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Huntsville - Madison County Athletic HOF Member

NAME:Rod Willie
SPORT:  basketball
Over nearly four decades, Jerry Dugan didn’t win 612 high school basketball games by accident. He was always a savvy “X’s and O’s” head coach, first at Hazel Green and later at Lee of Huntsville for the majority of his celebrated coaching career. But he also knew the real key to winning was having more and better “Jimmys and Joes" on your team than the other coach has on his team. There’s something else he knew: If a 9th grader has exceptional talent, why wait to throw him directly in the mix with the sophomores, juniors and seniors just because he’s a freshman? Consider the prime example of Rodriquez “Rod” Willie, one of tonight’s inductees in the 26th class of the Huntsville-Madison County Athletic Hall of Fame. “I knew Rod was going to be a great basketball player someday when we first saw him over at Chapman Middle School, playing for Ed Nulter," Dugan said in a recent interview. “When Rod first got to Lee, we started him out on the JV team, but I saw right quick that he wouldn’t be there very long." By mid season, Willie was wearing a varsity uniform. Not long after that, he was in the starting lineup. “We play ed him out of position in the post at first," Dugan said, “but he was already good enough to play anywhere. He moved out to the wing his sophomore year because we needed help closer to the basket and because he was such a strong kid, even at that age." Willie, who now works as a natural gas scheduling analyst for Tenaska Marketing Ventures in Omaha, Neb., still treasures his four years at Lee High School in the early 1990s. “One of my favorite memories is when Coach Dugan gave me an opportunity to play varsity as a freshman," he said. “Although it’s pretty common now, it wasn’t back then. I’m sure it was risky since there was no way to know how the team would respond. I’ll always be appreciative of the chance he took on me and the opportunity he gave me.” Willie’s arrival at Lee coincided with the onset of a rare rebuilding period for Dugan’s Generals. After going 18-11 in Willie’s freshman season of 1990-91, Lee won just 10 of 22 games in 1991-92. It was one of those occasional down cycles when most of the other coaches simply had more “Jimmys and Joes.” The following season, with the 6-foot-2 Willie playing his natural guard position, Lee went 16-10. Then everything came together in a dramatic way his senior year, both for the team and for Willie himself. The Generals finished 26-4 in 1993-94, won the area championship and advanced to Elite Eight in the state tournament before losing a tight game to Decatur in a jarring upset. “It was the hardest defeat I ever had as a coach," Dugan said. “I thought we were going to win it all because I really think we had the best team in the state that year. I know we had the best player – Rod Willie. I’d put him in the top four or five players I ever coached. He’s right up there with Condredge (Holloway), Danny Petty, Al Lankford, those kind of guys." Despite the downer at the end, Rod Willie’s senior season was epic. He was the acknowledged ringleader of a team that won 26 of 30 games. He scored 42 points, a school record, against a shell-shocked team from Murfreesboro, Tenn. He averaged 20.5 points per game, 8 rebounds, 4.5 steals, 4.4 assists and 2 blocked shots. He was named 1st team All-State, 6A Player of the Year, picked on the “Alabama 6A Super Five’’ by The Birmingham News , and was named “Mr. Basketball" by the Alabama Sportswriters Association. A point of interest: Since the award was first presented in 1983, seven players from the city of Huntsville have won “Mr. Basketball" – Howard Pride (Butler) in 1993, Rod Willie (Lee) in 1994, Marvin Stone (Grissom) in 1995, Chris White (Grissom) in 2001, Kerron Johnson (Madison Academy) in 2009, Trevor Lacey (Butler) in 2010 and 2011, and John Petty (Johnson and Jemison) in 2016 and 2017. “My senior year in high school is another great memory,” Willie said. “Although it didn’t end the way we hoped, it was still a memorable year. We won a lot of games, but it was fun because of the group of guys I had the honor of playing with. Probably with the exception of Tim Clark and Cortney Sales, who were great teammates and integral parts of that team, we had all played together at Chapman Middle under Coach Nulter. I enjoyed every year I played, but it was really special for me to end my career at Lee playing with all the guys on that team.” After high school, Willie signed a scholarship with Hall of Fame coach Gene Bartow and the UAB Blazers. Unfortunately, the timing wasn’t right. Bartow was in the twilight of a great career and the program he had built from scratch was beginning to show its cracks. Just a year after UAB upset Alabama 58-56 and advanced to the Final Four of the NIT, the Blazers suffered through their first losing season in 1994-95, dropping nine of its last 14 games and finishing 14-16 in Willie’s freshman year. Willie played in all 30 games that season, averaging nearly 5 points a game. Bartow retired a year later and turned the program over to his son, Murry Bartow. By then, Willie was in Statesboro, Ga., having transferred to Georgia Southern University. He played in 24 games for the Eagles in 1996-97 and averaged 11 points a game. He then transferred to Birmingham-Southern, where he graduated in 1999 with a degree in business management. Nearly 20 years later, Rod Willie is philosophic about his college basketball odyssey. “Today I see kids change schools a few times just like I did and I can relate,” he said. “I started the majority of the games at each school I was fortunate enough to play for, so it was never about playing time. At the end of the day we’re all searching for where we fit, where we feel we belong, and that’s not much different than life. I would say my collegiate career, with its many twists and turns, in many ways prepared me for life after basketball.”