Bill Resler, the longtime University of Washington tax professor-turned high school girl’s basketball coach who led the Roosevelt Roughriders to their first state championship, died Saturday at a hospital in his hometown of Seattle. He was 71.
The cause was viral encephalitis, friends said.
In 2005, audiences across the United States came to know Resler for his role in The Heart of the Game, an acclaimed documentary by director Ward Serrill that followed Resler’s Roosevelt teams. Film critic Roger Ebert praised Resler’s coaching style that promoted all-out aggression and called the documentary “an Oscar level piece of work.”
“I teach my girls that sexism will not be over soon,” Resler said in 2006. “I teach them to smash into each other; own their own turf.
“Later in their lives when someone tries to knock them down, they won’t let it happen.”
‘Never give up’
Resler’s Roosevelt teams had animal themes – Pack of Wolves, Pride of Lions – meant to get his girls teams to “go completely wild and have total fun without regard for what the rest of the world thinks,” Resler said in 2006. The Roughrider teams he coached from 1998 to 2006 were known for their physicality.
As an eccentric coach who included the Duchess Bar and Social Club in his autobiographic book's acknowledgements, Resler understood Roosevelt parents either loved or hated his style and knew his tenure would end when the scales tipped. That came in 2007 when the Roosevelt principal told Resler he wanted “to take the team in a different direction.”
But in the years Resler coached the Roughriders, his teams were often among the state’s best.
Before games, his players would pound on lockers to try and intimidate opponents who heard the commotion from their own locker room. He routinely had his teams practice against boys, and loved it when they won. If a player got a foul smashing an opponent cutting across the key, Resler was fine with it.
When Darnellia Russell, a star Roosevelt point guard, was prohibited from playing a fifth year because of her pregnancy, Resler and attorney Ken Luce battled the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association in court, arguing that the pregnancy was a hardship. Russell played in defiance of a WIAA lawsuit to stop her, and two days after she scored the final points in the Roughriders 2004 4A state championship, the WIAA dropped their case.
Resler, who remained friends with several former players, said he felt a moral obligation to help Russell succeed -- in basketball and life -- and that the court battles reinforced another lesson: Never give up.
“You show me that no matter what always be willing to help those that are in need,” Russell wrote on Facebook hours after Resler’s death. “I see myself all the time trying to do the things that you did for me for my players. I love you William Resler, and I always will.”
A fascination with tax law
Resler was born in Seattle, the second child of Joseph Howard and Cora Jean Resler. He tried out for the basketball team at Franklin High School, but was cut by coach Frank Ahern – a coach he later bonded with over the difficultly of cutting players.
Resler attended Washington State University and pledged the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, where he made lifelong friends, found a fondness for playing bridge, created the game Panball, and developed his team-first mentality. A self-described “ultra left-wing pacifist,” Resler believed he had a moral duty to avoid the military and planned to do so by entering law school.
In 1967, his 707 out of 800 on the law school entrance exam was the highest score among Washington State University students. Initially rejected by the University of Washington School of Law because of his low GPA, Resler was accepted after two meetings with the dean pleading his case.
Midway through law school, Resler was drafted into the army. His personal appeals to Senator Warren Magnuson didn’t work -- “You’re not an American if you won’t support your country,” Magnuson said on the phone -- so he took classes at Seattle Community College to improve his clerk skills.
Resler joined the army on April 14, 1969. Because of those skills he worked as a military clerk for 19 months and received a good conduct medal – though he skipped the award ceremony.
After finishing law school -- and getting the top grade in a class taught by legendary contractual law professor Warren Shattuck -- Resler was accepted to New York University’s graduate tax program. During his last semester there, Resler was offered a job of the faculty. He later worked at the Golden Gate University School of Taxation, and began working as an adjunct University of Washington professor in 1978.
“My tax law course so confused me that I had no idea in the world what was going on,” Resler said in 2006. “And my ego doesn’t allow me to be conquered by anything. … When I was forced to study that crazy, convoluted stuff, I realized, ‘Hey, tax law is pretty cool.’”
‘A truly one-of-(a)-kind dude’
Resler became full time at the University of Washington in 1984, and in 1992 he and friend Steve Rice co-founded the school’s Master of Professional Accounting in Taxation program.
“My philosophy toward teaching, tax law, or life in general is the same,” he wrote. “Struggle to fashion each day to be superior to yesterday. Work hard, play hard, and avoid confusing the two. Make clear choices between what comes easiest and what you feel is most meaningful.”
When students plastered his office with tax code wallpaper, he never pulled it down. He was equally as happy when basketball players would TP his house, and when students set up a camera to TP his new Foster School of Business office in 2012.
Life should be fun, Resler would say. If your life isn’t fun, you must change it.
His play-hard time came at The Duchess, where Resler was as familiar a sight as the vintage Roosevelt jerseys and framed team photos on the walls. His friends gathered there Saturday night after word of his death spread. And it’s at The Duchess, of course, where friends are planning a public memorial at 3 p.m. February 18 -- though that plan may change to accommodate more people.
“He was a truly one-of-(a)-kind dude,” wrote his daughter, Vanessa, who survives him with her sisters Jessica and Alexa. “I’ll miss his sick sense of humor, which I happily inherited, his amazing stories, his words of advice, and his life lessons.”
When it seemed certain that The Heart of the Game would be released nationwide, Resler set out to write a book that would explain the lessons and what he tried to instill in his players and students.
“I honestly don’t care about Roosevelt’s win-loss record or how many championships we’ve won,” Resler wrote in the book’s final chapter. “More than any statistic, I care about the lessons my players learn from the experience, and how they will utilize those lessons decades after the final buzzer of their basketball careers.
“What I value most is knowing I’ve made a positive impact on the lives of many teenagers. My players, and the moments they’ve created, have brought me more fun than I can fit into words.”
Editor’s note: Casey McNerthney co-wrote Resler’s book, “The Heart of the Team.”
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