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Thursday, September 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports

Former St. John coach Bill Hays dies at 82

St. John sports fourth championship trophy under Bill Hays in 1969. (File)
St. John sports fourth championship trophy under Bill Hays in 1969. (File)

It was the night before another basketball game between coaching legends, friend and rivals – Bill Hays of St. John and Gene Smith of Reardan.

Smith recalled the story Wednesday less than two weeks after Hays passed away. Smith told his players to take the night off from practice and go get flat-tops. He wanted his players to be better groomed than Hays’ kids.

“I was taping some of the guys (ankles) at the end of the bench during the (junior varsity) game and Bill came in and we talked a bit,” Smith recalled. “I noticed some of his kids had shaggy hair. A while later I noticed some of his boys headed to the laundry room. They were in there cutting their hair with pocket knives and scissors. They didn’t look too sharp but they got their hair cut.”

The memory was from a game played in the 1970s, Smith said, when longer hair had become popular and Hays and Smith had relaxed on their flat-top policy.

Hays’ teams usually played Smith’s teams twice during the regular season – usually in a season opener and later in the year.

“Back then, Bill and I both were staying with old traditional squared haircuts,” Smith said.

Smith and his wife visited Hays and his wife last month when Smith learned his friend was ill. After retiring from teaching in 1989, Hays moved to Bonners Ferry where he had farmed and raised Angus cattle since 1961.

“I knew he wasn’t well and we thought we’d better go see him,” Smith said. “We visited for a couple hours. We had a good time remembering things. Probably the older we get the better we were.”

Hays, 82, died June 19 from respiratory complications. A celebration of his life will be held July 18 at the Mt. Hall Elementary gym near Bonners Ferry.

Smith remembers Hays using a two-platoon system with his team. He’d play the seniors in the first quarter and the juniors and sophomores in the second. Most years, he played as many as 10 in a game, Smith said.

It’s believed that Hays put Whitman County B athletics, especially basketball, on the map.

No school dominated the old B basketball tournament like Hays’ St. John’s teams in the 1960s. The Eagles won four state titles and finish second another time.

“He made the B tournament in Spokane what it was,” said Joe Leifer, who played for Hays two years at St. John before graduating in 1962.

Leifer has many fond memories of Hays, who is a member of three halls of fame in Washington, including the Inland Northwest Sports Hall of Fame.

“He was one helluva coach,” Leifer said. “He got the best out of you no matter how good you were. He was tough on you. His training rules were very strict. He made you abide by them. There were no second chances. He was a terrific guy.”

Hays’ basketball teams at St. John were 371-113. The football teams were 110-15-1, once winning 37 straight games. After 15 years at St. John, Hays moved to Newport. He spent 15 years there, coaching girls basketball teams. He compiled a 169-81 record and guided the team to the state tournament seven times.

“We loved Coach Hays because he was always honest with us – sometimes brutally so,” said Shannon Casey, a 1985 graduate who lives near Tacoma. “Sometimes he’d tell us we didn’t have a lot of talent but if we played hard and followed his game we’d be successful. And we went to state every year. He was a coach that made you want to give 150 percent always. All of us are hard working successful women to this day and we credit that to Coach Hays.”

Hays was born in Bismarck, North Dakota. After graduating from high school in Rupert, Idaho, and Idaho State University, Hays began his teaching and coaching career in Salmon, Idaho. In 1957, he moved to St. John.

He is survived by his wife, Mary, of 60 years and his three children – Leslie Akins; George Hays; and Paula West.

George Hays teaches and coaches in Bonners Ferry and oversees the family’s 800-acre ranch.

He played for his dad through his sophomore year at St. John and finished playing for him at Newport.

“He was old-school. You pretty much knew where you stood with him,” George said. “I’m a third generation teacher/rancher/coach. I started playing for dad when he started Pee Wee basketball in the second grade. I grew up in the gym.”

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