Salisbury can lay claim to many things, but perhaps nothing is as well known across the state, in the sport’s world, as Wicomico High School’s basketball coach, Howard “Butch” Waller Jr.
He has scored living-legend status by leading the Indians team to 854 wins. Waller has been called “the winningest active public high school coach in Maryland.”
The late Rick Cullen, longtime sports editor for The Daily Times, also jokingly called Waller “The World’s Oldest Basketball Coach,” and that was decades ago.
In April he turns 81, and yes, he said, he’s pretty sure he’s the oldest — still on the job as an active public high school basketball coach — in Maryland.
People love Butch Waller.
The school gym is one big visual accolade to Waller. The air in the empty court still crackles with electrical energy generated over the decades by the roar of cheering fans.
There’s the Waller Dome, the Butch Waller Court, and his fame has even led the renaming of Long Avenue, the street passing by the school — to Butch Waller Way.
Two years ago a crowd of enthusiastic supporters, a band, along with city dignitaries, gathered at the corner of Long and Civic avenues at the official renaming ceremony. Mayor Jake Day even issued a proclamation noting March 16 as Butch Waller Day, the mayor said.in honor of “ … one of the most important people in our community.”
In the eyes of his fans, Waller is worthy of being canonized as a basketball saint. Only thing missing from the school’s packed trophy display case is his bronzed baby shoes.
He feigns, with style, an appropriate amount of modesty, but truth is, he loves the accolades. He loves that his school, staff and team are being honored.
What’s the story behind this legend?
There is no lucky rabbit’s foot, or pressed four leaf clover in his wallet.
He is successful because he is obsessed with meticulous organization, preparedness and constantly reflecting on the causes of his successes and failures.
Waller is proud of being the “winningest active public high school basketball coach in the state.” “ I tell people, ‘If you do anything long enough you’re going to accumulate numbers,’ and that’s what I’ve done. The other side of that is I’ve got to be the only basketball coach in the nation that’s got over 300 losses and still has a job,” he explained with laughter.
“People seem to forget, I didn’t do all this by myself. Everybody, from the assistant coaches, manager statistician, or announcer all have a hand in our success.”
Generations of kids have come and gone, but Waller has staying power, as the boy who never left high school. He is perpetually young, the man who could have made Dick Clark envious with a plump never-fading boyish face that exudes all the innocence of a church acolyte.
Though some tease him that he’s been around since baseball was invented, Waller cautions them to think twice about assuming his game tactics are predictable and so routine that they are his Achilles heel.
“That doesn’t work. Maybe this sounds a little ‘braggadocious,’ but I try to prepare my team in practice for anything they might see during a game.”
He knows coaches who do the same plays every year, he noted, and he knows the “styles” of others.
Like the crafty fox he is, Coach Waller leaves nothing to chance. To size-up the competition and explore vulnerable weaknesses, he does his share of undercover work.
“On winter evenings in the past I’d go out, sit in the gym and watch opponents play. I’m scouting them. I have pretty much a mental book on every team we’re gonna play. Can be difficult because some are on the other side of the bay, but I’ve got people callin’ and tellin’ me ‘this is a scouting report.’”
Serious business, this basketball. “It’s all legal, all legal,” he said with gusto.
Yet, the “winningest coach” in state history has only been able to win the state championship just once.
“The ultimate for me is winning a state champion.”
Oh, the elusive championship, so coveted, so precious, so dear.
And he’s only made it one time in half a century.
“It’s so hard, so difficult to win a state championship, there are so many good teams,” he said, making fists with both hands.
And that competitive performance is Grammy award-winning tough.
The school won the state top honor in 2002. Every game since then he continues to instill a burning desire to win, win, win.
“Some of our kids have never been in a stadium, like the one in College Park, that holds 16,000 spectators. They are overwhelmed, and I try to prepare them for that experience from day one.
“I ask them, What are you playing for? To show off to your girlfriend or parents and family? Is it about winning and having fun? Games are fun. Once it stops being fun, its work, and then you lose them. If they can be the best team of all 18 public schools on the Shore, it’s off to the playoffs for the state championship. I let them know we are really playing for something.”
