Ray Heitzmann was no basketball star, but he believed from an early age that sports was the perfect path to success.

So he spent most of his life teaching, and coaching people about stuff that sports taught him.

Confidence. Perseverance. Sportsmanship. Humor.

“He held a deep passion and loyalty to things he felt deeply about – sports, academics, and family, and friends,” his son, Rick, wrote in a tribute.

An author of more than 50 books with a Ph.D. in learning and instruction, Dr. Heitzmann preferred to be addressed as “Coach.” And coach he did. For nearly his whole life, he coached basketball at nearly all levels – college teams to fun leagues – and spread his message of personal growth and opportunity through sports.

After short stops as a high school teacher and coach in Chicago and Highland Falls, N.Y., he settled in for a 40-year run at Villanova as a professor, coach, academic adviser, and all-around Wildcats booster. He retired several times, unable to actually call it quits the first time in 2010, and administrators smiled when he returned.

Dr. Heitzmann, 78, died Sunday, July 11, from complications of the coronavirus at Wellington at Hershey’s Mill.

Born in Weehawken, N.J., to Mary and William Heitzmann, William Ray Heitzmann graduated from New York’s Power Memorial High School a few years ahead of basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Knowing that bad knees and a 5-foot-9 stature were not optimal for a basketball player, Dr. Heitzmann earned an academic scholarship and graduated from Villanova in 1964 with a degree in education.

He earned a master’s degree in teaching at the University of Chicago in 1966 on another scholarship, and later got his Ph.D. at Delaware in 1974. He met another teacher, Kathy Esnes, during his time at Highland Falls. They married and moved to Havertown when he returned to Villanova in 1969 for a teaching job.

The couple had son Rick and daughter Mary, and Dr. Heitzmann doted on their achievements. He and his wife divorced after 25 years but remained friends.

Dr. Heitzmann at a Villanova graduation.
Courtesy of the family
Dr. Heitzmann at a Villanova graduation.

During that four-decade run at ’Nova, Rick Heitzmann wrote, his father spent much of his time “community teaching, coaching, mentoring, and laughing.” He led the graduate education program by day and urged players at night to practice their foul shooting more. He especially sought young people who needed him most. One former player called Dr. Heitzmann the father he never had.

He coached countless players, including NFL greats Howie Long and Brian Westbrook, in Villanova’s intramural programs, and he was there when the Wildcats won the men’s basketball national championship in 1985. He also served as the first men’s basketball coach at Neumann University and was thrilled with his .500 record for the first season.

Dr. Heitzmann was proud of his Villanova connections.
Courtesy of the family
Dr. Heitzmann was proud of his Villanova connections.

A prolific writer on many topics – naval leadership, Jewish voting behavior, opportunities in sports – he published more than 2,000 articles and was featured in 1988 by The Inquirer as a “Renaissance man” for the variety on his resumé.

“He cared a lot about winning but more about giving your best, playing the right way, and showing integrity,” Rick Heitzmann wrote.

In addition to his children and former wife, Dr. Heitzmann is survived by five grandchildren and a sister. Services are to be later.

Contributions in Dr. Heitzmann’s memory may be made to Villanova University, Picotte Hall, 800 E. Lancaster Ave, Villanova, Pa. 19085 or online at www.villanova.edu/makeagift (click on “Memorial Gift” and write-in Heitzmann Scholarship in the “designate your gift” line, then Dr. Ray Heitzmann in the “gift in memory” line.

— Gary Miles, gmiles@inquirer.com