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Scott Deatherage, Longtime Debate Coach, Dies at 47

'Debate Coach of the Decade' remembered for his patient and passionate guidance

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December 30, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Debaters tend to avoid superlatives, but people who knew longtime Northwestern University Debate Society director Scott Deatherage have trouble avoiding them. Deatherage died Christmas day of a heart attack at age 47.

As director of Northwestern University Debate Society from 1991 to 2008, Deatherage simply was the "winningest" coach in the history of national collegiate debate.

"Without being careless in superlatives, he was the most accomplished debate coach in recent history and, it might not be unfair to say, the most accomplished debate coach in college debate overall," said Gordon Stables, president of the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA).

Deatherage left Northwestern in 2008 to become executive director of the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues. There he worked to bring debate -- long gone from inner city high schools -- back to them.

"Scott's name was synonymous with debate," said David Zarefsky, the former dean of the School of Communication who hired Deatherage in 1991 as director of Northwestern's debate team. "It was one of the best hiring decisions I ever made."

Under his leadership, the Northwestern debate team won an unprecedented seven National Debate Tournament (NDT) championships, including three back-to-back wins. Deatherage coached four individuals to Top Speaker awards at the NDT. In addition to other honors, Deatherage was named "Coach of the Decade" for the 1990s by his peers.

"He might also be named Coach of the Decade for the 2000s," Zarefsky said. Deatherage, who was a college debater at Baylor University, served as an assistant debate coach while earning his Ph.D. at Northwestern. "Scott was a respectable debater but he was a superb coach. He always saw the big picture and the details at the same time."

Known as the Duck, Deatherage earned the respect and friendship of his student debaters, who have created a Facebook page in his honor. Called "Honoring and Celebrating the Life of Scott Deatherage," it has been growing by hundreds of members a day.

In addition, the presidents of the three major national debate organizations -- the NDT, CEDA and the American Debate Association -- have organized a tribute.

"There's no doubt that the Duck was instrumental in shaping some of the greatest debaters of all time," said former Northwestern debate team member Shuman Sohrn, a 1999 Northwestern graduate. "I want to make sure people also realize that he was as good at turning directionless students into successful students as at turning decent debaters into good debaters."

"For Scott, it was all about team -- about teammates as family, teamwork as a foundational principle, and winning and losing as a team as an ethos which drove all else," said Northwestern alumnus and two-time NDT champion Ryan Sparacino. He is an attorney at Winston and Strawn LLP in Washington, D.C.

"My debate partner, Mike Gottlieb, and I were fortunate to experience a lot of success as the ‘top team' at Northwestern for a couple of years," Sparacino added. "But Scott was just as happy to see a team of novices succeed in their first (debate) outing as he was to see the top team win a national championship."

"Scott Deatherage has been instrumental in everything I have achieved since the moment I walked onto the Northwestern campus," said Gottlieb, who the day after Obama's inauguaration became Special Assistant to the President and Associate White House Counsel. "I am 100% certain that I would not be where I am today without Scott's patient and passionate guidance."

Deatherage is survived by his sister, Diana Baldwin, and by brothers Donald, Patrick, and Michael Deatherage and William Lechner. Memorial service plans are pending. In lieu of flowers, family members ask that donations go to the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues or the Northwestern University Debate Society.