On March 17, 1965, a team of young basketball players from Ashe Central High School gathered at the gym in Glendale Springs. Although this team had come together on many different basketball courts during their time together, this occasion was very different. They had not come to play; they had come to attend a funeral. At first glance, this final gathering of the 1965 basketball season may not seem worthy of mention, but only four days earlier, this same team had accomplished a feat no sports team from Ashe County, before or since, can equal: they had won a state championship. Although that victory has come to be seen as a singular triumph, Ashe Central’s journey to a state championship is a dramatic tale of triumph and tragedy that spans six years. The Panthers’ ultimate victory was one of the most notable achievements in the history of Ashe County athletics, but the story that surrounds the trophy is one which continues to affect the lives of its participants almost 55 years after the nets were cut down.
Ashe Central’s state championship intimately involved all who participated, but their milestone basketball season began and ended with one man: Coach Wade Rose. Rose was a determined athlete, a devoted coach and educator, and was remembered by all who knew him as the driving force that turned a group of young basketball players from Ashe County into the best 2-A team in the state.
Rose was himself a native of Ashe County, growing up in the Glendale Springs community where his parents ran a small grocery store. Rose grew up playing sports and was especially enamoured with basketball. However, Rose’s adolesce was not immune to sudden tragedy. In 1955, Rose’s childhood friend and fellow basketball player, John Whelan Luke, only 17 years old, died suddenly from heart failure. To commemorate his son’s love of basketball, Luke’s father raised money to build a gym in Glendale Springs named in his son’s honor.
Like John Luke, Wade Rose was an avid basketball player. His commitment to the sport helped him land an athletic scholarship to play for Lees-Mcrae. Two years after John Luke’s unexpected death, Wade Rose, only 22 years old, graduated from Lees-Mcrae and took a job as the seventh and eighth grade basketball coach at Jefferson Elementary, the same school Rose himself had attended. He found himself in charge of a group of aspiring but inexperienced basketball players: Charlie Bowers, Roger Howell, David Bower, David Mullis, Bob Francis, Larry Cockerham, and Lanney Blevins. As middle school age students in the days before organized youth leagues, these young players had little basketball experience when they became pupils of Coach Rose. As Roger Howell recalled, “We didn’t know nothing about nothing.” However, Rose saw potential in his young team. Placing a strong emphasis on fundamentals, Rose continued coaching this core group of players as they moved from seventh to eighth grade, and as a result, the team continued to improve. Just as the cohesion between player and coach improved on the court, a strong bond began to develop off the court as well. Although Rose was himself a father, he soon adopted the team as a surrogate family. He hosted cookouts and get togethers at his home, not only for the basketball players, but also the cheerleaders and other students at Jefferson Elementary. While his players spent time at Rose’s home, he continued to exert his influence to promote positive growth in character. Like a college or professional coach, Rose saw success on the court as an outgrowth of personal discipline off the court and stressed the importance of responsibility. He encouraged his young players to modify their diet and required them to be in bed early on nights before games. Given their close relationship, Rose’s players worked to live up to their coach’s expectations and continued to become more disciplined in their outlook.
Soon, however, the boys would move to Ashe Central High School and away from Coach Rose’s influence. At that time, Ashe Central’s basketball coaches had been from outside the county and had served only brief tenures. Bucky Waters, a native of New Jersey, had coached at Ashe Central soon after the school’s opening. However, he departed after only one season. Waters would later go on to be the head coach for West Virginia University and Duke University’s basketball teams. He was replaced at Ashe Central by Charles Moir, from Francisco, North Carolina, who would also quickly depart, ultimately becoming head coach for both Tulane and Virginia Tech’s basketball teams. Determined to stay with the team to whom he had become so committed, Rose applied to replace Moir. Coach Rose promised that if he did succeed in becoming the new head coach for the varsity team he could accomplish what his distinguished predecessors could not: Ashe Central would win a state championship. The decision was soon made, and 23 year old Rose was hired as the new head coach for Ashe Central High School and moved up, along with his team.
Each year afterwards the team gradually improved. David Mullis had left the team after their eighth grade year to move to Texas, but the remainder of Rose’s seventh grade basketball team continued to grow as he coached them throughout high school. Rose maintained his drive and discipline on the court, while continuing a strong relationship with his team off the court. Determined to succeed, Rose led his players with a level of commitment more reminiscent of a college coach. Along with their sleep and dietary restrictions, he demanded a suit and tie be worn on game day, and he held all players to these rigorous standards as a prerequisite for playing time. By the end of their junior year, Rose had molded his team into one of the best in the conference. However, winning the state champion title, which had eluded all Ashe County sport teams prior to that point, was still an uncertainty. If Coach Rose and the team he had cultivated were to fulfill the ambitious goal they had set for themselves six years earlier, they would have to do it in 1965.