Bob Eckert, who played on Manchester’s 1974 state championship boys basketball team and later enjoyed a successful run as the school’s girls basketball coach, died Thursday night.
Whether it was as a coach, teacher, player or, perhaps most of all, just a human being, Bob Eckert greatly impressed everyone who knew him.
"He touched a million lives, and you can’t find anyone among them who has ever said a bad word about him," longtime Manchester High School head boys basketball coach Gene Schindewolf said.
Eckert, a member of Manchester’s 1974 undefeated Class AA state championship boys basketball team who later built the school’s long-struggling girls basketball program into an area power, died late last Thursday night. He was 64. He had battled brain cancer for three years, only to have his condition worsen considerably — and irrevocably — about a month ago.
"It’s a tough loss for both the school and the community," Schindewolf said.
Added Manchester Middle School Principal Jim Miller, in whose building Eckert worked as a physical education teacher and athletic director for over two decades, "You knew his situation was terminal and you think you have prepared yourself for it, but when it finally happens, the reality of it really hits you. The lucky thing was that he got three years of quality time with his family at the end.
"Bob epitomized what it is to be ‘Mr. Manchester’ with his involvement in so many different things around here. His mom (Joanne Eckert, a longtime elementary school teacher in the district) had that same kind of impact. The Eckerts have been a special family in Manchester."
Bob Eckert was part of Manchester his whole life, including in high school when he played baseball and as a guard -- the sixth man -- on that 26-0 basketball team. He is the third player on that team to have passed away in exactly the last five years. The team was led by center Mike Phillips, who passed away April 25, 2015. A starting guard, Jeff Roberts, died three years ago.
"Those guys all passing is a tough thought," said Green resident Gary Edwards, a reserve guard on that team.
He added, "We called Bobby ‘The Glove.’ If he guarded you in practice, he was all over you. You had to keep shoving his hands away.
"His offensive game was non-existent, and he didn’t care. He played defense and passed the ball. He was a gritty, gritty, hustling kind of player. When Bernie (Conley, head coach) wanted to give one of the guards, Jack (Sliger) or Jeff, a breather, he’d send Bobby in there and put him on the best-scoring guard on the other team. Bobby would have his hands all over the kid and harass him and wear him out."
Eckert returned to the school as a basketball coach, spending time as both the girls head coach and an assistant on the boys team under Schindewolf.
"Bobby really knew his basketball," Schindewolf said. "He had strong opinions about what he believed, and so do I. We would go back and forth about things, but we were always able to agree to disagree and move on without any hard feelings."
Eckert’s knowledge of the game, and his ability to impart that to the players translated well to a girls team that was in desperate need of such. He inherited a program that had won a combined total of three games in the previous three years and guided it to 154 wins in 10 seasons, capturing eight Principals Athletic Conference championships and making two trips to the Division III regional tournament
"He won on the basketball court because of his dedication and preparation," Miller said. "He was that way in the classroom, too. He did a wonderful job as a teacher. He was tremendous. He went above and beyond the call of duty.
"We were very blessed at our school for a long time to have two physical education teachers in Bobby and Loralee Daily who really took pride in their work. They wanted to have the best health and phys ed programs that they could."
Eckert continued to serve as a teacher and coach even after his cancer diagnosis. Finally, though, his health deteriorated to the point that he had to retire.
"But before he left, Bobby made sure to work with the guy who was replacing him, showing him all the ins and outs of the job and introducing him to everybody," Miller said. "That’s just who he was."
Edwards saw a similar kind of situation with Eckert.
"My daughter was the seventh-grade girls basketball coach for a while," Edwards said. "When she got the job, Bobby took her under his wing and helped her with a bunch of things. I was so appreciative that he did that for her, and so was she."
But perhaps the most impressive thing about Eckert was how he dealt with his cancer.
"Bobby never complained," Schindewolf said. "He was never one to bother anyone with his problems, even the sickness. He somehow found a way to deal with it himself.
"I took him to the Cleveland Clinic for his radiation treatments several times. He didn’t volunteer any information on any of the trips. I had to ask him questions about how he was."
Added Edwards, "He was upbeat all the time. You would never know he had anything wrong with him."
Eckert is survived by his wife, Kim, and their two daughters, Kristy and Erica, both of whom played basketball for their dad.
"Genuine, the fact he would do anything for you, a class act, a gentleman, caring. Those are the qualities that come to mind when I think about Bobby," Schindewolf said.
"You go through life and have probably only a small number of people you can call true friends. I was lucky that Bobby was one of mine."