Taylor Keeps Moral Compass Pointed In Right Direction

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billytaylorballstate.jpg TheStarPress.com - Ball State hired Billy Taylor in August of 2007 to cleanse a basketball program stained by NCAA violations and a messy divorce with previous head coach Ronny Thompson.

Taylor offered the Cardinals a head coach with previous success, but just as importantly he presented the tarnished program a man of unquestioned character.

The Cardinals open the 2011-12 season tonight at No. 16 Arizona, and the Ball State program is pointed back in the right direction under the tutelage of a man whose moral compass is always pointing that way.

Taylor credits his parents, his wife, their three children, his past coaches, his current and former players, his coaching colleagues, and dozens of other associates for molding him into a man of integrity. But his path to righteousness starts, and for that matter ends, in his faith in God.

"He's a faithful person and truly practices what he preaches," says Ball State associate head coach Bob Simmons, who assisted Taylor for five seasons at Lehigh before following him to Ball State. "He doesn't talk about it a lot, but he is very, very spiritual, and I think that's what helps him be the man that he is in every situation, whether it's in the office, in the arena, in the meeting room. It all comes back to his spirituality and his beliefs. That's what I think makes him not only a great person but a great coach."

Taylor, his wife, Avlon, and their three children, Tamia, Gavielle and Savion, obey five simple rules: love God, put family first, tell the truth, always work hard, and always be kind.

"That's really how we try to live," Avlon says. "As you know with kids, it's not flawless. With adults, it's not flawless, but it's something we can refer back to that they understand this is what we're about. So the day Billy and I are no longer around and somebody asks them what were your mom and dad like, they can go back to those five simple points and say this is how we try to live."

The Taylor family is the American dream -- with a catch. Avlon actually hails from South Africa. She came to the United States to study at Oral Roberts University, a Christian college in Tulsa, Okla. Her family still lives in South Africa, and she returns home for visits every few years.

Avlon befriended a woman named Monica at Oral Roberts. Taylor just so happened to be childhood friends with Monica, and she introduced him to Avlon. The sparks soon flew and after dating long distance for six months, Avlon decided to move into an apartment in South Bend to be near Taylor, a first-year assistant basketball coach at Notre Dame.

Their courtship lasted for about two years before marriage on May 28, 2000. Avlon sits next to Billy in an office in Worthen Arena and they smile throughout with their eyes locked as they reflect on these past 11 years.

Avlon is emotional, whereas her husband is sometimes stoic, but she is clearly the rock of this couple. She inspires her husband to perform his best as a coach, husband and father with a passion for life that harks back to rule No. 4 -- always work hard.

"Some people will physically steal something from the place they work, but some people will steal time. What's the difference?" Avlon says. "I don't ever feel like I'm second. I don't ever feel his job comes before me or the kids. I've never put him in a position where he feels he has to choose. Because he made his choice, and I'm it. I don't have to worry about if he's got to be here. He's here because of how he loves us. When he's home, he's home. He's truly present."

The next time someone associated with the Ball State program questions whether or not Taylor devotes enough of himself to his profession will be the first, but on his priority list, Taylor follows rule No. 2 -- put family first.

"He talks about his family enough around the office where you just know the guy loves everyone in his family, and everyone around him," says assistant coach Mitch Gilfillan, who played for Taylor at Lehigh before joining his staff at Ball State. "His kids stop by the office and he's all smiles. It's really a family environment here, and I don't think that can be said for every staff in America, that they're that family involved."

Dennis and LaVerne Taylor instilled in their son the importance of family. Billy speaks glowingly about his parents, who travel frequently from Aurora, Ill., to Muncie to visit their son, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren.

LaVerne held a teaching position for 30-plus years. She primarily taught fifth and sixth grader before moving up to the middle school ranks. Taylor inherited his sense of right and wrong, and how to interact with his players from his mother.

"She loved teaching. She loved being around the kids. She loved interacting with the teachers in school," Taylor says. "That was a big part of who she was, and I think it's one of the reasons I'm in coaching. I also consider myself a teacher and certainly her influence in my life has been instrumental."

His height (6-foot-5) and athleticism trace back to his father. The 6-foot-8 Dennis played basketball and ran track at Northern Illinois. He then played AAU basketball for Marathon Oil, a travel team based out of Aurora, Ill.

Taylor and his father formed a tight-knit bond that still exists today through their passion for basketball. Dennis coached his son in his formative years, and Taylor soon blossomed into a star on the hardwood.

"He had success with every level he played," Dennis says. "It was unusual in that it was a very cool success, because much like he coaches now you could never tell with the expression on his face if his team won or lost, if he scored 30 points or two points. His expression or demeanor was always the same."

