My best friend died of COVID-19 this week.
My heart has ripped apart, consumed by grief, a fogginess clouding my brain ever since I received the news.
Coach Tony Ingle got hit early December 2020 with the virus and called to tell me he wasn’t feeling so great. As always, we laughed through the fear of what we didn’t know, him making jokes about his health and things he still needed to accomplish (such as an important speech in the summer), jovial as always, his Signature Move.
I wished him the best, kept in touch via text, as we had for so many years, talking as casually and frequently as friends do.
At 68, I was concerned for his situation when I heard he had gone to the hospital…
Having been my hero while I was in high school, he was a coach at BYU and took me under his wing, we became actual friends once I returned from my LDS mission to Brazil in 1999 as he was in between jobs, reconnected working for my Dad for a few months in 2000 as we sat in cubicles trying to make sales calls while laughing our heads off not knowing how to sell golf equipment.
He went on to introduce me to Chris Poulos who would launch my career as a performer, and then he landed the job that would bring his legend to another level, winning a National Championship in 2004 at Kennesaw State University.
We have been tied at the hip ever since the cubicle days in 2000, between phone calls where we tried to kill each other with laughter, to texts, emails, and handwritten letters that could make you cry they were so funny – inside jokes, references only we could understand, impressions of family, celebrities, an unspoken language between friends with the same sense of humor.
He would call me up and say,
(this was my nickname after he told me to go dunk the ball in front of a stadium of fans, knowing full well I couldn’t dunk anymore. So I said watch this – ran full speed to the basket, did a 360 layup and fell to the ground and kept somersaulting to his delight and bent over laughter)
“Hey 360! I need you to come speak to the team and fire us up, make them laugh, and then do a fundraising show for our boosters!”
“Coach, I’d love to be there. Who did you have speak last year so I know who I’m following?” I asked.
“We had Dominique Wilkins“, he replied.
“Dominique, The Human Highlight Reel, NBA Hall of Famer?” I shrieked.
“Yeah, he was good. But you’ll be funny and sing better than he does, so they’ll love you, because you’re the best I’ve ever seen. I want to show you off to my friends and, well, we don’t have much money right now so I need your help,” he insisted.
That was a normal Tony Ingle conversation – filled with humor, encouragement, belief and confidence in you.
I have written and spoken extensively about our relationship and his influence, a few linked here, as well as throughout my books.
And if you’ve never listened to my induction speech in the Speaker Hall of Fame from 2016, there are 2 men I thank at the end of my speech: my Father and Coach Ingle:
By mid-December, he’s not calling me back.
I find out he’s in the ICU on oxygen as Christmas came around.
We Facetimed quickly – I knew he wanted me to see him in that state so I could realize the seriousness of it, and told him I loved him as we texted instead of wasting precious oxygen talking.
That was our last conversation.
Coach was put on a ventilator and things went downhill from there. A man who never stopped fighting and wouldn’t give up on anything, his body was overcome by this terrible virus and he was taken from us. Much too young. Gone too soon.
The world has been shocked by his passing. Tributes flowing in from writers who had been both critical of his style and ability, and those who loved and honored him, realizing the Legend who shined so much light through his sense of humor, care of people, and unique talents was actually gone.
I include here links to some of those articles, both for your reference as well as for history, as it is overwhelming to read such wonderful words written of your mentor and friend.
Yes, he was named National Coach of the Year multiple times in his career, winning championships on so many levels;
Yes, he was a leader in his Church, a Bishop, and the Father figure to so many young men he coached, and young women he mentored along the way;
Yes, he was the Husband and Father to a Family who adored him, his wife Jeanne beamed at all times in his presence, his children, Eliott, Sunshine, Golden, Tony, Jr. and Israel, and grandchildren, hung on his every word with a huge smile on their face.
I stayed in their home countless times watching him lead in righteousness, with humor and conviction, the balance between respect and joy that no other man has possessed.
What really gives the essence of the man, for me, was my personal experience with him as I called him Coach always and forever, and how eventually the tables turned by his own request in the last few years.
As he began to make the transition from being a National Championship Coach at Dalton State College, after starting the basketball program from scratch and taking them to the title game in 2 years, he was feeling it was time to hang it up.