With 199 public schools in Maryland, all having a basketball team, the battle to the top is tough, tough, tough.
“In Maryland, basketball is the top dog. Maryland is the No. 1 state in the nation for recruitment of basketball players by colleges. That shocks a lot of people, but it’s a fact.”
As he talked of being No. 1, his eyes closed, but Waller could see the ball of pressurized air as a magic orb, golden, glowing, embodying the pinnacle of high school basketball success in Maryland.
He can envision his stretched out arms and wide open hands with wiggling fingers reaching for the round state trophy, feeling its mysterious, magnetic force drawing him closer and closer to the championship title.
But he lives in the shadow of the Crisfield High School basketball team, the tenacious Crabbers. To date the school has landed eight state championship honors.
How is it that little old Crisfield can produce crop after crop, year after year, of top basketball talent?
Is it really something in the water or crabmeat?
That’s what makes whoever little hair Waller has on his head stand on end is when he reflects on the coveted sports super star-status of Crisfield High School.
“They have been to the state championships eight times. Count ‘em. Eight times. Eight. Eight. Eight,” he rattled.
To equal that record, it will take Waller 350 years at the current trend. Doubtful if he will have enough blow power by then to even hum “We Are the Champions.”
“I’ve only been to the mountaintop once, but we have been in the state (qualifying) basketball tournaments the second most times of any school in the state. Been there 27 times I think”.
Oh, so close, yet so far away.
Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.
Well, just once in more than half a century.
In school history, the Indians have been to the championship games 27 times, or “appearances,” as Waller called it. Only Annapolis High School has more, topping the Wi-Hi record by just one game.
Try as he might, Waller can’t quite conceal a subtle flinch and a quick eye tick as he struggles to come to terms with the mystique that is The Crabbers.
“Crisfield is a basketball town. They’ve had some really terrific coaches going back to the 1950s. The kids in that town that are talented and gifted play basketball,” he confessed.
Even off the court, it’s sometimes hard for Waller to escape the enigma that is the Crisfield Crabbers.
“Sometimes some players hate school. Basketball is the only thread to keep them going. One time one of my kids got in trouble and the mother asked me if I’d go to court and say something on behalf of the boy.
“I walked up to the bench and the judge asked me if I was Coach Waller, and I admitted I was guilty. He put his glasses down and said, “You know, in 1972 I was a start for Crisfield High School. And we had a better team than you had and you came down there and you beat us in the last second of that game.’ He was pretty stern. I said, ‘Well judge, all I know to tell you is that sometimes an ugly victory is better that a pretty loss.’ ”
“Basketball is almost a religion on the Eastern Shore,” he said. “You take a little town like Crisfield that has the oldest gym around, like one back to the ‘40s or ‘50s. They got a great vintage gym. I really like going down there. It’s got a great warm feeling to it. And their fans in the stands are, well, voracious about basketball. They just love it. We’ve had some terrific games with the,” he reflected.
“Dealing with Crisfield is an experience. It’s a feeling you get, like the feeling captured in the movie Hoosiers. Here they are, right on the water, like a separate country. And you walk in there and they got eight state championship banners. Eight.,” he said again, pausing as his voice trailed off to a whisper of almost hallowed admiration. “Eight state championships. Eight. Crisfield is tough,” he recounted.
For the Indians and Waller, it’s been 27 climbs to the mountain, but only one dizzying trip to the summit.
For competing coaches, envious of Waller’s eternal youth and “hanging in there” power, there is a bit of sweet revenge when they hear kids tell each other “he taught my grandfather.”
Waller is OK with the good ribbing. He laughs at the suggestion that a “Butch Waller Wheelchair Ramp” may be installed at his school’s gym, or that the other team’s coach, could watch Waller doze off in the middle of a game and even forget why he’s where he is when the buzzer wakes him.
“I think Roosevelt was president when I started teaching,” he said, jokingly.
He does laugh when he’s reminded that some of his first players are now collecting society security. “Every now and then I get a player who says. ‘You taught my grandfather,’ I cut em off. ‘That’s far enough.’
