February 8, 2023
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Coming to Assumption jump-starts Argo’s Hall of Fame career | Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame

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Billy Argo was raised in the west end of Davenport.

His father, Bill, was in Davenport West High School’s first graduating class in 1961. The majority of his buddies lived on that end of town, and the Rubley family often would take him to games.

It seemed like a formality that Argo — the oldest of Bill and Maureen Argo’s five children — would attend high school at West or Central.

Argo had another thought.

He wanted to attend Assumption High School, an idea his father wasn’t too keen about initially and one that would cost the family considerably more money.

“I knew I was looking for a change,” Argo said. “I don’t know if it was a Holy Spirit kind of thing or a hand guiding me in some way.”

Eventually, his father gave his blessing and Argo enrolled at Assumption beginning his sophomore year. It turned out to be the starting point for a Hall of Fame career.

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Argo, 57, developed into a two-time all-state catcher and was a key cog on the Knights’ first state championship baseball team in 1982.

Less than 20 years after graduating from Assumption, with a three-year stint in the Dodgers minor-league organization mixed in, he returned and coached the storied baseball program to 542 victories, nine state championship games and six state titles in 18 years.

“Billy Argo is a legend,” Assumption baseball coach Greg Thissen said. “He’s not just going out there to win every game, but he invests in the kid.”

Argo has been selected as one of three members of the 36th induction class into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame. He, along with Deb Menke and Don Doxsie, will be formally honored at the Quad-City Times Salute to Sports on Wednesday, June 8, at the Bettendorf High School Performing Arts Center.

The 7 p.m. program, which is free for the public to attend, will also recognize the top high school athletes and teams from the Quad-Cities region.

Tragedy leads to ‘good stuff’

In June 1978, Tom Sunderbruch Jr., 15, John O’Donnell Jr., 14, and their uncle Norman Ash were heading on a weekend fishing trip.

They never made their destination.

The three were killed when their car crashed into a steep embankment on a rural road near McCausland after the driver swerved to avoid an animal.

Argo, close friends with John and his brother, Mike, was a pallbearer for O’Donnell’s funeral.

The tragedy brought an outpouring of support and financial gifts. The Sunderbruch and O’Donnell families created a continuing scholarship fund to assist students with tuition.

Argo was a recipient of the scholarship.

“I could have gone to Assumption as a freshman, but my dad wasn’t sold on it,” Argo said. “He wanted me to attend public school.”

Argo went to Frank L. Smart Intermediate School as a ninth-grader. Once the school year concluded, his father approached him about his next step.

“I still wanted to go to Assumption,” Argo said. “He said, ‘OK, I’ll let you go.’”

The Sunderbruch-O’Donnell scholarship paid for Argo’s tuition.

“I’m not sure my family could have afforded it for me to go there,” he said. “So out of tragedy comes all this good stuff.”

The decision changed him and his family’s life.

Besides his athletic and coaching exploits, Argo and three of his siblings received diplomas from Assumption. He met his wife of 33 years, Kathleen (Wolfe), there and the last of their six children, John, will graduate from the school Sunday.

“Assumption is where it all started,” Argo said.

High school career

The first ball Argo learned to throw was … a softball. His father was an avid fastpitch softball player in an era when the game was vastly popular and the Quad-Cities area was a hotbed.

“It was as simple as playing a lot of catch and watching how he threw,” Argo said. “I tried to throw like him.”

Argo dabbled with wrestling and basketball. He enjoyed baseball, but football was his favorite to play going into high school.

“When I got to high school, my dad was adamant that he didn’t want me to play football,” Argo said. “He was worried about injury.

“When I got to Assumption, I was working the chain gang at one of the first games of the season and I’m like, ‘Dad, I can’t take it. I’ve got to get out there.’”

Argo eventually went out that season, but his father didn’t soften his position about the sport.

“I respected my dad a lot, so I went with his wishes,” he said. “I never played a varsity down of football.”

In the summer of 1980, after Argo finished up his ninth-grade year at Smart, he tried out for the Assumption baseball team. He made the squad and was an immediate starter.

There was no freshman or sophomore team at that point.

“We had 800 students and only one team,” Argo said. “It was a pretty competitive situation.”

Argo started his freshman season as an outfielder but finished the summer behind the plate after all-conference catcher Tony Soer broke his leg on a collision at the plate in a game against Clinton.

“I never caught until high school,” he said. “Just the fear of failing was a constant going through me. I was never really comfortable that year.”

With a disjointed thumb and having to catch fireballer Steve Moseley, Argo had a purple circle around his thumb for the rest of the summer.

He worked extensively with assistant coach Wayne Cabel on receiving skills, blocking and framing pitches.

Argo batted leadoff and caught every game his sophomore, junior and senior seasons. He hit over .400 his last two years and was part of the school’s first state baseball title in 1982.

Before his senior year, Argo made the decision to continue his baseball career at Iowa State University. It came down to Iowa State and a Bradley program which was pumping out high draft picks.

