The Story of Legendary WKU Basketball Coach E.A. Diddle
In 42 seasons (1922-64) as the head basketball coach at Western Kentucky, Edgar
Allen Diddle'steams claimed 32 conference championships; played in 11 postseason tournaments; won 20+ games eighteen different times, (including one stretch of ten years in a row); became the first team from the South to participate in the Olympic Trials; and they won an amazing 759 games! When he stepped down in 1964 Diddle had won more games than any coach in NCAA history and today he still ranks fifth on the all-time list. At the time of his death in 1970 over 100 of Diddle's former players were coaching in the high school, college, or professional ranks - an incredible example of the influence that he had on his beloved players. Visitors of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., can view a display honoring Mr. Diddle, which includes one of the coach's legendary Red Towels, which he developed into a Western tradition.
Diddle was one of the first proponents of the fast-break style of basketball and the tremendous success of his early teams helped to popularize and spread this style of play all across the country. Many years later he stated, "We play the fast break because it makes people come to our gymnasium, they like to see scoring. We give them what they like. I see it as entertainment." Even in warm-up drills Diddle's team entertained the crowd using red and white basketballs and by taking every opportunity to dunk the ball…something that wasn't widely accepted among the country's more straight-laced coaches in those days.
Most people who knew the coach will tell you that his greatest strength was undoubtedly
his amazing ability to motivate his players to perform well beyond their own expectations.
Dero Downing, a former Diddle player who later became the second of the coach's team
members to become president of WKU, once told of a scolding that he received from
the coach, "What makes you think you're such a good basketball player? I found you
up there at Horse Cave, just milking a little Jersey cow, and
you're not much better now than you were then, and all you know is what I've taught you." Recalling
the incident, Downing stated, "Then, when you felt the lowest, like you weren't worth killing, he'd pat you on the rear - and you felt like you could beat the world."
Diddle's other great attribute was his ability to spot unpolished talent and develop that player into an integral part of the team. Coach described it in this manner, "There is nothing that gives me more of a thrill than taking some country kid who is flat-footed, walks like he is following a plow, doesn't know much about basketball, except that the ball is round, and making something out of him." Diddle was a master recruiter, perhaps as fine as college basketball has ever seen. Despite Western's small size, when compared to the larger state universities around the country, Diddle had the ability to cast a spell over a player and his family and convince them in all honesty that Western was the only place for them. One feature that the coach always looked for in potential recruits was big hands and big feet. "I look for tall boys, up over 6-3, with big hands and big feet. If they haven't got big feet, they'll fall down," he would always say. "I want the nervous kind, the kind with temperament and brains, like a race horse." As unorthodox as it all may sound it's kind of hard to argue with the results. However, perhaps the most important thing that he looked for in a player can be carried over to the modern game, and into any sport for that matter. Here is how the coach put it: "A pretty good athlete who is a competitor will beat a talented boy who has a faint heart every time. The thing I always looked for first in a boy was his fire. We can develop his talents, but only God can give him his fire."
Edgar Allen Diddle was born on a small farm near Gradyville in Adair Co., Ky. on March 12, 1895. Growing up as one of five boys Diddle developed into a fine athlete and played all sports at nearby Columbia High School. In 1915 Diddle entered Centre College at Danville, Ky. where he continued to play basketball and football, even earning the nickname of "Mule," for his great physical strength on the football field. In 1918 he joined a naval aviation program and spent most of the year in Europe. Returning to Centre the following year he finished up his career there in 1920 and by the following winter had landed his first head coaching job at Monticello High School where he took his first team all the way to the state finals. The next year saw Diddle assume the head coaching position at Greenville High School. In his second year there his 1922 team posted a 26-2 record and participated in a regional tournament in Bowling Green after a flood, or fate, prevented the team from traveling to their scheduled site of Owensboro. Once in Bowling Green Diddle so impressed everyone with his coaching ability that Western officials extended an offer to him to become the athletics director and head coach of all sports at Western. He eventually accepted, and on Sept. 7, 1922, for the salary of $150 per month, $100 less than he was offered to stay at Greenville, E. A. Diddle began his legendary career with Western Kentucky University.