“I do have some of their grandfathers pictures in my office and only one of me when I played baseball, football and basketball. When today’s kids see the picture, they look at me and ask, ‘You had hair?’ ”
Truth is, the last time he had a full head of hair growing lush and rampant was as a teenager.
Waller was playing school football when one of his team mates told him his hair was receding.
“Man, I didn’t like that. Went home, looked in a mirror and said to myself, ‘Damn, my hair is receding.’ I was about 16. So I started putting Noxema on and Jergen’s lotion, sure the hair would come back.
“Well, it didn’t come back. One night when I was dating Sandy, who I married, I took her home and was standing on the porch saying goodbye. It was a full moon that night, and it was behind me. I noticed she wasn’t looking at me, ‘cause I was trying to sneak a kiss. She was looking at the top of my head.
“I said, ‘What are you looking at?’ She said, ‘You’re losing your hair.’ The glow from the moon was shining right off the top of my head.’ My mousy-brown hair was goin’ fast. But there wasn’t nothing I could do about it. It bothered me as a teenager ‘cause everybody else had hair. Elvis was coming on board and he had lots of hair. It was all about hair then.”
What can an almost bald teenager do? He resigned himself to the cards Destiny dealt him. Fortunately, from ear to ear, he has a narrow band of hair left.
Waller noted he was going to the barber later in the day, to get a haircut. “I think I’m going to have them all cut,” he said laughing about the few dozen strands of Santa Clause-white hair that edges a narrow line from side to side of head.
He does become irritated with Father Time. Sure, losing his hair when he was in high school was an tough enough, but having to buy drugstore “peepers” so he could read the small print, after 40, irritated him, too. Now there’s a little problem with hearing, “It’s going south,” he said, as he slides toward his century-old life milestone. “You spend 50 some years in a gymnasium with bells and whistles, chainsaws and lawnmowers. I never did the earmuff thing. I thought I was invincible.
“I don’t pay any attention to getting older, or to aches and pains. I don’t hang around with moaning and groaning old people.”
As the years pass, more and more people get to know him, and remember him because of his satin-finish dome and his name. There aren’t many Butchs around these days
So, how did he become Butch?
To all the world he is Butch. Except to one person.
““The day I was born my sister Pat, who was five, went up to the hospital to see me and my mother said, ‘What do you think Pat?’ And she said, ‘He looks like a Butch.’ And that’s how I got my name. The name my parents laid on me was William Howard Waller Jr. Only one person calls me Howard — John Porter — and I don’t know why.”
Coach Butch has been waiting day after day for months, waiting to hear what would become of the school’s basketball season.
The changes Covid-19 forced upon the lifestyle of the nation has also disrupted traditional operating rules at Wicomico High School.
“For 55 years, I’ve been going in and out of that school like I go in an out of my house,” he said. Because of the pandemic, the mechanical locks were changed over to electronic security systems. With the swipe of a card now as all metal keys disappeared. But the new system keeps an eye on the coming and goings of staff for better medical biosecurity. The school is uncomfortably quiet and some staff and students stay at home.
“I was in that school every day, doin’ something, especially during basketball season getting ready. During basketball season I was in there eight days a week.”
Basketball was supposed to start Dec. 7, he said.
This has been an odd year personally and professionally for Waller.
“What has really thrown me for a loop, changed my life, is the lack of routine at school with the modified basketball season because of Covid-19,” he said.
Then there was Waller’s extensive rotator cuff shoulder surgery that grounded the bird of paradise. Originally schedule for Thanksgiving Eve, it was suddenly canceled and Waller instead found himself going into surgery Dec. 2
“I’m gonna be up to coaching in seven days,” was his original take on the situation. Reality mandated he recuperate for several weeks.
For six weeks he has been wearing a specialized sling. “Not your World War I version,” he added. He lives on edge that someone would bump into his arms causing all sorts of pain and problems. But once off the injured list, “I’m going to run the show.”
“Oh yes, Butch is hard-headed. He’ll try to run the show,” said his sister Pat Ellison, 85, on Mount Vernon.
The coach is fidgety, excited to get back to get back to the court. It’s his life.
He reflected on how his sport’s life developed.
