Legendary Lawrence High coach Bill Freeman — who led the Lions to five state football championships and also directed LHS to two state track crowns — is on the 25-person ballot for the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2014.
Freeman, who also directed Osawatomie High to two state football crowns and LeRoy to one state title, went 242-81-3 in a 36-year football coaching career that also included stops at Baxter Springs, Parker Rural and Nickerson.
Freeman, who was a 2012 recipient of the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame’s Pride of Kansas Award, has been inducted into the Emporia State Hall of Honor and the Kansas State High School Activities Association Hall of Fame. During his career, he coached five future NFL players, including KSHOF Hall of Fame inductee Lynn Dickey.
Freeman, 83, has long been mentioned as one of those individuals certain to make the Kansas Hall at some point.
But there’s a sense of urgency these days, with the ex-Lion coach battling Alzheimer’s in Burlington.
“I think it’s a very deserving honor, probably one long overdue,” said former Lawrence High assistant football coach and athletic director Ron Commons, who coached with Freeman during Freeman’s entire 16-year stint at LHS, during which the Lions went 134-38.
LHS played in 10 consecutive Class 6A championship games from 1986-95, the first four with Freeman as head coach. Freeman’s LHS squads won titles in 1979, ’84, ’86, ’87 and ’89.
“Coach Freeman is one of those people that’s probably known by his headlines in football. That being said, truly his love was in track and field where he loved all the events, knew all the state records. Even after he retired, he maintained his license to start track meets,” Commons said. “One thing about coach Freeman, he truly cared about relationships with his players. Jenny (daughter) would bring him to Lawrence to a game (after her dad’s retirement), and even though he enjoyed watching the game, his real hope was former players would come by and sit and visit with him. He loved that.”
One of Freeman’s former players, Kris Weidling of the 1986 state title team, said he hopes his former coach is inducted into the Kansas Hall this year.
“When you think of the role he played in Kansas athletics ... whether you are a player who played for him or against him or coached for him or against him, you know who coach Freeman is and what he stands for,” said Weidling, now director of human resources for Novartis in Holly Springs, N.C.
“Some of his teams at LHS were not the most gifted or talented but had the most heart. I remember in the fall of ’86, we were ranked as high as No. 18 in USA Today. Coach Freeman said, ‘We are not No. 18 in the country in talent, I’d put us there in heart.’ He said that more than once. I remember in ’86 we had nine guys playing (starting) both offense and defense. That was unheard of. We had 18 seniors on that team and went 12-0.”
Weidling added: “Coach Freeman brought Lawrence High football back (after a lull following the Al Woolard years). Growing up in Lawrence, my dream was to play for Lawrence High. You’d go to those games at Haskell Stadium on Friday nights as a kid. It was special. Coach Freeman built that culture you wanted to play Friday night lights for Lawrence High.”
Voters across the state have through the rest of this month to cast their ballots. Freeman’s daughter, Jennifer Freeman Nauertc, hopes all voters seriously consider her dad’s accomplishments. She’d love to see him get in the Kansas Hall.
“It means everything,” Nauertc said. “My dad and (former KU athletic director and LHS basketball coach) Bob Frederick were great friends. Bob didn’t get into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame until after he died from a bicycle accident. I don’t want that to be the case with my dad (who already has beaten prostate cancer and had quadruple heart bypass surgery).”
Nauertc has been touched by all the support from LHS players and family friends on her Facebook page, “Help get Coach Bill Freeman into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame.”
She offered this touching post on the webpage: “Just wanted to share a memorable moment with everyone. I went to see my dad in the nursing home last night and explained to him that he is on the ballot along with 20 other people for getting voted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame. His reaction was....a priceless ‘coach Freeman smile.’ A moment with my dad that I will never forget!” she wrote.
KU also has several individuals represented on the 2014 ballot.
They are: Tracy Bunge, a first-team All-America softball player in 1986 who also served as KU softball coach; Charlie Hoag, a member of KU’s 1952 NCAA basketball title team and two-time All-Big Eight football standout; John Levra, offensive coordinator at KU from 1975-78; and Walt Wesley, a former KU All-America basketball player who had his jersey retired at KU in 2004.