When Willie Cox walked into a McDonald’s restaurant in Peoria, Illinois, nearly two decades ago, he recognized one of the employees as a former player for the rival of the girls high school basketball team he coached.
Coach Cox asked her why she wasn’t playing college ball. She replied that she had not received a scholarship.
Cox could not accept this and ended up helping the young woman secure a college scholarship.
“She actually contacted me and said, if it wasn’t for your dad, I wouldn’t have a college degree today,” said Cox’s daughter, Anissa. “She said that a lot of the things he instilled in her, she’s instilling in her kids today.”
Coach Willie Cox, 64, died June 6 of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Family, friends and former players gathered Saturday to celebrate a “homegoing” for Cox at Mizzou Arena, where he spent nine years as an assistant coach and director of recruitment for the MU women’s basketball team.
The service included tributes from co-workers, former players and members of Cox’s church. Though all knew him in different contexts, they agreed that Cox was an example of kindness.
Robin Pingeton, head coach of the women’s basketball team, worked alongside Cox for 16 years. Seven of those were spent at Illinois State University and the last nine at MU.
“Over the years, I’ve been blessed to work alongside not only a hardworking, honest, loving, sincere, caring and loyal man,” Pingeton said. “But someone that had a servant’s heart like no other.”
Before Cox began working with Pingeton, he coached girl’s basketball at Peoria High School.
Syntia Jackson, a player of his when he coached in Peoria, said he cared deeply for his players both on and off the court.
“I admire the way he showed how he cared about us,” Jackson said. “He made sure our grades were good ... and if we needed anything, he would help us in any way he could.”
Mary Jorden-Burnside, another former player from Peoria, said the team Cox led is still close. They values the lessons he taught them.
“We’re looking back at some of those things he told us, and we’re realizing that they pertain to life, not just to the basketball court,” Jorden-Burnside said.
As the celebration came to a close, Cox’s former players acted as pallbearers, carrying his casket out of the arena. Another homegoing celebration will be held for Cox at 1 p.m. June 22 in Oakdale, Louisiana.
Missourian reporter Julia Garlich contributed to this article.
Supervising editor is Libby Stanford.