Ralph “Ace” Harrison always had a way with people.
Whether he was coaching football or golf, or officiating a game, Harrison left a lasting impression on anyone he came into contact with.
“He really was one of a kind,” said Birdwood Golf Course superintendent Matt Wade, who played golf for Harrison at Albemarle High School in the mid-1980s. “He helped me in so many ways, from high school through my current life that can’t be explained. He meant the world to me.”
Harrison, a former Albemarle High School football and golf coach and University of Virginia assistant coach, died this week at the age of 92. Harrison earned the nickname “Ace” because if he couldn’t remember your name, he called you “Acey.”
Harrison was a fixture in high school and college sports in Central Virginia as a coach and official for more than 50 years. He posted a 47-12-1 record in six seasons as the head football coach at Albemarle High School, including three 10-0 seasons and three Valley District titles. The Springfield, Mo. native also guided the Patriots’ golf team from 1971-90 and led AHS to the 1974 VHSL Group AAA state championship.
He came to Charlottesville in 1958 and served as a secondary coach on Dick Voris’ staff at UVa. After that staff was let go in 1961, Harrison remained in Charlottesville and joined legendary coach Tommy Theodose’s staff at Lane High School during the start of the Black Knights’ legendary 53-game winning streak. In 1965, Harrison was named the head coach at Albemarle High School at the age of 37.
Al Groh, the former Virginia and New York Jets coach, joined Harrison’s staff in 1966 while he was still a student at UVa job. Groh got the job despite having no previous coaching experience.
“I had as much difficulty with statistics as I did with offensive linemen, so as a result I was back for a fifth year [at UVa] on my own dime,” Groh said. “I was looking for ways to make money and was asked to coach at Albemarle. Despite the fact that I was pursing a degree in commerce, inwardly, I had a pull to coaching.”
Harrison placed Groh in charge of the outside linebackers that season. Albemarle finished with a 10-0 record.
“This is fun, all we do is win,” Groh said. “Ace gave me a lot of direction and instruction and coached his players the way he wanted them coached, and put me out there and let me coach. That was a carryover lesson that I took. I would like to think that things that I learned that I was able to nurture and develop and that I was better for having spent that time with him.”
Although known for his quick quips and colorful language at times, Harrison was much more complex, Groh said.
“If you didn’t know him on a deep basis, that’s all you knew about him,” Groh said. “Behind all of that, he was a very genuine and introspective guy. He had a wonderful ability to see through pretension and phoniness and see the real person. He was very consistent in what he believed. Very resolute in his principals. He made his mark on so many coaches and athletes.”
Harrison also had a similar impact on his players.
Andrew Minton played quarterback for Harrison at Albemarle, beginning a relationship that would continue for more than 50 years.
“He was so important and influential in my life,” said Minton, who was part of the Patriots’ undefeated team in 1966. “He was tough, but always fair as a coach. I grew up playing for extraordinary men, but Coach Harrison took me under his wing the first day I arrived at Albemarle.”
Minton, who owns a jewelry store in Charlottesville, said Harrison would regularly stop by to check in on him and talk football.
“In later years, he became a close friend as well as [his wife] Patty. I miss them so much,” Minton said. “He visited my store frequently until very recently. He was a student of the game and we talked about his philosophy every visit and he was always insightful. I swear that he was a coaching genius.”
Jack Snyder, the director of golf at Glenmore Country Club, was a four-year starter for Harrison on the Albemarle golf team and was a senior on the Patriots’ 1974 state championship team.
“Ace was one of my biggest supporters throughout my time at Albemarle,” Snyder said. “When I signed to play D-I golf at Georgia Southern, he made it known that he expected me to take no prisoners.”
One of Snyder’s most vivid memories of his time under Harrison’s guidance at Albemarle happened during a tournament on the Quantico Marine Base. It was a two-day tournament, so the team spent the night in the marine barracks.
“One morning after using the bathroom before play, I noticed the parquet floor was really slick and I got a running start and slid 60 feet from one side to the other,” Snyder recalled. “Coach was watching me do this with a grin on his face because he knew what was coming next. This large marine, who had just finished waxing the floor, grabbed me from behind, lifted me off the ground with his one arm and cursed at me, ‘GD high school punk.’ He sat me down and told me to get out. Ace called me a GD high school punk for a long time after that and would let me know that he hadn’t forgotten it.”
Snyder, who played golf for Harrison from 1982-86, said his coach always had a way with words.
“The first thing that comes to mind when talking about Ace was his comedic genius, I really missed that,” he said. “Ace had some of the best one-liners and stories that would make you belly laugh and the topics and delivery were nothing I had ever heard then or since. They were original.”
Joking aside, Snyder said Harrison did have a serious side.
“Ace was so well-read and such a historian that we learned something different on those [golf] trips,” Snyder said. “Each trip was a history lesson, either locally or otherwise. I can guarantee that all of us learned more on those trips than we ever did in a classroom.”
Todd Hawkins had Harrison as a driver’s ed instructor during his time at Albemarle and remembers his unique methods to promote safety.
“If you rolled through a stop sign or didn’t yield properly or whatever you messed up, he’d radio the car,” Hawkins said. “He told you to stop and get out of the car and hug and apologize to the sign loud enough so he could hear it over the radio and then you needed to hug the sign post.”
After his coaching days, Harrison remained active in sports, refereeing football basketball and baseball games for more than 40 years at all levels, including several state football championships. He also officiated college basketball. Harrison served as commissioner of the Piedmont Football Officials, president of Piedmont Baseball Officials and was a golf rules interpreter as well as a starter at track and field competitions. In 2001, he was inducted to the Virginia High School League Hall of Fame as a contributor.
Hawkins and Harrison officiated football games together in the Valley District and he treated him as an equal.
“Maybe it’s because I was an Albemarle kid, but for whatever reason, he took an interest in me as a young official and I didn’t appreciate until after he retired just how fortunate I was to be on his crew the latter part of his hall-of-fame career,” he said. “We always seemed to be assigned the game of the week, most often in the Valley [District] and, so hearing all of this past experiences and stories on the drives to and from games was in many ways the best part of the evening.”
Hawkins said their games were always the easiest to work because the coaches looked forward to seeing Harrison because he was one of them and coaches felt comfortable knowing he’d officiate a fair game.
“Ace was all business during games,” he said. “He held the coach’s respect on both sidelines because he’d admit if we messed up, even going so far as making an official pick up his flag if the call was that awful, unnecessary or missed. But he also would only take so much gruff before putting them in place with a one-liner that almost always seemed to have a calming effect on all but the most imbecilic coaches.”
Former UVa baseball great Mike Cubbage remembered Harrison umpiring his games in high school and raved about the way he called games.
“He was the best, by far, in the area,” he said. “I used to tell him later on he could’ve been a great major league umpire. He had a great demeanor and personality for it. He had a great eye and feel for the game and he was just an easy-go lucky guy.”
Cubbage said Harrison was always willing to talk baseball.
“He was a great story-teller,” Cubbage said. “He had great stories about legendary baseball players and I would love to sit and talk to him about Mickey Mantle. He was just a fun guy. He had so much energy, and a bounce in his step. He was a great coach and his players loved him. I wish I would’ve played for him.”
That feeling was mutual among his players.
“He was someone I looked up to, not only as a coach, but as a mentor as well,” Snyder said. “Ace was such a special person. He was genuine, kind and would always make time for you if you approached him. He was the consummate coach, mentor and friend. He will be missed tremendously by all of us who were blessed with his friendship.”