“The attraction of the Big 8 Conference and coach Larry Corrigan was the main reason,” Argo said. “He was an All-American pitcher and catcher and he had a presence about him. He was a man’s man.”

Journey to pro ball

Argo stepped in at Iowa State and had immediate success. He was the newcomer of the year in 1984 and batted over .300 with 13 extra-base hits and 25 RBIs.

After playing catcher as a freshman, Argo was a third baseman as a sophomore, left fielder as a junior and a center fielder as a senior.

While his production at the plate dipped and his fervor for baseball waned, Argo credits a coach he had in the Jayhawk Collegiate Summer League for rekindling his fire.

“He was the third-base coach for Loyola Marymount, which went to the College World Series that year, and he was a guy that really energized me about baseball again,” Argo said. “He came in and had some different ways of doing things, and I was looking for some direction.”

In the June 1987 Amateur Draft, the Los Angeles Dodgers selected Argo in the 32nd round.

He played 245 minor-league games over the next three seasons, including 108 contests with Bakersfield (Calif.) and 85 games with Vero Beach (Fla.) He was in spring training with former big leaguer Steve Sax. His Bakersfield team crossed paths with No. 1 overall pick Ken Griffey Jr. in 1988.

“I had dreams of making it to the big leagues, but those turned into just getting me to one more spring training when you’re coming down to the end of the season,” Argo said.

Argo hit .341 in rookie ball but saw his average plummet to .228 in Year 2 and .217 in Year 3.

“Bottom line, I didn’t swing it well enough to move along,” he said. “They had no money invested in me.”

Argo received a pink slip from the Dodgers in December 1989.

“I went in my room and cried for a while,” he said. “I knew it was coming. I had my time and that was the end.”

Life after baseball

Argo had no time to sulk. When he received his pink slip, he had been married for seven months and his oldest son, Willie, was nearly two months old.

“I needed to finish my degree,” Argo said. “My wife was already working, so there was a little more sense of urgency about school and getting into the work force.”

Argo started school at the University of Iowa in the fall of 1990. He talked with baseball coach Duane Banks about helping out and Banks took him on as an undergraduate assistant.

“I lived in Davenport and commuted for two years to Iowa City to finish my degree (in sports management),” he said.

He also coached an American Legion team from 1991-93 which included players from all four Davenport schools.

From Iowa, Argo went to St. Ambrose and was a graduate assistant on Todd Becker’s staff. Argo experienced the Fighting Bees’ run to the NAIA World Series in Des Moines in 1994.

“Then I had to get a real job,” Argo said.

Argo drove a beer truck for his father-in-law for two years.

Coaching, though, was something that appealed to him.

“I thought it would be more at the college level, but I saw what those coaches were making, the kind of work and time they were putting into it and for not a lot of pay,” he said. “Plus, we wanted to have a bigger family, so I knew I needed to have good insurance.”

His father-in-law asked him in 1996 if he was satisfied driving a beer truck. Argo was not.

“He’s like, ‘What do you want to do?’” Argo recalled. “I’m like, ‘I think I want to teach and coach.’”

With the financial help of his father-in-law and St. Ambrose, Argo went through the two-year teacher certification program at St. Ambrose and coached baseball for two more seasons with the Fighting Bees.

Argo was a physical education teacher for 18 years at Smart Intermediate, spent a year at Monroe Elementary and now is concluding his fifth year at Sudlow Intermediate School.

Back to Assumption

Scott Harding, a player on the St. Ambrose World Series team, was the head coach at Assumption in the late 1990s when he reached out to Argo about an opening on his staff.

“You want to coach my sophomore team?” Harding asked Argo. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I want to get into high school coaching.”

The Knights won a state championship under Harding in 1999 and then he decided to step down after the 2000 season.

Randy Norton, Assumption’s athletic director at the time, knew Argo was interested in the position.

“He’s like, ‘I assume you want this job?’” Argo said. “I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ He said, ‘Congratulations, you’re the next head coach.’ It was a handshake deal.”

Argo was confident in his teaching and coaching skills, but his first season in 2001 was a steep learning curve. Field maintenance, uniforms and fundraisers were all things he had never been responsible for as a college assistant or graduate assistant.

“I’m not sure I came into it with a vision,” Argo said. “Organizational skills have never been my strong suit, and there were a lot of things I didn’t think about, a lot of things away from dirt and the grass.”

He had two volunteer assistants — Chris Cartee and Arnie Chavera. The Knights went 19-20 in Argo’s first season, the only time the program has finished under .500 since the turn of the century.

“It wasn’t a super strong group that first year. It was a good bunch of kids to work with,” Argo said. “We weren’t great and we needed to put up wins for team morale.”

It didn’t take long for Argo to turn things around.

The program added two assistant coaches in 2002 — Dan Cutler, a former minor leaguer with the Quad City organization, and Dennis Coiner, who was on West’s 1987 state championship team.

Ed Grothus also took over as the groundskeeper that season.

“When Ed sets his mind to something, he gets it done,” Argo said. “He made our field better and safer, a place that our guys could be proud of.”

