Norris Ashley died last week, and, sadly, many readers will not know of him. You should.

Norris Ashley, 75, was a high school coach, a truly great one, for Ingomar Attendance Center in Union County. That’s up in Mississippi’s Hill Country, where basketball is king and where the really successful coaches are worshiped almost as deity. Ashley won 1,697 games and nine state championships in 43 years of coaching — 41 were at Ingomar, his alma mater.

Norris Ashley , who won 1,697 games and nine state basketball championships at Ingomar, will be laid to rest Tuesday. (Ashley family photo)

Most of you who don’t know about Ashley will know about Norman Dale, the character Gene Hackman played in the iconic 1986 movie “Hoosiers.” In the movie, Dale coached tiny Hickory to the overall Indiana state basketball championship against all odds. Simply put, Norris Ashley was Mississippi’s Norman Dale.

“I’ve watched that movie at least 10 times, probably more,” Ashley once told me. “That one hits pretty close to home.”

In 1978, back when Mississippi public high schools still played the Grand Slam, matching the champions of all the high school classifications, tiny Ingomar, with 150 students in grades 9-12, won the Slam defeating much larger schools. James Green, who was listed at 6 feet, 2 inches tall, but might have been 6-1 in his sneakers, was Ingomar’s tallest player.

Rick Cleveland

“They listed me at 6-2 because it sounded better,” Green said last week. “We weren’t very big but we knew how to play. We had played together for Coach Ashley since we were in junior high. When I say we knew how to play, I mean we really knew how to play.”

As all of Ashley’s Ingomar teams did. They guarded fiercely, shared the basketball and took only the best shots. Ashley once said of that team, “We sure don’t make anybody shake in their sneakers. We don’t have a lot of height, jumping ability or physical strength, and we’re not eat up with a lot of quickness either. Sometimes when we play teams that haven’t seen us, by the time they stop laughing at us, they’re too far behind to catch up.”

Those Ingomar Falcons won 47 consecutive games over two seasons.

The first time these eyes ever saw Norris Ashley was when he played basketball at Delta State. He scored a basket at the buzzer to help the Statesmen defeat Southern Miss. He was a 6-4 forward who could jump into the rafters. In his last game for Delta State, he scored 24 points and grabbed 20 rebounds. He also played left field for Boo Ferriss, another Mississippi treasure, in baseball. He played on Boo’s 1968 team that lost in the national championship game of the Division II World Series. Says Langston Rogers, then DSU’s sports information director and now a Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer, “Norris was just a phenomenal athlete. At Union College in Jackson, Tennessee, I saw him rob a home run. I mean he must have jumped four feet high over the fence to reach up and grab that ball.”

Ashley was nicknamed “Stalk” at early age by a cotton-farming uncle who said every time he saw his nephew he had grown a few inches just like one of his cotton stalks.

After Ashley graduated from Delta State and coached the DSU freshman team one season, he coached two years at Coahoma High School before returning home to Ingomar. Ashley once recalled an older coach advising him to take the Ingomar job, saying it would be a good place to coach a year or two before he found something better. Said Ashley, four decades later, “I never found any place better.”

James Green, who played at Ole Miss and once coached Southern Miss to the Conference USA championship when the league included Louisville, Memphis, Cincinnati and Houston, believes Ashley would have been successful at any level. “He would have hated recruiting but he could coach with anybody,” Green said. “He was as fundamentally sound as any coach anywhere. He was my John Wooden.”

Norris Ashley, seated, with son Jonathan and the state championship trophy Jonathan’s Ingomar team won in 2020. (Ashley family)

Ashley’s son, Jonathan Ashley, now coaches Ingomar on the basketball floor that is named for his father. Jonathan’s Ingomar Falcons won a state championship in 2020 with his father cheering from the stands. “People tell me my teams play like his did,” Jonathan Ashley told me. “For me, that’s the ultimate compliment.”

Through all the nearly 1,700 victories and nine state championships, Norris Ashley remained as humble and endearing as he was when he graduated from Ingomar at age 16.

“I guess I had a little influence,” he said upon retirement in 2012. “I got them to the game on time and made sure they had shoes and uniforms and stuff to wear. I’ve been lucky to have players who worked hard and wanted to win.”

Ashley’s funeral will be held Tuesday, appropriately, in the gym on the hardwood that bears his name. The place will be packed as it was for so many of those 1,697 victories. Surely the good people in Ingomar will see fit to name the gym after him, as well.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.