Friends of a beloved Fort Worth Independent School District coach and mentor are remembering his life and legacy.
Willie Criss spent five decades coaching in North Texas, many of them at O.D. Wyatt High School.
If you measure greatness by how many games you win, then over 100 victories at one school certainly checks the box.
But for Lisa Langston, the impact and legacy of Willie Criss is one you can’t find on just any field.
“How do people make you feel,” Langston said. “And he made me feel special.”
Langston was a young track coach when she first met Criss. Now as athletic director at Fort Worth ISD, she said Monday that Criss, long since retired, was still a regular at many athletic events for many Fort Worth schools.
“This is a tough loss, it really is. He was a good man,” Langston said.
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Criss died Sunday at the age of 86.
He started coaching in the small East Texas town of Diboll in 1961. Two years later he arrived in Fort Worth, the same year a federal court ordered the FWISD to start allowing black and white students to attend the same school.
Criss would become the head football coach at O.D. Wyatt High School in 1984 until he retired for the first time in 1997. He came back for four more seasons before retiring for good in 2007. By then, he was already in his seventies and had amassed more than 100 wins.
Former Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Walter Dansby said Criss paved the way for so many more.
“Because of his influence and his efforts and his courage, a lot of us have been able to do the things we’re doing in life now,” Dansby told NBC 5. “He’s a legend. He’s an icon.”
“You wanted to do well because here is someone that is a living example – who endured – so whatever coaching issues I may have been coming up with at that time I know it was nothing like what he had faced," Langston added.
Both of his sons became head coaches at O.D. Wyatt. The family coaching tree now extends to grandchildren who work at the school with the field house named after Willie Criss, which includes the affectionate “Daddy Criss” nickname so many knew him by.
Dunbar High School head football coach Todd Lawson said Monday that Criss’s influence extended well beyond coaching strategy.
“What he’s leaving is something that will live on - live on many years down the line,” Lawson said.
Langston said she will remember Criss as someone who had a unique ability to connect with whoever he was interacting with, understood the importance of lifelong relationships and led by example.