“I’m hired on a contract basis as a basketball coach. “I was the first non-administrative athletic director in Wicomico County. “Back in the day” he said, “Wicomico County school vice principals also handled athletic programs, whether they wanted too or not.“ When I first started teaching here in 1966, physical education teachers were required to coach a minimum of two sports — and there was no pay. You got paid for classroom teaching but no pay involving sports.
“When the decision was made to hire someone to be the first athletic director, I jumped at it. I wanted to do tall three — baseball, basketball and golf in the fall. Then it was golf early in the fall, then basketball and by spring, baseball. Don’t teach golf anymore, did that for 30 years. I really like golf, really like the challenges of the game. I think there is a tremendous parallel between golf and life.”
He admits he’s come a long way since his lettuce days, when he worked for the cable TV company in Salisbury, climbing poles with spikes and stalling lines.
He hasn’t forgotten telling contractor George Bowers that he could drive a bulldozer (he couldn’t) to get a job building Canal Woods when he was 20. Not to mention his tour of duty as an Ocean City lifeguard, and a race track employee.
He found himself attending East Tennessee State University in 1958. Waller didn’t like it, returning to Salisbury at the end of his first year. He wanted a time off and worked with CATV, in construction and other jobs over the next year.
Then he made a decision. “I decided to go back to East Tennessee State and got involved with it. Got my bachelor’s degree, and the university offered me a job as a graduate assistant to teach to get my master’s, and I took it.
“I asked Sandy to marry me1963 while I was done there and she transferred there, too.”
While in Tennessee, Charlie Berry, then Supervisor of Physical Education and Athletics in Wicomico County, wanted Waller to come home.
“He was the closest I’ve come to knowing Vince Lombardi, he was that kind of man and legend in Wicomico. He sent me a letter saying he wanted me to come home and coach. I told him I wanted to coach football and I’d only stay one year. He said it had to be baseball. I came home and taught baseball for 11 years.
“ It was so easy, it was like stealing. The kid’s didn’t know nothin’ about the game and I’m a left-handed pitcher,” he said laughing . “We won over 250 games in 11 years. Then I started the golf program that ran that for 30 years.
“Next thing I know, I stayed for 55 years. Yep, 55 years at Wi-Hi.”
Why in the world has he stayed and stayed?
“Well, let’s get this out of the way first. It’s not the money” he said laughing. “I don’t think anyone has ever asked me before, why I do this.
“There’s just a special something about Wi-Hi that attracts me. I went to school there, and I’m a homebody. There’s no other place I’d rather be than on the Eastern Shore. I showed a lot of dedication to Wi-Hi. I was offered an opportunity to got to James M. Bennett High School, way back, to coach football. I said, “Nope, this is my high school, there is where I graduated from.’
“As corny as this sounds, the school is a second home to me. I’ve been there so long and spent so many hours of my life there, even on weekends. It’s my little office, my think tank. Sometimes I come into this office until the wee hours of the morning trying to figure out what I did wrong, why we lost,” he said.
“The little office,” isn’t really the size of a telephone booth of old, but about 64-square-feet. It is true that the walls are “eclectically” covered, suggesting that a cannon, jammed packed with his sports memorabilia, exploded in the room.
Images of electrified basketball battle highlights over the decades are mixed in with snapshots of today’s court stars and personalities and photos of “kids” who might now be in their 60s.
It is here, in this out of the way room, that game play successes and failure are re-lived by Coach Waller. “Sometimes I come into this office until the wee hours of the morning trying to figure out what I did wrong, why we lost.”
Contributing to his endearing personality and winning attitude is his old-school belief that the whole deal must be centered around “the kids.”
“Each season I sit right down here and say to myself ‘Ok, these are the kids I’ve got, what do I think their capabilities are and what is my best plan for the success of those kids. It’s like a project, if the project works they get all the credit. If it doesn’t work, I get all the blame,” he said laughing. “That’s the coachin’ business. That’s how it goes.”
“The ‘Butch Waller style of playing’ sounds a little egotistical but that’s what I’ve come up by analyzing my kids and their abilities.”
Each game is an on-stage production, the cast of athletes anxious to be stars, and the memorable best performances, or at least the best performances for the evening.
