In March of 1965, the Ashe Central Panthers boarded the bus that would take them on the final road trip of the season. For the seniors of the team, who had played together for six straight seasons, it would also be their final road trip together. When they had started together as seventh grade boys, they had known very little about basketball. But with the determined guidance of a coach who followed them all the way through their years together, they had become one of the best teams in the state. As they boarded the bus that would take them to the state playoffs, Coach Rose was present in everyone’s mind, but he would not be there to guide his team through their final games himself.
Instead, Coach Rose was at home in Glendale Springs battling life-threatening liver cancer. Coach Rose had fought against his disease for two years, determined to see his team win the state championship he had been promising them for six years. As his widow recalls, “He loved the boys; more than anything, he loved that team.”
On their way down the mountain, the team stopped the activity bus at the home of Coach Rose in Glendale Springs. They received their final encouragement from their coach and headed down the mountain for their first state playoff.
The team arrived in Winston-Salem, unaware of the severity of their coach’s illness. Although they knew he had become too ill to coach the final games of the season, they did not know that he was, in fact, fighting for his life. Charlie Bowers, Ashe Central’s point guard, recalls that the Coach’s illness spurred the players to perform better going into the championship. “We might have gotten a little complacent in the season until he got sick. When that happened, we worked harder,” Bowers recalls. Bowers also notes that the general attitude of the team going into the playoffs was that “we’re gonna win this and we’re gonna celebrate with him.”
In 1965, the seventh district, which was the home district of Ashe Central, was home to some of the best basketball teams in the state. However, this fact was sometimes lost on the Panther’s opponents from around the state, who chose to view the team as a backwater band of hillbillies. Roger Howell recalls that as the team arrived at their hotel, it was easy to see that Ashe Central didn’t fit in. He recalls that “the other three schools were already there. They had big greyhound buses with school logos, and they had blazers. . . they started giving us a hard time because we had old blue jeans on and A-club jackets. They were hollering for us to ‘get back to the sticks.’ Coach Walker wouldn’t let us say nothing. He said ‘we’ll take care of things tonight.’ And we did.”
The Panthers began “taking care of things” with a sound defeat of their first opponent, Stedman High School on March 10, 1965. The Panthers outscored Stedman three out the four quarters and ended up winning 69-55.
As the tournament wore on, Ashe Central only improved. Driven by a determination to win the championship they and Coach Rose had worked so hard for, the Panthers began to systematically dismantle their opponents. In the district seven tournament, which had preceded the state championship, the Panthers had won by several very close margins. Once they began the state championship, however, their margin of victory grew wider and wider. Havelock High School fell 90-76, moving Ashe Central into the championship game against Anson County High School, one of the same teams that had taunted the Panthers as they arrived in Winston-Salem. The Panthers would get the last laugh however, as they consistently outscored Anson, resulting in a resounding 85-68 victory.
The Panthers were state champions. They had fulfilled Coach Rose’s prophetic promise from six years earlier and accomplished something no team from Ashe County had ever done before. The team looked forward anxiously to returning to Ashe County and celebrating with Coach Rose. Immediately after the game, Morris Walker took the team bowling, but their happiness was to be short-lived. As the team returned to the hotel, they picked up a copy of the Winston-Salem Journal, looking for news about their recent victory. The headline read “Ashe Wins 2-AA Title for Dying Coach.” Suddenly, the team knew exactly how sick Coach Rose was. As Charlie Bowers recalls, “We didn’t realize he was on his deathbed.” Morris Walker called Rose’s wife to warn her about the headlines advertising her husband’s condition.
Meanwhile, back in Glendale Springs, Coach Rose was clinging to life. His illness had left him barely conscious. On the night of the state championship, he lay in his bed and listened to the radio broadcast as his team achieved the goal he had set out for them six years earlier. This triumph would be the final achievement of Rose’s life: he died less than 12 hours later.
The death of Coach Rose cast an immediate shadow over Ashe Central’s victory. They were welcomed home by a crowd of well wishers gathered at the Rancho, a small restaurant in Jefferson; however, only a few hours later they would discover that Coach Rose had died during their return trip from Winston-Salem. The team had been suddenly pulled from one the highest moments of their young lives to one of the lowest. On March 17th, they gathered on a basketball court once more, this time for Coach Rose’s funeral. Other coaches from all around the seventh district were in attendance; West Wilkes’ entire varsity team also came to show respect for Coach Rose.
The memorial service for Wade Rose was held in the John Luke Memorial gymnasium, which had been constructed a few years prior in honor of Coach Rose’s childhood friend and fellow basketball player, who had died at the age of 17. The building was the largest privately owned gymnasium in Ashe County, and the large brick structure still stands in Glendale Springs as a visible reminder of John Luke’s tragic death. Like John Luke, basketball had been a central focus of Coach Rose’s life. Also like Luke, Rose had died tragically young, never able to reach his full potential. And like Luke, Rose left behind a towering memorial. The team that Coach Rose had brought together, trained, and nurtured had achieved something that no sports team from Ashe County, before or since, has ever equaled. Several of his players used the basketball skills learned from Coach Rose to find success outside of high school: David Mullis went on to Appalachian State, where he played basketball for four years, ultimately becoming a team captain; Bob Francis went on to Duke, where he played basketball while earning a medical degree. But, no matter where they went after that fabled season, the memories of Ashe Central’s 1965 championship are still deeply felt by the surviving players and spectators. Those memories are a living reminder of Wade Rose and his faithful dedication to Ashe County and to basketball.