Kokomo High School's athletic department lost one of its pillars Tuesday when Phil Cox died following a brief illness. He was 64.
Best known as a longtime boys basketball assistant coach, Cox also helped with the football and track programs and the Varsity Club. He also sang the national anthem when called upon — most recently at the baseball sectional — and was a respected mentor to countless students.
"It's really tough to even start to go through what he did for Kokomo athletics," outgoing athletic director Jason Snyder said. "Principal [Angela] Blessing likes to say 'legacy matters.' He's the definition of that."
Cox came to Kokomo in 1986 when he joined Basil Mawbey's coaching staff. He remained an assistant coach through four coaching changes.
"I think the biggest thing that sticks out was his joy to be around people," said Mike Wade, who succeeded Mawbey and later was Kokomo's AD. "He wasn't afraid to be in a supporting role. Here's the biggest guy in the room with the biggest voice and biggest personality and he wasn't afraid to do whatever it took to be a part of any team. If it was in the best interest of the kids, he would do it anytime."
Cox, who was the school's attendance coordinator, forged strong relationships with many students.
"He was real with them," Wade said. "Sometimes it was tough love, but it was coming from somebody who was speaking from his heart. In my time with him, that's the thing that stuck out for me the most. He would have those conversations with kids and they knew he cared about them and it was real.
"He was special. I loved the guy."
Former Kat standout Donnie Bowling, a 1993 graduate, was one the players Cox impacted. Bowling is Indianapolis Manual's coach.
“One thing people probably forget now is that he was the first black varsity assistant at Kokomo,” Bowling told the Indianapolis Star. “So that was a big deal for a kid like me to see somebody who looked like me who was a coach. One of the things that you never forget was that he was always so upbeat when he saw you. He would yell out your name and you knew who it was. He was just always around. Some coaches, you wouldn’t see them out in the community but he was everywhere.”
Tributes from other former players poured in on Twitter.
"Nobody in the city of Kokomo had a bigger impact on my life growing up than Coach Cox! Prayers up for his family and our community during this difficult time," 2007 grad and current NBA G-League player Brandon Wood wrote.
"RIP Coach Cox. Thank you for all of your time and love. And most of all, thank you for speaking the love of Jesus into my life," 2009 grad Patrick Hopkins wrote.
"Coach Cox, words can’t explain the impact you had on me through the game of basketball, but more importantly as a man of God. I love you and will cherish our memories forever," 2014 grad Erik Bowen penned.
Cox enjoyed an outstanding playing career at Connersville. He was the 1972 Mr. Basketball after leading the Spartans to the state title. Connersville beat Gary West 80-63 in the title game at IU's Assembly Hall.
Myron Dickerson, who was Cox's coach, talked to the Tribune in 2008 about Cox and the championship night.
“He was a terrific leader in high school for us. The kid was very talented in anything he wanted to do,” Dickerson said, noting Cox already was well versed at singing the national anthem and sang it before the championship game. “That final game, he sang it, he jumped center, got the tip, went to the corner and got the pass back and hit the first shot.”
Cox finished his high school career with 1,301 points and 905 rebounds. He played two years at Butler before finishing his college career at Gardner-Webb, then an NAIA school. He returned to Connersville in 1980 where he latched onto Mawbey’s staff. When Mawbey moved to Kokomo in 1986, Cox followed — and quickly started to make an impact.
"My first memories of Coach Cox are from when I was a young camper in Coach Mawbey's camp," said Snyder, a 1995 graduate. "He led us in drill stations. I remember his big voice and personality and getting us lined up as a group and following him all over the gym. Everybody wanted to be like Coach Cox. You knew right where he was as soon as you walked in the gym with that big, strong voice and great personality.
"That carried on through being fortunate enough to be coached by him as a player and later I coached with him on Mike Wade's staff. He has been a true role model for me as I've gone through education, athletics and life in general."
Cox gained induction into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.