And like a theatrical production, there the casts of behind the scene personalities. There’s the usual complement of three assisting coaches, four statisticians, score keeper, clock keeper and announcer. “I got to keep all that straight. There’s a lot to it.”
Before each season Waller drafts schedule dates and times and makes sure the package is professional-looking and promptly mailed. “I guess 30-percent of our audience are adults who simply like the game of basketball and like the way we play.”
Waller paused a moment, reflecting on the loyalists among the supportive spectators. There are two people who have seldom failed to show at a home game for 30 years.
The coach loses his smile and emotion fills his eyes. Win or lose, he knows, game after game after game, that Mr. and Mrs. Doris and Paul Butler are in the bleachers. They stand invisibly shoulder to shoulder with him, hometown friends who still come to the games despite their two sons, Brian and Paul, having graduated from the court years ago. Seeing them in the crowd means the stars in the basketball universe are once more in perfect alignment to favor his team.
Once the game starts, Waller, ever the director of the show, works hard to make sure he can showcase the talents of each player. “There are only four eight-minute quarters. That’s a challenge for me coaching, trying to give everybody some quality time and everybody wants to play. And the coach makes the determination of ‘who’s better than who.’ ”
As the game heats up, there are occasions when some play calls by the referee don’t set well with him.
He works, no struggles, sometimes to keep his cool, lest he set an embarrassing example of poor sportsmanship to the team and spectators.
“If you act like an idiot, romping and stomping, the fans will feed off that and worse the team will act that way. There’s a lot of responsibility being a school coach when you step onto that court.
“I am very conscious of what my behavior is in that gym. If we got a packed house and I go ballistic, they’re going ballistic. Crowd logic would be ‘If the coach can do it, we can do it.’ If I start yelling at the ref and hootin’ and hollerin,’ this, that and the other, the crowd is going to do the same. I’m not only responsible for my team and the game, I’m responsible, for some degree, for the behavior of those people in the stands. Sure, on the outside I’m cool, calm and collected, but on the inside, I’m churning butter.
“Sometimes when the crowd gets heated I turn to them and motion for them to settle down. They throw something at me and we move on,” he laughed.
“I can get a little ‘vociferous’ if the situation calls for it. My general demeanor is outgoing, I’m quiet when things aren’t going well for me. But I learned the hard way, a long time ago, ‘ A closed mouth shows a wise mind.’
“It’s a sports game, but in high school it’s yet another classroom, part of the big picture to help kids succeed. We get wrapped up in what we are doing as coaches and players, but there’s a whole world out there beyond the basketball court. A high percentage of my kids have gone on to be successful and that’s important to me. It makes me feel good.”
He loves to win, but his “kids” have always come first in priorities, he explained. “I never want any of my kids to feel like they are a nobody.”
Few people, teenagers or senior citizens, ever forget the awkward, embarrassing, even degrading position, on being last to be selected during the choosing members for a team.
Waller is very much aware of that demoralizing experience. Even the kids who make the team have a pecking order. Waller strives to make sure the kid with the least skill, has an equal opportunity to develop and
It is a matter that must be handled delicately, fairly, and sensitively. That kid on the team who isn’t the best player, he said, needs to feel included and respected.
“I have to be careful how I put my teams together, but sometimes I’ve had teams where several players were always unifying the team. Other teams were, for whatever reason, didn’t ‘come together’ and that’s not much fun. Chemistry,” he said, “is everything.”
“I’ve been coaching all my life so I must have a little bit of talent for it,” he laughed .“Best part about my job is working with the kids and the neat people I’ve met through it.”
One key to success — be organized, structured.
Waller’s success may very well lay in being so old-school, so traditional in his concept of what a good sports and personable relationship should be between students. His life is governed by old-time Eastern Shore character and sportsmanship.
Coaching has made him happy, but this job isn’t what he wanted growing up.
“I wanted to be a physician,” he said, “always wanted to do something to help people. I still think about it. What better calling is their in life than to be a doctor and help people?’”
When I was in college, I got a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree after six years, but I had to get out and make money to support my family.”
“But in my small little way, I’m helping people.”
