|Bill Downes compiled over 300 wins across four sports during his 50-year career at Western New England.|
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (June 25, 2018) – Over the last 50 years, athletics at Western New England University has seen enormous growth and countless changes.
One thing has remained the same, however – the presence of William Arthur "Red" Downes. When the 2018-19 athletic calendar gets underway in late August, the department will be without the Golden Bear legend, who is retiring this summer following half a century of exemplary service to the University.
Downes' name is synonymous with athletics at Western New England. He arrived on campus in 1968, beginning a tenure that would result in over 300 victories across four sports and a lasting impact on the University's athletic department.
Downes assumed the role of head coach for the first time in 1970, when he took charge of the men's soccer program. Over the next 20 seasons, he led the team to 184 victories and 11 postseason appearances, including a fourth-place finish at the NAIA national tournament in 1975.
Downes also served as head coach of the Western New England men's basketball program from 1977-86, compiling 98 wins over nine seasons, and even completed a three-year stint as baseball coach from 1971-73.
In the mid-1980's, Downes resurrected the WNE Golf program and quickly built it into one of the strongest Division III programs in the region. He guided the Golden Bears to four Commonwealth Coast Conference (CCC) championships and a trio of NCAA Tournament appearances, the last of which came this spring.
Downes' impact on Western New England is so vast that the University's athletic Hall-of-Fame was named in his honor, and in 1999, he was inducted in the inaugural class.
Western New England's athletic Hall-of-Fame was named in Downes' honor, and he was inducted in the inaugural class in 1999.
Downes took an unconventional route to Western New England. Born and raised in South Charleston, West Virginia, his family moved to Montclair, New Jersey (just 17 miles outside of New York City) when he was 16 years old. As Downes puts it, "It was a major culture shock".
Growing up, he was a four-sport athlete – his first love was basketball, but he also played football and baseball, and even ran the 100 and 220-yard sprint events in track.
Marshall University recognized Downes' athletic prowess by offering him a chance to return to his home state to play basketball. He instead decided to take the prep route and enrolled at the New Hampton School in New Hampshire, where he helped lead the basketball team to the prep school championship contest in Orono, Maine against Maine Central.
From there, Downes attended Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. and spent one semester as a member of the freshman basketball team before volunteering for the military draft in 1957.
While stationed in Iceland for two years, Downes' future aspirations began to take shape.
"I was player-coach of the battalion team, and that's when I first realized I wanted to be involved in coaching," he said. His teams traveled across Europe and played in the Mass Air Command Tournament.
After spending two years in the service, Downes enrolled at Springfield College to pursue a physical education degree. Four years later, he had earned his degree and was ready to chase his dreams.
"When I graduated from Springfield, I was 27 years old and all I wanted to do was coach basketball," he said.
Downes secured his first coaching position at Camden (N.J.) Tech outside of Philadelphia, but after four years he returned to Springfield for a role at Kiley Junior High.
It was there that his life changed forever. On October 15, 1968, Downes walked off the practice field and into the gym, where he saw Western New England's first Athletic Director, Eric Geldart, attempting to run a basketball tryout alone with 45 players.
"I introduced myself, explained my background, asked if he'd like help, and he offered me $100 to be an assistant coach for the year," Downes said. The rest is history. The following year, with Downes now earning a $500 salary as Geldart's assistant, the Golden Bears (led by legends George Jerman and Rodney Butler) reached the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City, Mo.
Downes' involvement with Western New England only grew from there.
|Downes (right) was brought to Western New England as an assistant basketball coach in 1968 by the school's first Athletic Director, Eric Geldart (left).|
Downes has amassed a significant number of accomplishments during his time as a Golden Bear. In addition to racking up countless wins and helping to lay the groundwork for an athletic program that is among the most respected in the region, he wrote, implemented, and secured a federal grant for the school's physical education program.
But with retirement now upon him, Downes looks back at the relationships he's formed as his most treasured memories. "The interaction with the campus community was so great," he explained. "My players could never skip class because I knew every professor and they would call me up if one of my guys was absent."
Downes also cherishes the relationships he's formed with his student-athletes. "I used to tell my players, while you're playing for me I'm gonna be demanding, but when you graduate we become friends," he explained. Downes' greatest enjoyment has come from former players reaching out to express thanks for the positive impact he made on their lives. "The moments of gratitude are enormous," Downes said. "They are worth way more than money."
With a lot more free time on his hands now, Downes plans to spend it with his wife, children and grandchildren. "I look forward to hopefully being a great grandfather, and watching my grandkids grow," he said. "I'll also be able to spend more time with Patty, helping her with the vegetable garden and weeding."
In an effort to avoid the harsh New England winters, Downes also hopes (with Patty's approval) to spend three months in Florida every year. "I need to get back in my short pants in the middle of winter because I can't stand the cold," he said.
Although he is officially retiring, Downes plans to return to campus often to support the athletic program that means so much to him. "I think I'll be back quite a bit because Western New England is ingrained in me," he said. "Knowing all of the coaches, coming back and staying involved is important to me."
Downes, a legend who will forever be associated with Western New England athletics, is the living embodiment of the phrase, "Once a Golden Bear, Always a Golden Bear".