RICHLANDS, Va. — Basketball and Richlands have long been productive mix for Fred Phillips.
That will continue, only now Phillips will be in charge of a program that is still looking for its first regional boys basketball victory in school history.
"That is hard to believe," said Phillips, who is the new boys basketball coach at Richlands. "Obviously that is going to be one of our goals is to have a winning record and try to get that monkey off our back and win a region game in the near future."
A team that returns five starters, much of its bench and has even picked up a talented transfer should have expectations.
They will, and Phillips knows it.
"We should be (good) on paper, but you know how that is, you don’t play the game on paper," Phillips said. "You have still got to get out there and play the game and don’t get caught up in the hype.
"Everyone is going to have to know their role and play hard and play for each other and play for the community."
The recreation director in Richlands was chosen early last week to replace Jody Fuller, who was relieved of his duties earlier this summer. Phillips, who was an assistant for Fuller, was also ousted, but was told he could reapply. He did, and was notified of the decision last Tuesday.
"It was just unexpectedly came open, for what reason I don’t know," Phillips said. "I have always had a love for Richlands High School and for coaching."
He knows basketball. Phillips scored more than 1,000 points for Richlands, eclipsed the 1,400 mark at Bluefield College, and spent a year overseas playing hoops in Russia, Norway and Sweden.
Coaching has been in his blood. He started as a 23-year-old assistant coach and teacher with Tom Rife at Richlands, and also spent six seasons as head coach of the girls team when games were played in the fall.
He has also been an assistant for Jimmy McGee and Fuller, and has served an AAU coach for the current collection of players, including his son, Luke, who a talented junior starter for the Blues.
"I have been coaching for 26 years, I am a top 10 scorer at Richlands High School, I am a top 10 scorer at Bluefield College, I broke a thousand (points) at both places," Phillips said. "I went across seas and played semi-pro ball, I have coached an AAU national championship. I won a (AAU) state championship. I think my first year coaching the girls we won 25 games, I have a little bit of a resume."
Definitely. He has talented team waiting for him, although due to the lack of a coach, they were unable to attend any summer camps, and just began open gym sessions early this week.
"I can’t control what has happened in the past, I can just move forward," Phillips said. "We are behind the 8-ball, we haven’t done no work and all these other schools have been to camps, open gyms and stuff like that."
He inherits a team has five juniors, four of whom have started the last two seasons, and another might have if not for injury. They have a deep bench, and have added River View transfer Cody Howie, a talented athlete on the court and the gridiron.
"I am excited, they are a good team, they are still young, we have got almost all of them back, five starters back," said Phillips, who coached the majority of the current roster to an AAU national and state championship two years ago. We just need to develop a bench, and we have a transfer in from River View...
“The JV program should be pretty good, the middle school program should be pretty good, the rec league, Richlands has got quite an abundance of basketball players right now."
That is good news for a town that lives for football. Phillips knows there is no reason why the Blues can't be proficient in other sports, as the girls basketball team recently proved with three straight trips to the state tournament.
"Basketball has been my life, I was born very poor, there was no way that I would have went to college," said Phillips, who graduated from Bluefield College in 1988. "My family just couldn’t afford it, but I went to Bluefield College on a basketball scholarship.
"Then I went across seas, a small guy from Richlands, Virginia born up there on the Clinch River, went to Russia and played basketball, and then got to be the head basketball coach at Richlands High School boys.
"Basketball has been good to me, that is my gift that I can give back because I am knowledgeable of the game."
As an recreation director in Richlands, Phillips knows just about kid in town.
"I am visible, at the pool we have 150 to 200 kids there every day...," said Phillips, who is married to his high school sweetheart, Jeannie, who is a guidance counselor in the school system, and they have two children, including Luke and a daughter in middle school. "Kids are our lives."
While Fuller said part of the reason for his dismissal was perceived favoritism toward his son, Cody, Phillips will quickly nip any similar thoughts from the conversation in relation to Luke.
"There are probably a lot of people glad that I did get it, just someone in-house," said Phillips, whose Blue Tornado were 10-15 last season, against a brutal schedule that included three one-point defeats. "Luke knows that I am always harder on him than anybody because as a coach's son you expect more."
He has other expectations for the entire program. Much like Greg Mance has developed the football team into the pride of Richlands, Phillips wants the basketball team to be seen the same way.
"That is going to be a big thing of mine, it is going to be the community’s team, that is how Greg has had so much success, community involvement," said Phillips, who is still looking for an assistant, while baseball coach Blake Robbers will serve as the JV coach for the Blues.
"It is the town of Richlands’ team and they need to start playing for their community and for one another and try to get everything back on track going forward and moving on."
Expectations will be high for the Blues, who could be the favorite in the Southern Empire Conference where many schools suffered significant losses to graduation.
Just expect these Blues to do the best they can, and possibly even get that elusive regional win.
"I am the recreational director for the town of Richlands and now I am the head basketball coach and the only thing I can do is do my best for the community and for the school and for the student-athletes," Phillips said. "We are going to move forward and try to keep everything going straight and give it a shot and see what happens."