Diddle was initially in charge of coaching football, baseball, and women’s basketball in addition to his men's basketball position, and early on success didn't come easy as Diddle gradually built the program up into the powerhouse it would eventually become. On February 9, 1931, Western played its first game in their new gymnasium, dubbed the "New Red Barn." Officially seating 4,500 spectators the new building became a magical place for Western basketball and a place that to this day inspires fond memories from everyone who was fortunate enough to attend games there. Luckily, it was built right before Diddle and his teams began their march to national prominence. For ten years, from the 1933-34 season through the 1942-43 season, Western's teams posted at least 20 wins per season including becoming the first NCAA school ever to record a 30-win season in 1937-38. They also won or shared the KIAC or SIAA conference championship every year in between. During the 32 years that the Red Barn housed Western basketball it was a regular sell-out, but the coach never turned anyone away whenever possible. He would always instruct the doormen not to let anyone stand outside in the cold if they could possibly be crammed into the gym. Diddle would say, "Anybody who comes 100 miles to see us play is our guest and we'll get him into that gym if we have to use a shoehorn to get him in, and he doesn't have to have a ticket either."
Still, it wasn't until 1941-42 that Western finally made a splash nationally. At that time the NIT was the major tournament rather than the NCAA, and it was considered an honor to be invited to Madison Square Garden to participate. Kelly Thompson, one of Diddle's former football players, who was then the school's publicity man and who would later became president of Western, convinced Ned Irish, the official in charge of the NIT, to invite Western's great '41-'42 team to the Garden. Once there, both the New York media and the public fell in love with Coach Diddle and his exciting team. They especially loved his antics on the sidelines, as the coach would throw and wave his red towel vigorously throughout the game. Unfortunately, the Toppers fell short of the championship. After defeating CCNY in the first game 49-46 and then Creighton 49-36 in the second round, Western lost a 12 point halftime lead to West Virginia in the title game and fell two points shy of the national championship, 47-45. However, Diddle and the Hilltoppers became such crowd favorites that they were to be invited back many times in the future.
Diddle's teams continued their tremendous success over the next two decades as they continued to dominate their conferences and participate in the NIT. However, fate always seemed to intervene and prevent the Toppers from obtaining the elusive national championship that Coach Diddle longed for. And unfortunately the hectic pace began to take its toll on the coach's health. In 1952 he suffered a severe heart attack and was sidelined for most of the '52-53 season. Luckily, Diddle's long-time assistant Ted Hornback, was there to pick up the slack. Hornback, whose brilliant tactical mind meshed wonderfully with Diddle's fire and motivational skills, was probably as fine an x's and o's coach as there was in college basketball at the time, and much of Western's athletic success can be attributed to his brilliant coaching. At one time he even accepted the head coaching job at Vanderbilt but after a short stint in Nashville he felt compelled to return to the "Hill" and Coach Diddle.
As the 1950's turned into the 1960's it was becoming obvious that Diddle was wearing down as his health continued to worsen. However, before his eventual retirement after the '63-64 season, he set the table for the future greatness of Hilltopper basketball as Western became one of the first schools in the South to recruit and sign black athletes for their basketball program. And what a job the coach did. The great class of '63 included future first-team All-American Clem Haskins from nearby Campbellsville and Dwight Smith from Princeton, Ky., two of the greatest players ever to play college ball in the state of Kentucky.
The retirement of Mr. Diddle in 1964 set the stage for a new era of basketball at Western but the Diddle influence was still as prevalent as ever. Longtime assistant Ted Hornback became the athletics director and all three of the new coaches were former Hilltoppers: Head coach John Oldham, and assistants Gene Rhodes and Wallace "Buck" Sydnor. That's not even taking into account former player Kelly Thompson, who was then the president of Western, and who at one time many years earlier had decided to drop out of school before Diddle led him to a downtown bank and acquired a $25 loan for him, enabling Thompson to remain at Western. Just a few years later Thompson would step down from the president's post only to be replaced by another of Diddle's former players, Dero Downing.
Retirement never stopped the old coach from cheering on his beloved Toppers however. In 1963, Western's new gymnasium was completed and it was rightfully named E. A. Diddle Arena. And was he ever proud of that gym! Naturally, the coach became a fixture at the arena and he could usually be found out in front of the stands leading cheers with his Red Towel flying. During a heated game against Dayton in 1968, Diddle decided to climb on top of a press table and lead cheers in front of the student section. However, a Dayton sportswriter, who obviously didn't know who he was speaking to, told Diddle that he couldn't climb on top of the table. To which Diddle snapped, "What do you mean I can't get on top of this table? This is my damn gym!" It was indeed his gym....his team....his school....and his town. On January 1, 1970, Western's finest son and Kentucky's greatest coach passed away. In a game based on numbers Diddle was one of the greatest ever.....in the game of life he was a true champion.