Booneville, Miss. – A man that helped shape the fabric of Northeast Mississippi Community College's athletic department and that touched the lives of countless individuals has passed away.
W.B. "Bill" Ward, who resurrected Northeast's football program and eventually became its winningest coach before serving as the college's athletic director for over two decades, died at his home on Wednesday, July 25 at the age of 88.
"Coach Ward was very loyal to Northeast and one of the biggest supporters of the college," said Northeast president Ricky Ford. "Personally, he hired me as a young coach to lead the Lady Tiger basketball program in 1981. I have been and will forever be grateful to him for that opportunity."
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the immediate family and to the many friends and former players that he impacted during his life."
Visitation will be from 5-9 p.m. on Friday, July 27 at McMillan's Funeral Home with service time of 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 28 at First United Methodist Church in Booneville.
"Coach Ward was one of the pioneers of both junior college football and junior college athletics," said MACJC director of athletics activities Jim Southward, who played for Ward at Northeast. "He did so much for the game and for the young men such as myself to help them in every facet of their life. He is a legend and will be truly missed."
Ward was hand picked by then-president Harold T. White to restart the football program at Northeast some 50 years ago this fall in 1968. It was a hire that forever shifted the direction of the institution in a positive manner.
The Booneville native served as head coach of the Tigers for 15 consecutive seasons following its rebirth. He took a program that did not exist for 11 years and instantly made it respectable and competitive.
Northeast won four games during its initial season after the decade-plus long hiatus, including its very first contest against Southwest Mississippi Community College by a 33-20 margin. The Tigers also won the first of three straight matchups versus rival Itawamba Community College with a 48-14 victory.
But Ward's 1969 squad put Northeast back on the map as a gridiron contender. The Tigers compiled a 7-2 overall record, which at the time was the second most wins in a single season in school history.
Northeast ended that campaign with four consecutive triumphs, including a thrilling 20-18 decision over Itawamba and a 28-14 victory against Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College to close the year.
Ward guided the Tigers to their inaugural state playoff berth in 1977 as the division runner-up after a 6-3 regular season that featured wins over perennial powers Copiah-Lincoln Community College and Mississippi Gulf Coast.
It was the first of three postseason appearances for Northeast while under the steady direction of Ward. The next came in 1979 after the Tigers rattled off big victories late in the campaign over East Mississippi Community College and Northwest Mississippi Community College.
Ward secured Northeast's first major championship in 30 years during the 1980 campaign by winning the inaugural Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) North Division title in program history.
The Tigers rose to as high as No. 1 in the Junior College Grid Wire poll and No. 4 in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) rankings after capturing their first nine games of the year by an average final score of 27-10. That included shutout triumphs versus Mississippi Delta Community College and Northwest.
Ward brought postseason football to the City of Hospitality for the first time as the Tigers welcomed Jones County Junior College in the semifinal round of the MACJC playoffs. Northeast eventually received final rankings of 7th by J.C. Grid Wire and 12th from the NJCAA.
The nine-game winning streak from 1980 is still tied for the longest such stretch in school history. It also remains the only instance that the Tigers have claimed the top spot in any major national poll.
Ward resigned from his post as headman of the Tigers following the 1982 season. He amassed 56 total triumphs during his tenure at Northeast, which continues to be more than 30 victories greater than his next closest counterpart on the all-time wins list.
He tutored seven NJCAA All-Americans, including quarterback Johnny Buskirk (1969), tight end Donnie Clayton (1969), defensive back Barry Todd (1977), running back Larry Parker (1977), defensive back Maury Hill (1979), defensive lineman Paul Rhodes (1980) and running back Anthony Norman (1980).
Countless others were named to the MACJC All-State team while dozens more of Ward's pupils signed scholarships to four-year institutions across the southeast and the country.
"We are truly saddened by the loss of a great man," said current Tigers head coach Greg Davis. "He was a fantastic person who embodied the passion and love for the game of football. He touched many lives and changed many young men's paths over his coaching career. My family has lost a personal friend and he will be missed."