We talked for years, between our old buddy, Chris Poulos, 89, with Tony and myself, a trio of generations, looking to bring Coach Ingle’s speaking talents to the forefront.
I flew to Atlanta and stayed with Coach and Jeanne for a few days as he asked me to now be his coach for his speaking career.
I sent him homework prior to my visit, not sure how serious he might be about his new venture since basketball had been his life for so long. My assignment for him was daunting: Unedited video of a 2-day, 16 hour training on how he could make a career as a speaker that had been recorded in front of a live audience.
Coach Ingle watched the whole thing…2 times!
I showed up at his house shocked to find a folder spilling over with yellow page handwritten notes – all from my training! Questions he needed answers to, specifics on contracts, invoicing, negotiating, branding, selling, pricing – you name it, he was ready to learn it!
Everything I instructed him to do, attempt, create, he went for it. Learning online how to navigate a web site and send emails worded a certain way, investing in marketing materials, signing up for associations and coaching, sifting through old footage of him speaking on stage, classic home footage of The Little Nuggets (his NBA halftime show he performed with his children when they were kids) that we cried laughing over it was so precious, putting newspaper articles and TV interviews in order for web site promotions.
It was the equivalent of helping the most excited youthful entrepreneur entertainer putting together their show for the first time to begin a career, and he was in his mid-sixties, filled with exuberant enthusiasm!
How would a man, one of the greatest and most decorated coaches that ever lived, be so humble as to now be the most coachable mentee I would ever have?
How would my hero go from his pedestal and now lift me up, watch me proudly, and do everything I recommended?
It was the most fascinating reversal in roles I have ever witnessed, and the greatest coaching experience of my life. The privilege to coach my Coach.
He took notes of everything I said, worked day and night on his speaking business and speech (which, as a speaker, he was already beyond the talent of anyone I knew), as he doubled down to figure out his new business and land gigs to provide for his family.
He could have kept on coaching. The universities kept calling offering him jobs!
Instead, he wanted to coach from the podium, and if you ever heard him speak then you received a most precious gift – there was no one who could speak like, make an audience of athletes laugh like, and move grown men to tears like Coach Tony Ingle.
He made them laugh til they cried, and cry until their lives were changed.
I’ll never forget when he staked his claim, his “theme” and topic, which summed up his life, his career, his personal philosophy.
He looked at me and he said, “I’m going to talk about one thing: Keep Going. That’s the essence of life. That’s what everyone needs to do. Win, lose, or come what may, we must Keep Going. That is what I’m going to bring to the masses.”
The next thing I knew, he was sending us Keep Going branded T-shirts and rubber bracelets for the whole family, every size for each child, handwritten letters for the children, stuffed animals in a crammed full manila package with his personalized wit and charm all over it.
As he had always done this…not just for my family, but for everyone he’d ever meet. The stories run rampant of his customized letters, thoughtfulness, time spent thinking of others and acknowledging them.
Above and beyond kindness, the perfect connector, the genius of relationship building and maintaining.
Funny thing is, I call him my best friend. And he has been, for 20 years.
And everyone else feels the exact same. That he’s their best friend.
And like a Father to them.
Who makes such a difference in so many lives? Only someone who lives what he preaches, who lives The Promise at the highest level.
His Funeral will be on Monday, January 25, 2021. I am honored to sing a special song that he always told me he loved, and while we listen to his children speak about his great life. I hope you’ll tune in and join us.
Some of Coach Ingle’s greatest quotes:
“I’m not what I should be, nor what I could be, but I thank God every day I’m not what I used to be.”
“Life is short, serious and frail – learn from it, laugh at it, and live it well.”
“You get up and you get going, and you get your mind right. Change your mind, change your life!”
“If your dreams are big enough the obstacles are small enough to overcome them.”
Coach Ingle, thank you for helping me live my best life, as a mentor, as a father figure, as a best friend. I’m devastated you’re gone so soon, but we will carry on your message.
And no doubt, I Promise, to Keep Going.
Promise Institute Founder * Virtual Keynote Speaker * Speaker Hall of Fame
Author of “The Promise To The One”