Even in his final fading days — his very last hours — Ralph Underhill was still coaching.
After undergoing a long-awaited kidney transplant three weeks ago at Cincinnati’s Christ Hospital, Wright State’s Hall of Fame basketball coach had a couple of days of improvement before his condition suddenly deteriorated.
Internal bleeding forced doctors to temporarily put him into a medically-induced coma. Then came pneumonia, a blood virus, a blood clot in his already partially-amputated left leg and a stroke.
And through it all he fought the only way he knew how.
“Dad literally coached himself through all this, even in his delirium,” said his daughter, Kim Pluess of Centerville. “He was like coaching a game. He was kind of hallucinating, but he was like, ‘Oh, we got this.’... ‘Oh my God, look at these guys coming in — they’re big! We’re gonna have to run them hard. It’s the only way we’re gonna win tonight.’
“He was talking about putting (former Raider) Steve Purcell in and he was talking to Bob Grote (his former assistant coach). He was naming names, calling plays. And when he was in such pain, he’d say, ‘Alright I got this. We’re gonna win it.’ He just kept doing it hour after hour. He was a coach right to the very end.”
The 70-year-old Underhill died at 2 a.m. Friday with his two daughters, two sisters and his girlfriend gathered around his hospital bed.
A half an hour before her dad passed away, Kim said he opened his eyes: “He had them closed for days and he’d been unresponsive. But when he opened them, he just kind of tracked us. It was like he was trying to say, ‘All my girls are here and I love you.’ ”
Both daughters knew that.
“He’s been such a trooper, such a fighter, this just breaks my heart,” his daughter, Melinda, said. “He wanted to live so bad. He loved us so much that he went through everything he could possibly go through to stay with us.”
Finally, though Kim said they told him: “ ‘Dad, don’t be afraid to let go now. You fought as hard as you could. You showed your true spirit. You won.’ ”
As word spread to his former players and assistant coaches, one common thread in their remembrances was of Underhill’s spirit.
“Ralph was just larger than life,” said Grote.
Jim Brown, the current Northmont High coach who was the top Raider assistant during Underhill’s 18-year career at WSU, agreed, but said such magnification also made for miscalculation: “A lot of people misunderstood Ralph. They thought he was really flamboyant, but if you got him off the court he was just a humble, ordinary guy.”
On the basketball floor, though, he was extraordinary.
In his 18 Wright State seasons, he won 356 games, a Division II national title and led the Raiders to their first-ever D-I NCAA tournament.
Before coming to WSU, he was a successful prep coach in Kentucky and then was a heralded assistant coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which also won a national title when he was there.
After he was fired from Wright State over an alleged theft of a bottle of vitamins from a Meijer store — an incident I and many others believe was innocent forgetfulness — Underhill coached in Croatia and for a minor league pro team in Northern Kentucky and soon found himself back in the embrace of WSU, which honored him on various occasions.
“He built the foundation of basketball at Wright State,” said former University of Dayton coaching legend Don Donoher. “I had a nice relationship with him and I have great respect for the job he did out there.”
After John Ross and Brown successfully launched basketball at WSU, the program floundered for three seasons when Ross retired. That’s when Underhill — with his Afro and his demonstrative on-court style — took over in 1978 and the program was electrified.
“He had an aura about him,” said former Raiders point guard Lenny Lyons.
“He was the right guy at the right time,” said Grote. “He brought so much excitement from the way we played to the success we had. Going to a game at the old P.E. Building was a lot of fun.”
And that success got the Nutter Center built, said Brown: “You can’t underplay what that building has meant to the university. It escalated the visibility the school got regionally, even nationally. It did more to promote Wright State than anything except academics. And it never would have been built were it not for basketball.”
While Underhill’s teams were often known for their helter skelter style of play — “planned chaos,” Grote called it — Brown said it was an uncharacteristic slow down that showed “what a great bench coach” Ralph was:
“We were playing the University of District of Columbia in the national title game and we were heavy underdogs. But with 12 minutes left we were up maybe four points. That’s when Ralph turns to me and says, ‘I’m going into a delay game.’ Well, it’s something we never did and I said, ‘There’s 12 minutes left, we can’t do that.’
“A couple of minutes later he turns to me again and says, ‘Dammit, we’re going into a delay.’ This was before the shot clock and we totally froze it. The other team panicked. They kept fouling us and we won by 19. Ralph showed tremendous confidence in himself and his players to call that and in hindsight, it was a brilliant decision.”
Underhill also was known as something of a Pied Piper when it came to recruiting, whether it was landing players from Europe, inner cities or the Midwest farmlands.
“Rondey Robinson came to us out of Compton Community College in California, but he was from the South Side of Chicago.” Grote said “We had him in for a visit, then he went back to Chicago for spring break before returning to Compton.
“We had offered a scholarship, but just a few hours before his plane was to leave, we still hadn’t gotten any written commitment from him.
“I hurried over to Ralph and said, ‘We’ve got to go to Chicago now.’ It was 3 p.m. and Rondey was scheduled to fly out at 8. Well, I drove like a bat out of hell and Ralph jumped out of the car in the front of the airport and began running to find his plane.”
When they couldn’t find Rondey, Underhill told Grote they were headed to the projects behind Comiskey Park where Robinson lived.
“We stopped for directions and the guy told us we were crazy to go in there at night, but Ralph led the way up about 15 flights of Rondey’s high rise,” Grote said. “We spent two hours talking to Rondey’s parents and afterward his dad said, ‘Any coach that would do what you did for my son, he’s not going anywhere else.’
“We got him, but then on the way home we were exhausted, so we pulled into a motel in Merrillville, Indiana. We had to ask them for toothpaste, deodorant, even a comb. We had nothing, not even a change of clothes. We left that quickly.”
Once Underhill amassed all these players, he was demanding on the court and when the team fell short, well, Lyons said, sometimes there were consequences.
“We went to New York and got beat by some team we shouldn’t have and as you’d expect, we got read the riot act,” he laughed. “That night we were supposed to go out to a big dinner, but instead we had to eat at a McDonald’s. And half the team ended up getting food poisoning.
“The coaches did not. They didn’t eat there, so they were just fine. And right at that point I realized ... winning does make a difference.”
With Ralph Underhill it always did.
That’s why he always coached so hard — right up to the end.