Former Lawrence High coach Bill Freeman dies at age 84

In this file photo from June 2005, former Lawrence High football and track coach Bill Freeman, front, visits with a former player during a celebration in honor of his induction into the Kansas State High School Activities Association Hall of Fame.

Legendary Lawrence High coach Bill Freeman — who led the Lions to five state football championships and also to two state track crowns — died on Friday at the age of 84.

Freeman, who had battled Alzheimer’s since 2012, passed at 2:15 a.m. at the Life Center of Burlington, where he was under hospice care. Freeman’s funeral will be at 2 p.m. Monday at First Christian Church in LeRoy. In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorials be made to the Southern Coffey County High School athletic department or the Alzheimer’s Association.

“Our family greatly appreciates everyone’s thoughts and prayers during this very difficult time. My dad has touched so many lives on & off the football field! He is a true champion in every way!” Freeman’s daughter, Jennifer Freeman Nauertc, wrote on her Facebook page.

Lawrence High football coach Bill Freeman

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 included stops at Baxter Springs, Parker Rural and Nickerson.

Freeman, who was inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2014 and is 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.

In a 16-year stint at LHS, his Lions went 134-38. The Lions played in 10 consecutive Class 6A championship games from 1986-95, the first four with Freeman as head coach. Freeman’s LHS football squads won titles in 1979, ’84, ’86, ’87 and ’89. His track teams won state in 1989 and 1990.

“I’ll paraphrase Jackie Robinson’s tombstone: ‘Life is meaningless except how it impacts others.’ If you judge coach Freeman’s life by that criteria, he was one of the best, considering all the people he impacted,” said former Lawrence High and Kansas University lineman Chip Budde, a member of LHS’ 1984 state title team.

“He was a fantastic coach. You look at his record … he got more out of guys than they thought they were able to give, a lot because he was so irritating,” Budde added of Freeman, who was known as somebody who pushed his players hard to succeed. “He was a team coach. He put a team on the field, not just a collection of athletes,” added Budde, a partner in the BSA Marketing Agency in Wichita.

Many tributes

Tributes to Renaissance Man Freeman — he owned a farm in LeRoy where he also was owner of a bank and mayor of the town — were easily gathered on Friday by the Journal-World both via phone call and e-mail.

“Today I was pondering some of coach Freeman’s talks and inspiration. What coach was, was a farmer. The seed he planted in our lives … the seeds would last a lifetime,” said former LHS running back Steve Barbee, program coordinator at Metro Lutheran Ministries in Kansas City, Missouri, and also a minister who sometimes preaches at Victory Bible Church in Lawrence.

“Some of his sayings have been words of inspiration to carry me. Coach said, ‘Boys, for sure the sun will rise tomorrow.’ He meant regardless of whether we win or lose, give your best. If we win the sun will rise. If we lose the sun will rise. They were short and sweet and had a profound impact on my life,” added Barbee.

Freeman actually may have enjoyed track and field even more than football.

One of his top performers at LHS was multi state meet gold medalist David Johnston, who is now vice president of marketing and Internet services for the KU Alumni Association.

Johnston reflected on squeaky-voiced Freeman’s favorite sayings.

“Everyone will tell you about the special terms coach Freeman used with his athletes, whether football or track. Examples will undoubtedly include: ‘Geetus.’ Either you have ‘geetus’ or you don’t. Most of us didn’t, but we needed it,” Johnston cracked.

“‘Satisfied.’ Most of us were satisfied, which kept us from being great. ‘Coachable.’ We all strived to be coachable, and at some point, none of us were. I’m sure others have far better tales of ‘Freemanisms,’ endearing if not maddening expressions from coach intended to educate and encourage us.

“Coach sounded (and looked, for that matter) remarkably like Lou Holtz, which made him a constant target for imitation,” Johnston added. “Inevitably, these ‘Freemanisms’ became a staple of our (team members) impressions.”

“I’ll show him”

Freeman pushed his football players and tracksters physically and mentally.

“The most dreaded part of any track meet was not your event. It was the one-on-one talk with coach Freeman after your event,” Johnston said. “I found these chats infuriating, because no matter how well I performed — whether a victory, a personal record, a state qualifier — something didn’t go quite right. Something could have been done better, if only I had listened. This little bit of coaching psychology was lost on me at the time and always left me saying, ‘I’ll show him.’ Which I did. And yet I never learned. We wanted to win for each other, and to please him. He was one of those coaches you appreciated more, later in life, but never as much as he deserved,” Johnston added.

Of course, football at Lawrence High was bigger than track, especially when there was only one high school in town. Jeff Tryon, who is owner of Tryon Properties LC in Cary, North Carolina, played on Freeman’s first LHS team in 1974.

“My best friend, Roger Wellman (quarterback) and I (slotback) heard all kind of stories about our new coach the summer before the season started. How tough he was on conditioning and workouts. We were so freaked out that we got in the best condition we could before we met this monster,” Tryon said.

“We would run from Pleasant Hill where Roger lived down to the LHS weight room each evening, lift weights and run back to his house. This was after throwing hay during the day. I remember during two-a-day practices coach would have us at the end of each practice — run timed 880-yard runs in full pads until you ran them under a certain time.

“Needless to say there were a lot of guys throwing up, but those of us that had heard the stories only ran once,” Tryon exclaimed.

Freeman cared about his players.

