he brought you in pretty quick. That was a really special time. When you do what we did those couple of years, you remember it always. Huge respect for the man. I don't think people realized how big his reputation was nationally until later in his career."

    John Gibson: Graduated from S&T in 1974. A junior college recruit, Gibson played for the Miners from 1972-74. "Coach Key provided me an opportunity that basically changed my life," Gibson said. "I owe a tremendous amount to him. I have fond memories of him as a man and as a coach. It was a great experience. I'll always remember Coach Key called every one of us 'Big Moose.' Rich Peters was our big center but everyone was Big Moose; you never knew who he was talking to. He was a gentle man but was stern. He expected a lot out of you."

    Stan Shuemaker: Is a 1985 graduate of S&T. He played two years of junior college basketball before transferring to S&T and played for Key from 1983-85. He is a member of the S&T Athletic Hall of Fame: "I had tons of respect for Coach Key. He was elderly even when I played and was kind of a father figure type to me. I thought the world of him. He was such a good man and he took care for all the players, not just basketball-wise. You got the feeling he wanted all of them to do well after their basketball careers."
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    Bill Walker: A member of Key's last Miner squad, the long-range shooting specialist had a long association with Key. Walkers' father was also a college coach and administrator who knew Key for decades. Walker graduated from S&T in 1987 and went on to a long coaching career. He is currently an assistant coach for the Drake University men's basketball team: "I'm in a pretty unique situation because I knew him as a friend of the family as well as my coach in college," Walker said. "He was a man of principle and a man of integrity...a perfect fit for UMR. He was so understanding and compassionate with the kids who had heavy class loads. His one year as president of the NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches) was my last year playing for him. And I think having my name associated with him probably opened some doors (in college coaching)."

    Bruce Tappmeyer: Is a 1979 graduate of Rolla High School who stayed home and also played basketball at his hometown university. He is the husband of Mary Tappmeyer: "I'm sorry to hear about Coach Key. I played one year for Coach, but knew him all of my life. He was a kind, gentle man who always asked about your family and genuinely cared about you. He will be missed."

    Gene Green: Was hired by Key as the first full-time Miner sports information director and served in that role from 1979-89. He later returned to his alma mater at SIU Carbondale, first in the sports information department and currently at the school's alumni association: "I've now worked at universities for 35 years, and Billy Key gave me my first job in higher education in 1979 when he hired me as the first full-time sports information director at UMR. For the next decade, I worked, traveled, and shared many special moments with Coach, who genuinely cared about the people in his department. He was also universally respected by his peers, as evidenced by his election as president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches in t1986 – a rare accomplishment for an NCAA Division II head coach. I was proud to be with him in New Orleans at the Final Four that weekend, watching legends like Bob Knight, John Thompson, Dean Smith, and others congratulate him as president of their organization. Today my sympathy and thoughts are with his wonderful wife, Naomi, and her family. With his passing, the Miners lost a giant, but his legacy lives on through the players he impacted during his long coaching career."

    John Kean: Is the current sports information director for S&T, replacing Green in 1990. It's thought that Kean may be the last person hired by Key while he was AD: "I can recall the day I walked into Coach Key's office for the first time, which was the day I came to Rolla for my interview. I had only known him from the opposing side up to that time, but he made me feel very comfortable that day when I spoke with him about the position – which I am still in today – and that demeanor never changed after my employment began at the university. After his retirement, he still made frequent appearances in the office and on most of those occasions, he would stop by my office and we would have some great conversations. It could be about the Miners, the Cardinals or whatever else was on his mind on that particular day. The people that knew Billy, myself included, had a reverence for him and he had a tremendous life that impacted everyone who was associated with him, both on the professional and personal levels. I was truly blessed to have him as a friend."
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    Tom Smith: Was a coaching rival of Key's at Central Missouri from 1975-80. He is the winningest coach in MIAA history with 535 wins as a league member and 618 career victories. After leaving Central Missouri he coached at Valparaiso and later spent 25 years back in the MIAA as coach of Missouri Western: "When I first started coaching, Billy had one of his great teams. The thing I remember the most my first couple of years at Central Missouri is Billy telling me that to have a really good team you've got to have good players. Now, at the time I was a little offended by that; I was a young guy who thought I could out-coach all this older guys. But as I matured...two or three years later, I realized Coach Key was right. It doesn't matter how good a coach you think you are, you've got to have the players. That stayed with me the rest of my career. I have such great respect for Billy. He's one of the persons responsible for getting the MIAA to the level of athletic greatness that it is now at."
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