Ron Galbreath’s Love of his Players and Basketball Spanned Decades and Rival Schools

By Justin Zackal

Photo of Ron Galbreath courtesy of Westminster College.

Even after he surpassed his 50th year and his youth basketball camp was approaching its 30th summer, Ron Galbreath began his camps with the same demonstration: he drained 15-foot jump shots while addressing a backcourt of cross-legged hoop dreamers who sat up higher and whose eyes grew wider with each consecutive made basket. An entire week’s itinerary could be covered before a shot, retrieved by a camp counselor, would hit anything but the net.

This was the way Galbreath lived his life, not as a show-off, but rather showing examples of consistency and grace in his words and actions through the rhythms of basketball — the drills, the practices, the games, the weeklong camps, the ups and downs of full seasons. Galbreath was steady, true and with his enthusiasm any miss meant that the next made shot was the start of another streak.

But after 77 years of his life, more than half of which as a head coach at three colleges, Galbreath’s impeccable run came to an end. On Dec. 9, 2017, Dr. Ronald Galbreath passed away.

“Everyone around here took advantage of (his presence) because they knew Coach loved being around them and he was willing to offer his knowledge,” said Van Zanic, athletic director at Geneva College where Galbreath started and finished his coaching career. “It wasn’t just X’s and O’s, it was how to manage people and how to treat people the right way. That’s going to be his lasting legacy.”

Galbreath was remembered at a Celebration of Life service at Geneva College’s Metheny Fieldhouse, Dec. 16, a week following his death and 10 days after he suffered a stroke. Even after he hung up his whistle as Geneva’s women’s basketball coach in 2009, Galbreath attended athletic events at Geneva and made frequent visits to coaches’ offices.

“He just loved being with people and loved being around the athletes,” said Zanic.

Galbreath starting his coaching career as an assistant men’s basketball coach at Geneva, before he was hired as the head coach at his alma mater, Westminster College, in 1968, and a year later as Clarion University’s head coach for five years. He returned to New Wilmington in 1974 and coached the Titans to a 448-206 record over 25 seasons at Westminster, including 18 postseason appearances, six district titles and three trips to the NAIA national tournament in 1982, 1994 and 1996.

NAIA All-America Ron Galbreath with Westminster coach C.G. “Buzz” Ridl in 1962.

As a player, Galbreath was a two-time All-American at Westminster in 1961 and 1962 while playing for another coaching legend, C.G. “Buzz” Ridl, also known as a gentleman of the gym who preached the fundamentals. Galbreath succeeded him when Ridl left Westminster to become the head coach at Pitt in 1968.

Considered by many at Westminster to be on the Mount Rushmore of coaches at a school that won six national championships in football, Galbreath was known for how he developed his players, not just for the winning results.

“He cared about you more as a person than as a player,” said Westminster Athletic Director Jim Dafler, who was hired by Galbreath as an assistant coach in 1989 and who eventually succeeded Galbreath as head coach in 1998. “He was really concerned about his players. He taught them a lot more than just basketball.”

Galbreath would often read inspirational quotes to campers and his players, and as a devout Christian he would facilitate morning devotionals or take his teams to Sunday morning worship while on road trips.

Dafler marveled at Galbreath’s enthusiasm and positivity, recalling how he would often give out candy root beer barrels or other tokens when a camper or even one of his college players did a nice job, which may seem hokey now, but even to a 20-year-old collegian that meant something coming from Galbreath. But that didn’t mean Galbreath wasn’t a fierce competitor.

“He smiled and he was a good guy, (he was) very humble in victory and humble in defeat, but he wanted to win,” Dafler said. “With his competitiveness there were times when he just willed his team to win. We’d have a timeout at the end of a game sometimes and his coaching was not X’s and O’s, it was, ‘Let’s win it, let’s win it!,’ ‘Who’s going to win it for me?,’ ‘Who’s going to get the rebound?,’ ‘Who’s going to make the shot?’ He was just very competitive from that standpoint but very gracious if it didn’t go his way.”

Galbreath stepped down as Westminster’s men’s basketball coach in 1998 when the school decided to leave the dwindling NAIA for financial reasons and compete in NCAA Division II. Galbreath was not in favor of the move and, with his motion sickness, he also had an aversion to long bus rides, which Westminster would encounter by playing many of its conference games in Michigan.

He remained on Westminster’s staff as cross country coach but continued his popular basketball camps at Geneva, as not to interfere with the progression of other Westminster camps under the direction of new men’s and women’s coaches.

Photo of Ron Galbreath courtesy of Geneva College.

Galbreath recognized the importance of Westminster’s rivalry with Geneva but he never perpetuated it with hatred. After all, his wife, Patricia, and two brothers were Geneva alumni. Even as the enemy, he was still respected by opposing teams, players and fans, and Geneva was no different. But still, it raised some eyebrows when Galbreath was hired as Geneva’s women’s basketball coach in 2002.

“I remember writing that press release and there was a lot of scuttlebutt about that,” said Zanic, Geneva’s softball coach who was also the sports information director before becoming athletic director. “I associated it today if (Duke) Coach (Mike) Krzyzewski were to coach the North Carolina women. In our little world, that’s parallel to it. It didn’t take long before he was a Geneva guy. But even to his last days, he was Westminster and Geneva.”

“He was always complimentary of what he’d been able to do at Westminster and he couldn’t be more gracious about that,” Dafler said. “He was very loyal to Westminster; this was his alma mater. Now, he had this relationship with Geneva. That bothered some people because of the rivalry and he was such a big part of the success that Westminster teams had. He played here and coached here, but he loved basketball and coaching basketball.”

Geneva also eventually left the NAIA and Westminster left NCAA Division II. Both schools were reunited as conference rivals in NCAA Division III’s Presidents’ Athletic Conference, meaning Galbreath returned to Westminster as an opposing coach.

“It was always odd seeing him sitting on the other bench,” Dafler said. “But he said, ‘At the end of the day, it’s still basketball. I love basketball, I love coaching it and I love teaching it, and I love my players.’”

Galbreath compiled a record of 111-48 in six seasons at Geneva, including the team’s first trip to the NAIA national tournament in 2007, before he stepped down in 2009 for health reasons. All told, he amassed a coaching record of 634-192 (.798).

In one of his final visits to Westminster, Galbreath was interviewed at halftime of the Westminster-Geneva football game last season by the Beaver Falls radio station that covers Geneva. He wouldn’t budge either way when asked about his rooting interest that day; he was there to support both schools. At his memorial service, a story was shared about how Galbreath had a blue jacket with GENEVA on it and he was the only person who could pull that off.

“He never had a bad word about anybody,” Zanic added. “There’s not a fake bone in his body. He’s just a genuine guy. That, to me, is the most important thing.”

Like his jump shot, Galbreath was down middle and well-adjusted. And by living a long life, he had the range to go with it. But when you’re in the presence of a pure, graceful shooter, you want to sit up and see how long and how far he could go. In life, Ron Galbreath never seemed to miss, but in death he will be missed.