Bill Higgins was counting down the days leading up to the return of the boys’ basketball state tournament to Glens Falls, which takes place next month. It’s an event the longtime coach, official and high school administrator oversaw for nearly three decades, and where he had made so many friends.
“He was a real people person,” said Alex Mancini, who played basketball for Higgins and later worked alongside him at Fonda-Fultonville. “Anytime you saw him, he had a story or a line or a joke — and he made you feel a little better. I don’t know how you bottle that, but he had it.”
Higgins died Monday night after suffering a heart attack at his home in Saratoga County at the age of 83, leaving behind his wife, Stanley, children Kim and Kevin and three grandchildren, as well as a void in Section II athletic circles and beyond.
“I’m thinking about all of the people he touched,” said Ryan Stanzel, who played baseball at Galway when Higgins was a coach there.
“His focus was always on what was in the best interest of the kids,” New York State Public High School Athletic Association Executive Director Robert Zayas said.
Higgins served as the NYSPHSAA boys’ basketball coordinator from 1989 through 2016, and continued afterward in an advisory capacity.
“This was his time of the year,” former Section II basketball coordinator and Stillwater boys’ basketball coach Mike Lilac said of his good friend. “He was looking forward to seeing all of the people there. I was talking to him about it an hour before [he died].”
Higgins had stints as a member of the Section II basketball committee and as a member of the NYSPHSAA Executive Committee to go along with his role as the state basketball coordinator.
“We established one of the best basketball state championships in the country, and Bill was instrumental in organizing and coordinating it for 27 years,” Zayas said of the Cambridge High School and Muhlenberg College graduate. “It’s a tremendous loss for Section II, the state and the basketball community.”
“We worked alongside each other for so many years,” Lilac said. “Bill was one of those guys who couldn’t do enough for the kids. As an educator, superintendent and coach, he did it all. It’s a great loss. It was so unexpected, and that’s what makes it that much tougher.”
Higgins coached boys’ basketball at Muncy (Pa.), Whitehall and Fonda-Fultonville, with his teams earning seven league titles, three co-championships and two Section II crowns.
“I always felt when we played for him, he’d find a way to win the game,” said Mancini, who graduated from Fonda-Fultonville in 1975 with a trio of league titles, and later coached football and filled the athletic director position at the school. “He was a great guy to play for, and a great guy to work for. Playing for him was fun, and working for him was enjoyable.”
“People sometimes forget about his coaching because he was such an amazing educator and because of his [football] officiating,” Stanzel said.
Stanzel, who graduated from Galway in 1996, recalled some advice he was given by Higgins.
“What made him so unique was his interest in each individual he mentored,” Stanzel wrote in an email to the Daily Gazette. “He knew I wanted to be a New York Yankee. He pointed out my sub .300 batting average my senior year and suggested I may be better off working for them. I parlayed his advice to a 15-year-career as a sports public relations executive, including eight in the NHL. Bill truly formed relationships that continued a lifetime.”
In August, Higgins was enshrined into the Capital Region Football Hall of Fame for his work as an official, and he had previously been inducted into the American Football Hall of Fame for his grid efforts. He is also a member of the Fonda-Fultonville Athletic Hall of Fame (inaugural class), Capital Region Basketball Hall of Fame and New York State Basketball Hall of Fame.
“When I saw he made the local football hall of fame, I thought, ‘What hall of fame is he not in?’” Stanzel said.
Higgins was the principal at Fonda-Fultonville from 1971-78 and its superintendent of schools from 1979-93. Later, he served as the superintendent or athletic director on an interim basis at several other Section II districts, including Galway, Saratoga Springs and Queensbury, among others.
“People used to bust on him. He’d go to a school, and they’d win a championship,” Mancini said. “Everyone wanted to hire Bill.”
That was because Higgins got things done, but it was about more than that, too. He was a big man with a big smile.
“He had that knack,” Lilac said. “He’d laugh. You’d laugh. He was a people person.”
Higgins will be honored at the March 20-22 state basketball tournament at Cool Insuring Arena. The tournament returns to Glens Falls, its longtime home, after a three-year stay in Binghamton.