However, his career on the Booneville campus was far from over. Ward became Northeast's full-time athletic director, which was a position that he originally assumed alongside his coaching duties in 1974 following the retirement of another legendary figure of the college, Bonner Arnold.
Northeast's athletic department flourished with Ward at the helm. The sports of men's golf, men's track and field and softball were all introduced for the first time under his guidance.
In fact, Ward returned to the coaching ranks as the very first instructor for the golf program upon its founding in 1991. He stayed in that role until his retirement from Northeast five years later.
Ward's teams consistently finished as one of the top five clubs inside the MACJC and NJCAA Region 23. Two of his linksters in Bobby Childers and Brett Jennings qualified for the NJCAA National Tournament at St. Simons, Ga., in 1993.
Northeast's sports offerings won a total of 36 major championships while Ward was in charge as athletic director with a majority of those coming from the men's and women's basketball departments.
Ward celebrated alongside Ford in 1987 as the women's basketball team clinched what is still the only national title in school history. He also observed from his post as top Tiger 20 divisional crowns, nine state championships and six regional titles.
He is responsible for hiring multiple coaches that went on to achieve Hall of Fame careers, including Harvey Childers and Mike Lewis in men's basketball, Ronnie Key and Ray Scott in baseball, the late David Carnell in football and softball plus the aforementioned Ford.
One of Ward's greatest accomplishments was keeping the MACJC All-Star Football Classic alive and moving it from Tupelo to Northeast's Tiger Stadium in 1987. The contest remained in Booneville until 2015 when it moved to Biloxi to become part of the Mississippi Bowl weekend.
Ward's vision and passion for the MACJC All-Star Football Classic allowed hundreds of student-athletes from the Magnolia State's 14 football playing community and junior colleges to earn scholarships and eventually sign professional contracts through this one last game to end each season.
He represented the states of Mississippi and Louisiana as the NJCAA Region 23 director for 13 years. Ward was recognized for his service with the NJCAA Outstanding Leadership Award in 1994 and the NJCAA Loyalty Award in 1995.
Ward was elected as president of Mississippi's community and junior college athletic directors in 1987 and served two terms on the executive committee of the NJCAA as well.
He was inducted into the Mississippi Association of Coaches (MAC), Northeast Mississippi Football Coaches Association (NEMFCA), MACJC, NJCAA and Northeast Sports halls of fame following his impeccable career at Northeast.
The City of Booneville renamed the road that runs along the south side of Tiger Stadium and ends in front of the Armory complex after Ward in recognition of his contributions to the town in 2004.
Ward accepted a pair of stints on the executive committee of the MACJC Sports Hall of Fame, which included an appointment as the inaugural president of the organization backed by the Mississippi Community College Foundation (MCCF).
He was a 1949 graduate and three-sport letter winner at Booneville High School. He won a state championship in basketball as a senior and was part of the Blue Devils' initial unbeaten football season in 1948.
Ward, who received the Most Outstanding Center award for the entire state, stayed home and was on the first two football teams to be fielded at Northeast. He wore jersey No. 30 during his playing days with the Tigers.
He was honored as a second-team All-Mississippi Valley Conference (MVC) selection on the offensive line in 1949 after helping Northeast piece together an even 5-5 regular season mark.
The Tigers won their first of two consecutive MVC titles that year and were invited by the Corinth Touchdown Club to participate in a postseason contest. Northeast tied Union (Tenn.) University by a 20-20 count to conclude the campaign.
Northeast pieced together its inaugural winning season during Ward's sophomore campaign of 1950 with a 6-2-2 ledger. He went on to complete his playing career at the University of Southern Mississippi from 1952-53.
Ward was a highly successful coach at the prep level prior to his return to Northeast. He racked up 87 victories between stops at Booneville, W.P. Daniel (New Albany) and Houston with multiple conference championships.
He was picked as the Little Ten Conference Coach of the Year twice during the middle of a 23-game winning streak at W.P. Daniel from 1962-63. Ward was also a member of the North coaching staff for the 1964 state high school all-star game in Jackson.
His overall coaching record over nearly 30 years on the turf between his high school and community college locations was 143 wins against 127 losses with 10 ties for a winning percentage of 52.9.