“One day after the season was over he called me into his office. My hopes of a scholarship from any of the schools disappeared when I blew my shoulder out and I had just had surgery for it to stay in place,” Tryon said. “I was sitting there with a brace and a sling. He said to me, ‘Are you interested in playing college ball? You’ve got what it takes and I will start writing letters to the coaches for you if you do.”’

Tryon said he decided to give up football, but “his words to me meant the world to me. I will always be grateful for knowing and playing for him.”

Michael Coleman, sports director of KCTV5, also played on Freeman’s first LHS team.

“He instilled a foundation in believing in yourself. Coming off a 1-6 campaign after my sophomore year I was a junior when Bill Freeman took over,” Coleman said. “His discipline was sorely needed, yeah we only won three games my junior year. He didn’t quit and neither did we. My senior year LHS finally posted a winning football season and of course after that the program took off.

“It was during my first year with coach that I decided I wanted to go into sportscasting. I saw how he made a difference and wanted to be in position to share with viewers stories of coaches who had influence. Truly a great man who had a tremendous heart. My younger cousins would go on to play for him. Colemans are proud to have played for coach. Gary would become an All-American under him, me a Shrine Bowl All-Star because of what he instilled in us.”

Former LHS football lineman Kris Weidling, who played for the 1986 state title team that went 12-0, is now head of HR in the United States for Seqiris and lives in North Carolina.

“For a lot of us he set the bar on what a work ethic looked like. The best lessons were far beyond the X’s and O’s of football,” Weidling said. “He did things like driving to get the game film at the earliest possible hour so he could watch it the maximum amount of times before discussing with the team. He also drew great parallels between the football field and life. In particular I remember his placing importance of commitment by saying, ‘It all starts here on the field with your teammates. If you quit here you’ll think it’s OK to quit on your job or quit on your family.’ When we won the state title he said afterwards “So now you know what it takes. There are those who have been here before and they’ve gone on to be dogs and there have been those who have gone on to do great things. The choice is up to you.”’

Additional memories

— From Tom Williams, 1989 state pole vault champ and member of state title team, who coached college track 10 years and is in the oil and gas business in Texas: “Coach Freeman was an amazing man who touched the lives of so many, including myself. He was high on principle and doing things the right way. As one of his athletes, you could look forward to weekly if not daily lectures on working to get the most out of your ability, giving your all as well as doing your best to contribute to something much bigger than yourself. If you had him for gym class, you could count on getting the lecture twice.

“While I had achieved some degree of success individually and was among the favorites to challenge for an individual state title in track and field, coach Freeman didn’t pick favorites. You were expected to maintain a certain level of commitment, and it was a privilege, not a right, to be a member of the team.”

— From Jan-Eric Anderson, VP/Chief Strategy officer at Callahan Creek in Lawrence. He was a three-year letterman in track and field.

“Coach Freeman was head track coach my sophomore year (Spring 1990). That season was coach’s last season at Lawrence High, his second consecutive state championship in track and field. My memory of coach is of a man who expected great things to come from great effort. We had so many talented athletes on that team, and he expected them to give everything they had. He was a motivator. Coach had a way of getting you to believe you could give more and achieve more. And he had that impact on guys who were state champions in their events, as well as the guys that struggled to stay with the pack at the JV meets. He connected with everyone he coached.”

— And coming in the e-mail Saturday was a message from Ken Wang, Class of 1987 and class president of the Class of ’87:

“During my senior year, the track & field team had a handful of runners going to state as relay teams. Our results were respectable but nothing compared to other past LHS track & field teams’ results,” Wang stated.

“Afterwards, I continue my ‘athletic’ career at The University of Chicago as part of the indoor and outdoor track & field. Though the school work was hard, I still wanted to continuing running as I had enjoyed my time during high school. During my senior year, I was Captain of the track & field team.

“Toward the end of my winter quarter finals, Coach Freeman and Ms. Freeman paid me a surprise visit at Chicago. I was in the library studying alone and in his very distinct Freeman tone he yelled ‘Ken Wang! Ken Wang!’ Initially, I thought I was having some kind of hallucination or was getting overly stressed from the long hours of studying but there he was right in front of me at The University of Chicago medical school library.

“During my LHS time, I had always had a good relationship with coach Freeman and his staff and as always he treated everyone with a genuine interest, respect and compassion irrespective of one’s athletic ability. I learned a lot from him not only about running but also about life. He never compared his athletes to others but rather measure them against their potential. I truly believe he received a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment watching one of his runners achieve a PR compared to a runner ranked in the latest state rankings.

“I was a solid runner and Coach Freeman (I think) appreciate my efforts in practices and at meets.

“However, I never thought he would go out of his way after my high school graduation to see me in college as I wasn’t a state champion or in fact an exceptional high school athlete compared to my other peers.

“Later that evening, we had dinner together that night and we didn’t even talk about sports. He and Ms. Freeman just wanted to make sure that I was doing all right at school and wanted to know if he could help out while he was in Chicago. It was truly an unforgettable moment.

“I graduated from The University of Chicago with B.A. and M.B.A, and can say that my academic accomplishment was based on having some Freeman ‘getus!’

“Since then, I’ve always tried to visit Coach Freeman and Ms. Freeman whenever I am back home in Lawrence. Coach Freeman will be missed dearly, it’s really unfortunate that future generation will not get a chance to know such a kind and humble individual who truly cared about people.”

Anybody who knew Freeman or competed for him is encouraged to send memories of the man and coach to gbedore