OGDEN, Utah (AP) — One can’t walk into the Ogden High School gymnasium or walk the nearby hallway without seeing how much of an impact Phil Russell had at the school.
The basketball court bears his name, the trophy cabinet in the aforementioned hallway is filled with trophies, basketball nets, balls and photos from Russell’s time as the girls basketball coach at the school, the Ogden Standard-Examiner reported.
“Of all the things that my dad accomplished, all the awards, all the wins all the things that he did to be successful in his career, nothing ever came before his family — specifically, my brother and I,” Mike Russell said during Phil’s funeral ceremony last week.
Phil Russell was memorialized Friday, Nov. 6, in a small, private ceremony in front of family and some friends. The family hopes to hold a larger celebration of life once it’s safe to do so in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He would’ve strung this whole ordeal out for a week if he could’ve and to be honest, he deserves that type of sendoff,” Matt Russell, Phil’s oldest son, said during the ceremony, which was streamed on the internet.
Phil’s sons, Matt and Mike, spoke at length during the ceremony and told stories about their father growing up, how he would always make time for them to go to the gym and shoot hoops or whatever they wanted to do.
This was despite Phil working multiple jobs so that his wife Carolyn wouldn’t have to. His favorite part-time job was working at the Lorin Farr Pool in Ogden, that “darn pool,” Matt Russel said with a smile.
“As busy as he was, he always made time. Anyone here knows my dad he didn’t do anything halfway,” Mike Russell said.
Every story relayed just how much their dad cared about them.
Mike told a story from when was about 10 or 11 years old at an Ogden High football game, throwing a football behind the stadium with a friend.
Some other kids took the football. Phil was in the middle of coaching a game.
“So I walked up on the sideline in the middle of the game and tugged on his shirt and said ‘these kids took my ball.’ It was a turbo football, probably $8,” Mike said.
Phil didn’t hesitate, Mike said, took his headset off and asked where the kids were. They walked to the back of the stadium and, “you can all use your imaginations of what he said to those boys. We got our ball back,” Mike said.
Matt Russell said his father played a role in one of his favorite misheard lyrics for the song “Down Under” by Men at Work.
One verse reads: “Buying bread from a man in Brussels, he was 6-foot-4 and full of muscle.” As a kid, Matt thought the man was named “Russell,” specifically his dad, and not located in Brussels.
It made sense, since Phil Russell was a tall man. Matt was disappointed to find out later that the song wasn’t about his dad.
Before Matt and Mike Russell spoke, Ethan Russell, Phil’s grandson, read the obituary.
The summary of Phil’s life goes like this: he was born Aug. 24, 1945, in Tooele, graduated from Tooele High and met his wife Carolyn in his high school years. They were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple in 1967 and recently celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary.
Phil Russell recently also celebrated his 75th birthday before his death on Nov. 3, which came after contracting the coronavirus and battling COVID-19.
Phil taught US History, sociology and driver’s education as part of a 42-year career in the Ogden School District, 40 years of which were at Ogden High after getting an education degree at Weber State College.
He coached everything from football, baseball, softball and volleyball. In girls basketball, Phil’s teams won 10 region championships, five state championships and he was the first to hit 500 career wins.
Matt told about the time when he and his daughter were driving by Ogden High, and his daughter pointed at the school and said, “there’s grandpa’s house.”
Phil was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame, the Ogden High Hall of Fame and the Tooele High Hall of Fame. In recent years, he could be found as the public address announcer at Ogden High football, basketball and volleyball games, including the Tigers’ match on Oct. 1.
“In the words of my gramps, shoot the damn ball,” Ethan Russell said, quoting the last line of the obituary.
Since Phil’s passing, tributes have poured in from all over. The Ogden School District posted a statement on its social media channels last week.
“The entire Ogden School District is deeply saddened by the recent passing of Phil Russell. Coach Russell has been a stalwart in Ogden School District and the Ogden community, having devoted his life to the betterment of others. Coach Russell served the District and its students for decades as a full-time employee, and he remained actively engaged, improving the lives of students, athletes and colleagues throughout our District every year following his retirement,” the statement reads.
“We are so fortunate that he chose Ogden and how proud we are that the gym floor at Ogden High School bears his name as a continued tribute to his legacy. We offer our sincerest condolences to the Russell family.”