Those who were closest to Bill Probst can tell stories about the old basketball coach all day.
They remember him as a taskmaster, a character, a hard-but-fair man and a man-to-man defensive genius who viewed offense as a necessary evil.
“His goal was always a shutout,” McHenry County College athletic director Wally Reynolds said, “If he could have played defense on both ends of the floor, I’m sure he would have.”
Former MCC player Nancy Walsh concurred.
“Every point scored was like a needle in the eye to [Probst],” Walsh said. “He never cared how many points we scored, but rather how many we gave up.”
Probst died on Oct. 23 at his home in Cary after complications from suffering a stroke. He had suffered from various ailments in the last few years and was 73 years old. He is survived by his wife JoAnn.
Probst coached basketball for most of his life at every level from junior high to junior college. He coached the MCC women’s team from 1989-98, leading the Scots to Skyway Conference championships four times. More recently, he coached at Richmond-Burton for the 2006-07 season.
Probst would stalk the sideline looking slightly disheveled, constantly exhorting his players to work harder on defense. And not just any defense – man-to-man defense.
“He was a Bob Knight devotee on defense,” said Ken Ruud, a real estate attorney in Marengo who assisted Probst at St. Viator and MCC. “Nobody wanted to play his teams. Their team may have had superior talent, but you knew how his teams played their butts off.”
It is no coincidence that after Walsh and Sue Syljebeck played for Probst at MCC, they wound up coaching. Walsh coaches the girls basketball team at Cabrini High School near New Orleans; Syljebeck is women’s basketball coach at Siena Heights University, an NAIA school in Adrian, Mich.
“I remember one time we were winning a game at halftime, but our defensive performance was unacceptable to him and we had to run sprints at halftime,” Syljebeck said. “We quickly got the message. Another time, we had only seven or eight players in a playoff game and we had four foul out and we still had to play man-to-man defense. Zone was a swear word in his gym.”
That seems fitting, since Ruud says in all his years next to Probst he never heard him swear. Not that Probst never raised his voice.
“At times, I thought, like most of his players, that he was crazy,” Walsh said. “But after the buzzer sounded and after his locker room rant, he always treated us with respect and never held a grudge … until the next practice, when you had better be ready to run.”
Walsh says Probst’s passion helped fuel her fire for basketball and she in turn tries to pass that on to her players.
Along with Knight, former UCLA coach John Wooden was another man who Probst idolized. Maybe that was why Ruud always called Probst “Coach” instead of “Bill”; Wooden’s autobiography was entitled: “They Call Me Coach.”
Syljebeck remembers MCC making a trip to California once and being able to practice in UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, which was a treat for everyone. On that same trip, MCC practiced in an auxiliary gym at USC which had no lights. Still, Probst put the Scots through a workout in what light was coming through the windows.
“We thought he was crazy, but he never lowered his expectations of us,” Syljebeck said. “To me, that was the ultimate sign of respect.”
Ruud recalled a time when Probst called him to his home in Cary to watch “Hoosiers,” Probst’s favorite movie. Ruud arrived at the scene where Hickory coach Norman Dale, played by Gene Hackman, purposely got kicked out of the game so Shooter, played by Dennis Hopper, had to finish the game as coach.
Later that season, while tied at 9-all with a team MCC had beaten by more than 50 points earlier, Probst blew all his timeouts and threatened to call more and get ejected.
“I was going to be Shooter,” Ruud said. “We just howled about that. He had a method to his madness.”
Reynolds posed him a question to Probst once, just to get him going.
“If God came down and told you if you played one minute of zone defense in a preseason game that you would win the national championship, would you do it?” Reynolds said. “Bill said, ‘We’ll win it with man-to-man.’ ”
The love of man-to-man, the sideline histrionics (even in later years with a crutch), the quoting every line from “Hoosiers,” the halftime rants and the postgame talks were all parts of Probst’s charm for those who knew him well.
Syljebeck and Walsh both called Probst to check on him last summer, knowing his health was deteriorating.
“I told him thanks for the opportunity to play for him,” Walsh said. “That opportunity led to every other opportunity I have had since then to be around this great game of basketball. I’m glad I made that call and I only hope that he knew how many lives that he made better.”