Taylor shined as one of the best players in the Chicago area in high school. He played for legendary West Aurora coach Gordie Kerkman, who surpassed the 700-win threshold last season. Kerkman preached unselfishness and defense, two focal points his pupil Taylor now passes down as a coach to his own players.

Some prominent NCAA Division I programs recruited Taylor in high school before he committed to Notre Dame and head coach Digger Phelps. Taylor never played for Phelps, though. Phelps retired from Notre Dame after the 1990-91 season in which the Fighting Irish finished with a 12-20 mark, their first losing record since his first year at the helm.

Taylor admits he felt uneasy after Phelps resigned, but not enough to re-open his recruitment. Phelps, and basketball for that matter, only played a small role in why Taylor committed to the Fighting Irish. His parents raised him in a Catholic church, and he thrived in the classroom, so Notre Dame attracted him for academic and religious purposes.

Besides, Taylor trusted Notre Dame to hire a capable replacement, and his faith paid off when the Fighting Irish signed John MacLeod as their head coach.

"I heard about John MacLeod and kind of his interest in Notre Dame from watching the Bulls play the Knicks in the NBA playoffs," Taylor says. "The Bulls and the Knicks were in the first round of the playoffs, and the Bulls had just eliminated the Knicks, and the announcers for the Bulls said, 'We hear John MacLeod, the Knicks coach, will be flying out to South Bend and will possibly be named the Notre Dame coach.' I was like, wow. ... That's kind of what I figured for Notre Dame. They were going to get somebody of the highest, highest character."

Taylor played for Notre Dame from 1991-95. He contributed on the hardwood as a role player, but he truly excelled in the classroom as an accounting major. Taylor took a position at Arthur Andersen upon graduation and passed the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination to be certified as a CPA.

Taylor stayed at Arthur Andersen for three years before his passion for basketball drew him back to his alma mater. MacLeod sensed that Taylor felt unfilled in the professional world, and the Notre Dame head coach respected his basketball instincts enough to offer him an assistant position on his staff.

"Billy was smart. He picked everything up," MacLeod says. "You didn't have to keep telling him two or three times. He was just a plus to have on a team."

Taylor assisted his mentor for only one season before MacLeod resigned from Notre Dame in the spring of 1999. But MacLeod left a lasting impression on Taylor.

The two men stay in contact to this day. Taylor mirrors Kerkman from an X's and O's standpoint, but his calm demeanor on the bench and the respectful manner in which he treats his players directly reflect what he learned from MacLeod.

"The strongest thing I take from Coach MacLeod is you can be yourself as a head coach," Taylor says. "... Coach MacLeod was very demanding, but he did it in a different way, and besides my dad, he was the first coach I played for in organized basketball who was like that. He was very classy, a gentleman, professional, was never going to demean student-athletes, kids. I respected that so much, and I think that's what allowed me to change my view of coaching and see, well, I guess I could do this as a professional career choice, because obviously the time I was playing, Bob Knight was still coaching and that was kind of the era of what coaching was. That's really all I knew as coaches, and I didn't know anyone like John MacLeod. That's why I am the way I am as a coach, and I'll never be a yeller or screamer. Because again, my college coach told me you don't have to do that to get across your message."

Ball State senior point guard Randy Davis says in pressure-filled moments he glances over toward the bench at Taylor and a calmness suddenly washes over him.

Gilfillan played point guard for Taylor at Lehigh, and he, too, remembers how everyone fed off his calm demeanor.

"I think so much of him and kind of how he presents himself, that's the faith-based side of him," Gilfillan says. "He's never too high. He's never too low. He's always even-keeled, and you always know what you're going to get."

Simmons says how Taylor acted after Lehigh won the 2004 Patriot League Tournament to clinch an NCAA Tournament berth perfectly illustrates his composure.

"The place is going nuts, fans are coming over the rails onto the floor, players are all over the place, and he simply turns and shakes Brett's hand, shakes my hand and goes down and shakes the other coach's hand," Simmons says. "Was he happy? He was ecstatic. But that's how he is. He's very calm, cool and collected all of the time."

The trip to the 2004 NCAA Tournament stands as the only one for Taylor thus far as a head coach.

Ball State won just six games in his first year at the helm, but after a rigorous rebuilding process, Taylor coached the Cardinals to a 19-13 record last season, their best win total since 2001-02.

The Cardinals return their top five scorers from a year ago, and with the rebuilding process complete, and the program fully cleansed, Taylor considers a Mid-American Conference Tournament championship, and the accompanying NCAA Tournament berth, to be realistic expectations for this his fifth season at Ball State.

"That's definitely what we're competing for now," Taylor says. "There was a point and time when that wasn't realistic for our program. We had to take baby steps. We had to crawl before we could walk and then walk before we could run. Now we can run, and we've seen we can run, and now we want to run more."

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