Championship success

The Knights made the state tournament in 2002 and lost in the championship game to Knoxville. They returned a year later as the top seed and fell in the state quarterfinals to Sioux City Heelan, the only time in Argo’s career he dropped the opening game at state.

Assumption won its first title under Argo in 2004 with an 8-1 win over Charles City. It backed it up in 2006 with a 2A crown and then added a third title in 2008.

All the experiences Argo gained through his playing career, in his time at Iowa and two stints with St. Ambrose helped mold his coaching philosophy.

“I really liked how the pro game operated,” Argo said. “We needed to understand what our job was and then needed to go do it. I don’t need to stand right next to you and tell you what to do.

“We weren’t going to be panicked, we weren’t going to be afraid. We were going to enjoy our highs but make sure we understand this is a game of attrition.”

The Knights fed off Argo’s even-keel demeanor.

When Thissen joined Argo’s staff in 2012, it was an adjustment of going from a cutthroat minor league system to Argo’s relaxed approach.

“I came in and was like into it every inning, every run and every pitch; that’s how I was wired,” Thissen said. “I look at Billy and I’m like, ‘How are you not reacting to this stuff?’

“We’ve always said, I don’t know if Billy has a heartbeat. Things that would drive me crazy and I’d get thrown out of games, he didn’t spend energy worrying about. He’s definitely cool as a cucumber, and sometimes it leads to people playing above their capabilities because they don’t have perceived pressure.”

Argo said he was volatile and got in some skirmishes as a young kid. It was around junior high that he flipped a switch.

“It was one of those things I made a decision I’m not going to do it anymore,” he said.

It rubbed off on his players.

Assumption three-time all-stater Trenton Wallace admitted he was a hothead early in his career. He credits Argo for helping him change his mentality between the white lines.

“I became more even-keeled and that’s when my career started to turn and go for the better,” Wallace said. “There were times I’d get frustrated not having the results I wanted, but the more I started to learn about staying calm and being even-keeled like him, the game came back to me quicker when stuff was going wrong.”

Argo’s personality was reflected in his teams. They were rarely flustered or intimidated by the situation.

There might not be a better example of that than Argo’s 2014 team which didn’t possess a true super star.

The Knights were a pedestrian 20-15 going into the postseason but reeled off six straight wins to capture the fourth of his six titles.

“When anything went wrong, we just knew if we stayed calm and let the game come back to us, we were going to put up runs and relax a little bit,” Wallace said. “Coach Argo’s way of coaching is basically a true testament to why that worked.”

Peaking at the right time

Argo’s teams always found an extra gear in the postseason. He took 10 teams to the state tournament, nine of those reached a championship game and six hoisted the championship trophy.

His six summer state titles are the third most of any coach in Iowa history, trailing only Gene Schultz of Lansing Kee (nine) and Jim Van Scoyoc of Norway (seven).

Maybe the most impressive stat is Assumption’s record at the state tournament. The program is 38-6 all-time, an .863 win percentage that is unmatched by any program in the state with more than a handful of appearances.

“When it came to state tournament time, we never really thought of it as a one-and-done situation,” Wallace said. “We just played it as another game.

“With the way we trained all year and how coach Argo coaches his teams with that relaxed, laidback tone to keep guys in it when things aren’t going their way, really prepares you for the end of the season.”

Thissen calls Argo one of the best “in-game managers he’s ever been around.”

“When he does something kind of outside the (box), it seems to work,” Thissen said.

Argo’s teams were predicated on fundamentals — quality pitching, sound defense, a disciplined approach at the plate and applying pressure on opponents by taking extra bases.

“I didn’t hit that many doubles or home runs as a player,” Argo said. “I ran pretty well and played pretty good defense. Especially at the high school level, we had to put pressure on the defense and make them catch it and throw it.”

The 2017 team might have been his most talented, at least in the second half of his tenure at Assumption. 

Led by a rotation of Wallace, Ben Beutel, Daniel Powers and Nick Gottilla, the Knights went 17-1 in the MAC, won 44 games overall and rolled Harlan in the final.

Argo contemplated walking away after that season, but elected to come back for one more season. The Knights repeated for just the second time in their program’s history.

After the blowout win over Harlan in 2018, Argo made it official he was stepping down.

“When we had the teams that we had, and I wasn’t jacked about being at practice every day, that’s when I’m like, you need somebody else to run this,” Argo said. “It wasn’t anything to do with anybody or anything other than me.”

Argo stepped away for three years, but Thissen asked him to come back this season as a volunteer assistant.

It is an opportunity for Argo to coach his son John. He was the head coach during the playing careers of his other three sons — Willie, Tommy and Joe.

“Anytime you get a Hall of Fame coach to come back and be in the dugout and have a presence, that’s huge,” Thissen said. “For me, he’s one of my good friends. Those are the guys I want to do this with.

“If I get an opportunity to do it with one of my good friends and someone I respect highly, I’m going to take that shot any time I can get it.”

Next fall will mark the first time in 19 years an Argo won’t be roaming the hallways or playing competitive sports at Assumption.

“It has,” Argo said, “been a good run.”

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