Salute to Bill Armstrong

Legendary boys basketball coach mostly known for years at Compton who was first to reach 600 all-time wins dies at age 85

Services were held on Saturday in Belle, W.Va., for Bill Armstrong, one of the most legendary coaching figures in California high school sports history.

Armstrong, 85, died on Saturday, Jan. 4. The West Virginia native built a dynasty at Compton High in the late 1960s and became close to John Wooden, the UCLA coach at the time.

When he retired in 1986 after coaching for 15 seasons at Palm Springs High, Armstrong was credited with 847 victories. Research later showed that some of the victories were at the JV level and the varsity total was corrected to 650. Still, he was the first coach in California to reach 600 career wins.

Armstrong's first coaching job was at Barstow, beginning in 1944. He coached there until 1949, then had stops at Lone Pine, Delano and Hart of Newhall.

Compton became Armstrong's home school in 1958 and it was during his 14 seasons there in which he became legendary. Armstrong's 1961 team went 28-3 and is the 1961 State Team of the Year. Compton was even better in 1968 and 1969 with records of 32-0 and 30-0 and two more No. 1 state finishes.

The win streak didn't last long into the 1969-70 season, but Compton's total of 66 straight wins was good enough to break the state record of 65 set in 1960 by McClymonds of Oakland and that record is still No. 1 on the all-time state list. McClymonds' streak does not include three wins in abbreviated games at a tourney in Redding.

After the 1971-72 season, Armstrong left Compton and took a job in Palm Springs. He stayed there until his retirement in 1986.

Armstrong ended his career with six CIF Southern Section championships and in 1997 was included as a charter member of the first California High School Sports Hall of Fame, a major staple of the Cal-Hi Sports Record Book & Almanac.

Armstrong is currently listed as the sixth winningest coach in state history. The only coaches higher are Lou Cvijanovich from Santa Clara of Oxnard (829), Mike Phelps from Bishop O'Dowd of Oakland (824), Abe Abrami from Emery of Emeryville (802), Frank LaPorte from St. Joseph of Alameda (735) and Willie West from Crenshaw of Los Angeles (700+).

Larry Hollyfield (UCLA) and Louis Nelson (Washington) were the two top basketball players who came from Compton under Armstrong's tutelage. He also coached noteworthy athletes who went on to star in other sports, including Reynaldo Brown (track), Roy Jefferson (football) and Marv Fleming (football).

One of Armstrong's trademarks was to carry a big, red apple in his pocket, then pull it out and take big bite out of it when he felt the win was safe.

"The fans went beserk, because they knew they were about to win the game," said Rev. Dr. William C. "Bill" Ellis, a former player of Armstrong's and a nationally-syndicated columnist and speaker. "He didn't allow any disrespect for anybody, and he did more X-ing and O-ing than any guy I guess who ever lived. They called him the John Wooden of high school basketball in California."

Not a bad company to be in, indeed.

Note: Some of the information in this story was obtained from the Charleston Gazette of Charleston, W.Va.

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