From coaching to sportswriting, the local prep athletics scene would look very different without Roy Waters.
But now, Burke County — and the Salem community in particular — is short one local legend after the beloved coach’s death at the age of 86 on Sunday night, following a lengthy period of declining health.
Waters, known affectionately to his players and students as “Pop,” was baseball and basketball coach at Salem High School from 1955-66, when his teams won 18 total championships. His Tigers teams won Skyline Conference championships in basketball in 1961, ’62 and ’64, and in baseball in ’60, ’61 and ’62. The ’60 baseball and ’64 basketball teams went on to claim District 7 titles, as well.
The hardwood Tigers also were Burke County tournament champions under Waters from ’60-62, ’64 and ’66. His basketball zone offense was featured in National Coaching Magazine Athletic Journal in October 1965.
Ralph Burnette, one of Waters’ standout players on the diamond, was signed in 1962 by the Philadelphia Phillies after compiling a 26-4 pitching record with the Tigers.
Waters organized and directed the county’s first basketball camp, along with Salem’s summer recreation program. In 2012, the gymnasium at Salem Elementary School was named in honor of the 1950 Salem High graduate.
He was inducted into the Burke County Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.
His coaching tree includes former George Hildebrand, Salem and Freedom baseball coach Wilton Daves, as well as long-time Burke County Post 21 American Legion baseball coach Ron Swink. His friend tree was even more expansive, including other great local coaches like the late Melvin Ruggles of Hildebran High.
Daves and Waters counted each other as the closest of allies after Daves, a 1956 Salem graduate, served as a player, assistant coach, successor and, later in life, great friend to Waters.
“He was doing his practice teaching at Glen Alpine, and I was a junior in high school,” Daves said. “He knew, coming to Salem the next year, I was a pitcher on the baseball team and he’d be coaching me. Our friendship goes back a long way. I felt like what I wanted to do was, one day, be a coach myself.
“I wound up being an assistant to Roy in basketball, and I was happy to be that. We had some great years together. Later on, I coached basketball after Roy left. But we were so close, and we talked about the kids. Meeting after meeting, the kids at heart were what was so important to us, and them being good people. That was the biggest thing in our lives in coaching. Not the basketball or the sports, but seeing those kids turn out to be good people.”
Daves also praised Waters’ creativity on the basketball court, noting how much the head coach gleaned from clinics they attended together and from coaches like Dean Smith and Bob Knight.
“He was one of the most innovative people in basketball,” Daves said. “He drew those X’s and O’s. I’d see those, and I was just amazed to see how much time he spent on drawing plays. A big part of his heart was to make Salem a really great basketball school, and so he did that.
“I always felt like one of our biggest strengths was attacking all zone defenses. … Roy’s attacks were quick. You’d go to one side, and then skip the guy who was the next man over. We always created, out of all our zone offenses, two-on-ones. It was designed that way, and it was very innovative. Dean Smith was the one who started it, but Roy worked so hard on that.”
Waters also had a long history with The News Herald, serving as sports editor from 1954-55. Fifty years later, when the newspaper was without a sports editor, Waters was asked to return to help with game coverage in high school basketball, American Legion and Little League baseball, and church league softball.
When the position was filled, Waters was asked to continue with The News Herald in a more limited capacity by writing a weekly sports column. Waters continued to write columns for more than a decade, all the way up until 2017.
His media involvement also included a 15-year tenure at WMNC Radio in Morganton after his retirement from teaching and coaching.
“He was one of the greatest coaches in Burke County prep history, the Salem gym’s namesake, a Burke County Sports Hall of Famer, a great columnist for over a decade at The News Herald, and a kind, warm person and a great friend personally who helped quite a bit for a sports editor who inherited zero in local sports history and records when I arrived in Morganton in 2010,” said Paul Schenkel, The News Herald’s current sports editor.
"Coach Waters helped our newspaper in a time of need and stayed on to provide us his column until pretty recently, and his technical expertise and unmatched historical perspective for local sports was something I was very grateful to have. He will surely be missed.”
Waters also was renowned for his strong Christian faith and his love of God’s creation, which manifested itself in the form of loving golf and many of the region’s majestic courses.
“We played a lot of golf together, and he was avid about the beautiful scenery we’d see in the mountains and traveling around different places,” Daves said. “He loved Billy Joe Patton, he loved the beautiful mountains and courses and he loved golf. We spent a lot of time together doing that.
“But the main thing was he wanted his kids to be good Christian people. Any time we went out to some place where he spoke, he would always mention the Lord. That was the last thing he would get in to tell them how important that was in life.
“I tried to follow that and use it as a pattern for my life, too. Roy was such a great influence for so many people.”
Justin Epley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-432-8943.