OGDEN -- As Phil Russell enjoyed dinner with the Ogden High School administration and his wife Monday night, he had no idea that crowds were gathering to honor him in the Ogden High School gym, which is named after him.
As he slowly entered the gym to a standing ovation, he smiled humbly, waved and pointed at old friends. Russell, a 42-year veteran teacher, girls basketball coach and athletic director, will retire later this month. He's a living legend around Ogden High School and its many alumni, faculty and administrators who have rubbed elbows with him through the years. That's why Student Body President Morgan Jones thought it was fitting to honor him.
"It was a like a light bulb went off in my head, and I knew I had to do something," Jones said. "He means the world to me and played a big part in shaping who I have become."
Russell coached her in basketball at the beginning of her high school career.
Jones created a tribute movie for Russell and interviewed many former students and faculty who worked with Russell over the years. She planned to show the movie Monday, but after a computer glitch was not able to present the project she had been working on for months.
Those in attendance, though, were just glad to honor Russell and to see each other. Jones paid tribute to Russell as he sat surrounded by his family in the middle of the high school gym.
"What I came to realize when I was working on this video is how many people care about you so much," she said.
She then turned the microphone over to the audience and a steady stream of Russell's fans paid tribute to him for more than an hour -- sharing stories of their personal experiences with him.
Tears were shed by many as several people talked about how Russell had personally touched their lives.
"Things I didn't want to hear from my parents, like not to stay out late or what boys not to date, I wanted to hear from you," said former Ogden basketball player Marci Allen. Her family moved to Layton before she had a chance to play for "coach" and came back to Ogden High specifically for him.
His first girls' team stood before him as well.
"Right here is your very first starting five," said Jeri Laird.
She and her former teammates laughed and cried as they related their experiences with Russell. Many who spoke laughed about the colorful language Russell often used with students.
"No parents ever complained, because the students never wanted to get him in trouble," joked Dave Nordquist, who worked in athletics and taught at the school with Russell for more than 30 years.
The former student athletes talked about how Russell would call them the night before every game to make sure they were home and tell them if they would be starting.
"We all wanted to get that call," said Anne Handy, a former All-American who played for Russell's first state championship girls basketball team.
Handy went on to play professional basketball and is now a high school coach at Davis High School. She said she often thinks about what Russell would do in certain situations and still maintains a close relationship with him after all the years. Handy played for Russell in the early 1980s.
Almost everyone who spoke about Russell mentioned that they knew Russell loved them, and how he told them that often.
"He would always tell us how much he loved us. I'm so proud to say I played at Ogden High School for Phil Russell," Handy said.
Russell had hugs for everyone as long lines waited to greet him and many spoke.
"I'm totally amazed and overwhelmed," Russell said. He said he has loved his years at the school and has many fond memories. "I can't say a single one thing. Of course the kids, the faculties, administrations and coaching are all No. 1," he said. Then, laughing, "I coached kids and swore at them for 38 years."
Russell has served as the athletic director for the past few years and has been a constant at all sporting events at the school. Principal Stacey Briggs said he will be sorely missed, and she echoed many when she said Ogden High won't be the same without him.
Briggs saw a bright side, though.
"I have a feeling he won't be too far away. He has a grandson coming to play here next year, and I've heard rumors he will be doing stats. He'll be back."