By Joseph Santoliquito
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – No one calls him Bill or William. At least not anyone who knows anything about Philadelphia hoops.
Many who’ve known him for years still don’t even know his real first name. He’s universally known as “Speedy,” a childhood nickname pinned on him by a seventh-grade CYO coach because he ran too slow.
Today, William “Speedy” Morris is the most renowned high school basketball coach in southeastern Pennsylvania. His winning reputation supersedes Philly, and stretches across the state. The coach at St. Joseph’s Prep (Philadelphia) and long-time Philadelphia basketball staple has been a fixture in area hoops for six decades, and there doesn’t seem to be any impediment for Morris to slow down now.
Winning has followed him at various stops, from when he first brought Roman Catholic to national prominence in the 1970s and ’80s, to stops at Penn Charter and La Salle University. It’s no wonder that through time, Morris would eventually win 900 games as a head coach, which he achieved, ironically, with a victory Feb. 3 over his beloved Roman Catholic.
Morris, 69, admits he’s mellowed through time. But he still speaks in a staccato rapid-fire fashion, and is still keenly aware of his roots, introduced to the game and playing for hours on end at the Kendrick Rec Center in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia. It was a simpler time then, before cell phones and instant messaging and tweeting. Most kids then went out and played all day. Wireball, halfball, tireball. You name it.
Then there was basketball, always basketball.
The second of four children, Morris was raised by a single mother after his father died when he was 13. Coaching ended up becoming a calling, and that became a passion.
“I always wanted to be a coach,” said Morris, who has a 901-387 career coaching record entering this week. “I was never a good student. My mother worked and this was in the 1950s. I just wasn’t interested in school. I wasn’t a bad kid. I was fortunate enough to have some great teachers that influenced my life. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time at Roman. I was sick my senior year, 1959, and I must have missed three or four weeks of practice, and we had a really good team my senior year. Even if I came back, I knew I wasn’t going to play.
“A parish priest asked me if I wanted to coach a local CYO team, kids that really weren’t much younger than I was. I’ve been hooked since then. I happened to wind up at Roman when I was at a buddy’s wedding rehearsal. The priest saying the wedding was Roman’s principal. I was 24 at the time, and he asked me if I was interested in the junior varsity job at Roman.”
Soon after, he was offered the head job at Roman, which then was a Philadelphia Catholic League also-ran that hadn’t made the Catholic League playoffs in 27 years prior to Morris’ arrival. In 14 years, Morris transformed the Cahillites into a national powerhouse, going 347-82 while claiming six league titles there and the 1974 Philadelphia city championship.
In his first year at Roman, Morris lost in triple overtime to eventual league champion Cardinal O’Hara. In his second year, Morris led Roman to the Catholic League championship. He bounced to Penn Charter, then to La Salle, first as the girls’ coach (1985-86) and then the boys’ coach (1987-2001).
He landed at St. Joe’s Prep, Roman’s nemesis, in 2002 and has been there for 11 years, winning two more Catholic League titles, back-to-back in 2003 and 2004, when his teams went a combined 57-6.
Though he’s adjusted, somewhat, to the times, the old-school furnace still burns within Morris. In 11 years, he’s accepted three transfers in this age of players ping-ponging from school to school. He’s also not afraid to speak up, even if the contemporary player seems to be far more thin-skinned.
“I think kids today really want discipline. Most kids will run through a wall for you if you’re honest with them,” Morris said. “They need a reason and you have to tell kids why today. But if you’re honest, and you tell them what you expect, they’ll respond. I think I’m a much better communicator today than I was. The kids who used to play for me tell me I’ve mellowed. I just explain why we are doing some things.
“I still preach core values. But kids today are more fragile than they were. We have kids that are exceptionally tough, but I see where kids are fragile. They don’t like to be yelled at and told things. I’m not as much of a dictator as I was. The kids know that. Kids today think they’re working hard, but they’re not. It’s why I love my kid, Steve Vasturia, who’s going to Notre Dame. He’s old-school. He’s one of the best kids I ever coached. A great work ethic, he’s a special kid with great skills.”
Morris doesn’t like to reminisce on the changes that have gone on with basketball, though he’s seen an escalation in coaches promising kids the world today. It bothers him. He yearns for the old-school ways, because “coaches are out of control trying to get kids,” Morris said. “Our league is no better than any other league, and it’s wrong. You promise these kids everything. It happens at every level. It’s why you have almost 200 transfers every year in Division I. A coach will lie to a kid. We just happen to be very blessed with our college coaches in Philly that they’re all very good coaches, and more importantly, exceptional people.”
Asked if he might one day coach his grandchildren, Morris laughed and scoffed, “No chance; I’ll be in a walker.”
Don’t count him out.
Vasturia, a 6-foot-4 junior, is averaging close to 20 points a game. He still sees the desire Morris maintains. He’s embraced Morris’ teachings and doesn’t mind a few barks in his direction from the old master.
“Being able to play for Coach Morris as a high school kid is pretty amazing,” Vasturia said. “It’s an honor to play for him and take in his knowledge. Off the court, he’s such a nice guy and he’ll do anything to help you, but coach Morris is very old-school. He’ll get on you and he’s very passionate about the game.
“When coach Morris does get on you, you have to take in what he says because he wants to make everyone so much better. Not everyone could play for coach Morris. You have to have a positive mindset and you have to want to be successful, because he’s going to push you, and if you don’t want to be pushed, he’ll let you know. Coach Morris has no doubt made me a better player. He’s one of the major reasons why I came to Prep in the first place. He’s been nothing but a great help in the success I’ve had and what we’ve done as a team this year.”