By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon
Not many teachers are remembered fondly by the kids they had to paddle. Harry Fails was of a rare breed.
Fails could punish a student, get in the face of one of his basketball players or cuss out a colleague. However, he could get away with it and get thanked for it later.
Fails, 71, died Saturday at his home in Alliance.
“I don’t know how to put it into words,” Paul Freeman, who served as an assistant under Fails at Conneaut before moving on to Pymatuning Valley, said. “I’m at a loss for words on that. He won’t be forgotten, that’s for sure. The people he had an impact on will remember Harry for the rest of their lives.
“I read his obituary online, and there was a comment. The guy had said, ‘Boy, he could certainly swing a paddle.’ He said he appreciated what Harry had done for him. That speaks a lot to (Harry) being tough and demanding, but caring.”
It wasn’t a complete surprise to those close to Fails when they heard he had died.
“I knew it was inevitable,” Freeman said. “It didn’t come as a total shock. I’m still sifting through it. It wasn’t just that we worked together at Conneaut. Our sons played at Kent State together. We were at all of those games. I’ve known Harry a long time. He was certainly committed to sports. I learned a great deal from him.
“After he moved on to Alliance, we stayed connected through that time. What I know is Harry was fiercely competitive and he was extremely loyal to me. I don’t know what else you could want from somebody. A few years ago, I had heart surgery and he called me just about every week just to check up on me.
“The last few years, a kid who had him as a teacher, I don’t even think he was an athlete, would call me and pick me up and we’d head down to see him. He was a like a father to some of the kids in school. They had lasting relationships 30 years later.”
A graduate of Rowe High School and Kent State University, Fails coached basketball and baseball for a combined 19 seasons at Conneaut and Alliance, without ever suffering a losing season.
“He was a good, demanding, fiery coach who was compassionate,” Freeman said. “The loyalty he had for me, I respected him for it. He was always in my corner. He was willing to help out. When I was ill, he called me every day. That’s Harry.”
Fails had a way of drawing kids in, whether it was on the hardwood, diamond or in the classroom.
“Number one, the kids knew he truly cared for them,” Brad Ellis, who coached under Fails at Alliance before later becoming the head coach at Geneva, said. “They knew he’d do anything for them during the time they played for him and after.
“He was a demanding coach. You toed the line with him. They had respect for him. They were part of his family. Being a coach is just what he did. He had a great impact. They knew he truly cared for them.”
In his three seasons (1968-69 through ’70-’71) at Conneaut, Fails was 48-19 (.716) on the hardwood. He went 276-122 (.694) at Alliance. As a player for Rowe, averaged 19.3 points as a junior and 19.5 points per game as a senior and was named first-team Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County both years. He was inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame in 2005.
Often lost in the narrative of Fails is that he was a pretty good, teacher, too. He was named Teacher of the Year while at Alliance in 1975-76.
“That’s the kind of person he was,” Ellis said. “You want to talk about teachers, he was a true teacher. He was a great history teacher. Walking into his classroom, he had the utmost respect from the kids there, too. It’s hard to explain. He drew them in with just his personality. That’s the way he was. He put in a tremendous amount of time and effort. The kids just had great respect for him.”
Fails believed in being the best at everything he did.
“I think Harry Fails was the kind of person who, in everything he did, he wanted to do his best and be the best at it. Though he didn’t break clipboards, he was enthusiastic in the classroom. He was highly motivating to the kids in the classroom. That’s the type of person was. Whatever he did, he wanted to be the best at it.”
It wasn’t only Fails’ players who looked up to him. His colleagues did, too.
“Going from being a player to being a coach, you think you know what you have to do,” Ellis said. “There were a lot of things he showed me that I still used 25 years later, like how to set up a program, workouts in the summer and right down to stuff like practice schedules. I learned so much working for him.”
“He was a good man,” Freeman said. “There’s no doubt about that. He had a great impact on me. He was a great coach and a better person. He was a great history teacher. Sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle.”
Just because he was well-respected both in the athletic arena and in the classroom, doesn’t mean that he was always liked.
“That’s a good question,” Freeman said. “I don’t know that I know. He could certainly yell at you and get you riled up. He was fiercely competitive. He was fiery. We had to keep extra clipboards in case he broke one during a game. The kids just knew he cared, I guess.
“He could get on their cases. He could ride them. But they knew he cared. He certainly had an impact on a large group. I remember he went to a camp shortly after he got to Alliance. He was successful everywhere he went. He knew the game. I remember watching him play. I was four years his junior. I was in junior high when I saw him. I knew who Harry was. Even as a player he was good. He could shoot the lights out.”
Fails was a mentor to the young coaches who served alongside him.
“You don’t know the game of basketball until you’ve played it and looked at it through the eyes of a coach,” Freeman said. “Though I wasn’t as fiery as he was, I was just as intense.”
That fire was extinguished slowly.
“A few years ago, he had a stroke in my presence,” Freeman said. “We were watching a Kent State game down at Xavier. During the game, he was acting funny. They were on they’re way home and he had to pull over because he could no longer drive. They called us to tell us they had to turn off and go to the hospital. He was never the same after that.
“Some of that fire had left him. He was still Harry. He was still compassionate. Personally, I think that softened him. I keep going back to different kids, men, who had Harry as a teacher, went down to see him because he was having a health issue.
“I knew the last time I saw him. I guess it was three years ago. It was tough then, and I guess that’s why I didn’t go see him. Maybe I didn’t want to remember him like that.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.