In late April, Tate Lombard was named the newest head coach of the girls basketball team at his alma mater – Canyon High School, in the Panhandle. It’s a great job, especially for a young coach like Tate, just 36.
But it comes with pressure.
“When you play for Canyon, there’s just that unwritten expectation to win state every year,” said Tate’s sister, Lindy Slagle. And she would know: Slagle is a former high school coach herself, and in 1996, she played on a Canyon team that went undefeated and won the state championship.
But the 96 team is just one of 13 Canyon girls basketball squads that have won a state title over the past 35 years. They’ve never missed the playoffs in that time. And one coach is responsible for all that success.
His resumé borders on absurd. He won 1,000 games before he lost 100. He’s enshrined in six different halls of fame. Canyon High School’s basketball court is named after him. He’s widely regarded as one of the best to ever coach anything in Texas.
He’s also Tate and Lindy’s dad. His name is Joe Lombard.
“It never has felt like a job”
Joe announced his retirement in early April. He’d coached girls basketball for 42 years – seven at Nazareth, where he won six state titles, followed by 35 at Canyon.
“[I] feel so blessed to be able to have been able to coach this long, and it never has felt like a job. It’s always just been something I would be doing in my spare time, I think,” Joe said.
His wife Babs also coached – in 1979, she and Joe became the first husband and wife to win Texas state basketball championships in the same year. So as you might imagine, the Lombard house was more or less all hoops all the time.
“It was ever-present,” Lindy said. “Even our family vacations – every other trip was somehow related. It was a coaching clinic or it’s this tournament or an all-star game, or whatever.”
“We’d always go up to the gym and we’d have shooting games and HORSE competitions. You know at the time I thought I was pretty hot stuff, and I was third in the family in our competitions,” said Tate.
Plenty of people watched the wins, but his family saw everything else too – the drills, the game plans, the thousands of miles in buses on dark Panhandle roads with tired teenagers. Joe loved it, but it took its toll.
“I’m not one that really stresses, but it’s always on your mind. Because it wears on you,” said Joe.
His knees were wearing down, he’d had a couple cardiac procedures, and he wanted to spend more time with his own mother, who lives in Indiana. He started thinking about retirement, and his successor.
“What we’ve invested 35 years into, I didn’t want to just pass this job along to anybody,” he said.
About a year ago, Joe had an opening for an assistant coach, and his son came to mind. Tate would be a great fit to come back to Canyon, Joe thought, and he’d love to coach with his son. He just wasn’t sure he could land him.
Tate had gotten into the family business, paid his dues, and was coaching at Wall High School near San Angelo. He coached the girls team to a state title in 2016. State championship caliber coaches don’t just leave to take assistant coaching jobs.
“If it was any other situation,” Tate said “if I did leave, it would probably be for another head coaching job.”
But Canyon wasn’t just any other job, of course.
Joe told his son that he’d be retiring soon, and that if he were open to it, he’d like them to coach together. A future head coaching job wasn’t guaranteed, but it was possible.
“And he said, ‘I don’t know Dad, but for whatever reason, this is perfect timing. I want to come coach with you,’” said Joe.
With two Lombards on the bench in 2019, Canyon had a great season – 29 wins against just two losses. The team made a deep playoff run and lost a heartbreaker against Argyle High School. But that sting was softened by the fact that Tate and Joe had spent more time together than they had in years.
“In the past with us both working and coaching, you might see him maybe once in the fall, then Thanksgiving and Christmas, and that would be it until the season was over. Now, it’s every day,” Joe said.
That might have made Joe’s decision to retire a little easier, but no less bittersweet. The day he told the team he wasn’t coming back – remotely, of course, because of the coronavirus – was still tough.
“The day that he did, you know he was talking to the girls, I was in an adjacent room,” said Joe’s wife, Babs. “And when he broke down, I lost it.”
A few weeks later though, Babs had reason to celebrate. Tate was named as Canyon’s next head coach.
“I just think it’s the best move Canyon could have made,” Babs said. “Of course, I’m a little partial.”
Of course, the move comes with expectations. This is a time that Tate and Lindy had talked about plenty before, sometimes with apprehension.
“I think he was kind of hesitant to try to fill that role for a long time just because of the expectation, and just, would it ever be as good as when Dad was there?” Lindy said.
Tate knows people will ask that question. But he says it’s not something he pays much attention to.
“You know for me just getting into girls basketball, I think I was going to be compared to him no matter what. Stuff like that has never really bothered me,” he said.
Instead, he’ll just coach. And, he’ll have some good help. He’s already struck a deal with an assistant who going to help out on a totally volunteer basis.
His name is Joe Lombard.
If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.