Jimmy Guy McDonald was a quick learner.
During his first season as a head basketball coach, in 1971, his Houlka boys and girls teams took on Ingomar, which also had a first-year coach – Norris Ashley. It did not go well for Houlka.
“He realized that maybe Union County basketball might be a step or two ahead of him,” Ashley said on Wednesday. “So he wanted to play Union County schools so he could learn the Union County basketball style – fundamentally sound, man-to-man defense. He wanted to learn that, and he did, and mastered it. He won state championships by doing that.”
McDonald, who spent most of his 49-year coaching career at Houlka, died on Wednesday at age 71.
He leaves behind a legacy defined not only by winning, but by being a friend.
Ashley, who retired from Ingomar in 2013 with nine state titles to his credit, recently saw McDonald.
“I was at Health and Rehab in Pontotoc a couple of months ago, and I was getting ready to get out, and Jimmy Guy came by, and I visited with him for an hour or two. It was really great to see him,” Ashley said.
McDonald retired following the 2017-18 season. He spent most of his career at Houlka, where he won three state championships and a Grand Slam title. He won a total of 1,772 games – 906 coaching girls, 866 with boys.
Even after retirement, McDonald was a regular presence at area gyms. He attended Houlka’s game against Calhoun City on Tuesday night.
“It’s really not going to be the same, especially going to Houlka without seeing him there,” South Pontotoc girls coach Bill Russell said. “We played there this year, and he was sitting over there on the other side.”
Russell played against McDonald’s teams at South Pontotoc, and he later coached against him during his 20-year tenure at Pontotoc. One of Russell’s favorite memories of McDonald still gives him a chuckle.
“A funny thing that I remember when I was coaching against him, we were playing him one night and he got a technical. We had the ‘seat belt’ rule then, where you had to sit down,” Russell said. “He sent a manager into his office and got a rolling chair, and he sat on that rolling chair and rolled up and down the sideline. I won’t ever forget that.”
Current Houlka coach Seth Burt, who played on the Wildcats’ 2000 state championship team, said McDonald had a huge impact on a lot of people.
“I was lucky enough, I got to play for him when I was in high school, and I got to coach under him, and then take over for him,” Burt said. “I’ll never be able to put into words exactly what he meant to me. He’s had as big an impact on my life outside of my family as somebody could have.”
McDonald began coaching at his alma mater in 1969 and was a mainstay there until 1991, when he left to coach boys basketball and baseball at Kossuth. McDonald returned home in 1995.
After taking over Houlka’s varsity squads in 1971, McDonald quickly found success. The boys reached North half in 1973, and the 1975 girls team went 39-2 and beat a much taller East Kemper team in the Class B state championship game.
The Wildcattes went on to defeat Pontotoc for the Grand Slam overall title.
Houlka won state again two years later.
“Legend is not something you want to toss around lightly, but he is truly one of those coaching legends in the entire state,” Burt said. “You mention Houlka, and the first thing that comes to people’s minds is basketball and Jimmy Guy McDonald.”
In all, McDonald took his teams to the state tournament in Jackson 22 times, including in his final season, when the boys reached the Class 1A semifinals.
“I know I’m doing what the Lord put me on the earth to do,” McDonald said in an interview during his final season. “Or I couldn’t have done it this long, or I couldn’t have been this healthy. I couldn’t have been blessed with good players here over the years.”
McDonald also excelled as a baseball coach, leading Houlka to a state title in 1973.
He was respected not only by coaches and players, but by officials, too. Dickie Miller praised McDonald’s professionalism.
“In 42 years of officiating high school athletics I never dealt with a more professional person at any level,” Miller said. “He always had on a starched shirt and tie. He knew his coaching and he knew the rules. He expected the officials to know them as well. …
“He never brought up old business when you saw him the next time. He was missed when he retired, and he will be missed even more now.”
There will be a visitation for McDonald from 4-7 p.m. Friday at Houlka Baptist Church. The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Saturday in the Houlka gym, with visitation at 10 a.m.
McDonald is survived by his wife of 43 years, Debbie; two children, Bradley and Jill; and two sisters, Bonnie Sappington and Vicki Homan.