“If your profession is your passion, you don’t have a ‘job.’ I love my work. When people retire, what do they retire too? I guess this is my retirement job. I sure don’t see myself, as long as my health holds out, retiring from basketball. I think I’m still doin’ a halfway decent job.I love the game, love putting a product out their and compare it to others. Whenever I get involved in anything. I try to do the best I can do.”
With Covid and surgery clipping his wings for a while, the widower adjusting to the demands of household chores in the “bachelor house,” he adapted yard art as clothes lines for laundry, neglecting routine dusting and perhaps other subtleties of household routines.
“I really didn’t understand what it was like running a house. My late wife, Sandy, did it all, and looking back, I don’t know how she did it for 57 years. She handled everything, everything. All I did was go to work.”
The loss of his wife 2018 ago and the new lifestyle in the Covid era has made him focus a little more on ‘what is life all about.
He finds life lessons even in his back yard.
Waller is content to watch a variety of birds that flock to his back yard for his daily distribution of seeds. “I think to myself, it’s a shame people can’t get along like that.”
But through it all he relies on humor. He admitted to the boredom of being house-bound. He struggles with a sweet tooth, tempted by candy. “I learned you can eat whatever you want, just don’t swallow it.
“I like being happy. Life is tough really tough now. Do things that make you happy. We all have a choice to be positive or negative in life. I choose positive. And if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re in trouble.”
What made him happy once, doesn’t now.
Waller likes being on the water and there was a time when he enjoyed hunting.
“One day I was out squirrel hunting, and said to myself, ‘you know that squirrel or rabbit is just like me, trying to survive and when I shoot it I know there’s pain involved. So I just quit. Now I don’t kill anything. Well, that’s not true. I’m not fond of mosquitoes or flies.
“I’ve always loved animals, always been tight with them. I’ve had dogs for pets all my life.”
Now its down to Teddy Bear, his 13-year-old chocolate Lab. “He’s a member of the family. When Sandy and I got married, we had chocolate, black and yellow labs. We’ve always had dogs.”
He prefers dogs over cats. “It’s like this; a dog will love you regardless, but a cat wants a resume. What kind of owner are you? When are you going to feed me?”
Pets aside, the real love in life remains sports.
“I understand why some people don’t like sports. I wouldn’t want to go to watch a ballet. I just don’t get it, but there are people who absolutely love it.
“I like music, something with a good beat, rhythm. When I come home I don’t put on sports, I put on music. I love dancing. I’m a good dancer, well, used to be,” he asserted with a broad grin.” What I’d call ‘Jitterbugging.’ I’ll make stuff up right out on the floor.”
The pride has a basis.
“My mother made sure I took ballroom dancing when it was taught up in the top floor of the Wicomico Hotel with Susan Zeigler, in the ballroom,” he said.
That Salisbury version of Dancing With the Stars background came in handy when he worked at the Diplomat Hotel in Ocean City.
“Susan came up to me and said, ‘Butch, I give dance lessons at the pool, would you do them with me? I gave dance lessons with her, didn’t have a clue what I was doing, not a clue. It sure wasn’t ballroom dancing.” He held his head high when he confessed that he liked disco.
Just why do so many generations of basketball fans love Butch Waller?
“Yeah, I sometimes wonder, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ You know, I’ve been here a long time,” he said.
Even the opposing team fans love him. “The closest I ever came to a standing ovation,” he explained, “was at Snow Hill High School.” The late Allen Miller, basketball coach at the school who laid claim to a state championship, engaged team, fans and spectators in an example of fun sportsmanship.
Miller had about 100 masks made with a life-size caricature of Waller’s head in a stick.
“When I and my team came out of the dressing room, the Snow Hill crowd held them in front of their faces yelling ‘Butch! Butch! Butch!.’ It tickled me to death. I thought it was cool. I waved and waved and waved at the crowd. Lots of fun. What a sense of humor Miller had.”
That was then, but now, he said, spectators supporting their home teams don’t recognize him, except, God bless them, those packing the bleachers at Crisfield High School.
“I hear them shouting my name, and every now and then someone yells, ‘Hey Waller! You still doin’ this? You should have died years ago,” he said with laughter. “I take it as a compliment.”