Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Thoughtful Piece of Small-Town History

A New Book on an Iowa Sports Legend

By Paul Ingram

(Note: This is a blog by Paul Ingram, buyer for Prairie Lights book store in Iowa City, as posted on the store's website. Both Prairie Lights and Paul are widely respected in book circles.)

Do you love Iowa sports? I mean REALLY love Iowa sports? Do you have a long memory? How about the legendary all-sports coach for the Marion Indians, Les Hipple, who took over at Marion in 1945 and led them to extraordinary success in football, basketball, and track, before his toughness as a disciplinarian no longer fit in with the non-spanking generation's notions of how teenagers should be treated.

Journalist Dan Kellams played football for Hipple in their glory years in the early '50s, and never forgot Coach Hipple's toughness, honesty, and enormous success. This book [A Coach's Life] contains his memories of Hipple and all of Marion's athletic records during the Hipple years.

It's not just a book about one man and his accomplishments as coach and leader; it's a thoughtful piece of American small-town history between the end of World War II and the early sixties. He talks about the meaning of high school sports in a small community and, more interestingly to me, the changes that took place in the way it was acceptable for adults to treat teenagers as the 40's became the 50's and the 50's the 60's.

Kellams is an interesting man who knows what's interesting about the life he lived. He's done a good bit of research to pull together Les Hipple's early life as a poor kid in the country who survived on the same kind of discipline he would later feed his student/athletes.

I doubt if Hipple could have found a more appropriate writer to have told his story than his old lineman, Dan Kellams. Kellams speaks with truth and sympathy about his coach. Hipple, who passed away in 1999, is a member of the Iowa Football Coach's Hall of Fame. This is a great gift for the long-time sports fan or anyone from Marion.

(To see Paul in action, go to http://www.prairielights.com/ and watch his YouTube performances.)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Excellence on a Shoestring

You see them in almost every movie comedy about teenagers--high school athletes who are braggarts and bullies, intimidating defenseless nerds and wimps who dare to trifle with their women or their territory.

Les Hipple allowed none of that. This coach gave his players no reason to believe they were better than anyone else. When a star was singled out for a special honor, the coach drew him aside and said, "You are only being recognized because you play on a good team. Don't let this go to your head."

Hipple permitted no showboating, no insolence, no whining, no trash talk. If a player even hinted at those things, he sat down. The coach insisted instead on disciplined play backed by hard work, conditioning and a mastery of the fundamentals--combined with gentlemanly behavior at all times.

As his teams won championships and mounted thrilling runs in state basketball tournaments, their example permeated the whole school, creating an environment of excellence that went far beyond athletics.

That's the recollection of John K. Castle, who graduated from Marion High School in 1959, obtained degrees from MIT and Harvard, and went on to a distinguished career in finance. Today his multiple business interests include heading a private equity firm in New York.

Castle didn't play sports in high school, but he was a four-year member of the band, which came back from each state competition with highest honors. He participated in vocal groups and on debate teams that were always among the top in their class.

He remembered a "Quiz Kids" competition in which Marion team finished second in the state because of a single superfluous letter. The Marion team identified "the silver-tongued orator" as William Jennings Bryant, conferring upon him the t that rightfully belonged to William Cullen Bryant, whose poem, "Thanatopsis," was part of every student's passage through high school English. (That loss is as vivid in Castle's memory as a one-point defeat would be to a former basketball player.)

Marion had one of the lowest costs per pupil in the state. Yet it established a culture of hard work and sacrifice in the pursuit of excellence. And in doing so it delivered an education that Castle ranked far superior to what his own sons experienced years later at an exclusive private school in New York City. It all started, Castle insisted, with Hipple and his sports teams.

-- Dan Kellams

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Coach and the Granny Shot

Les Hipple was the most studious of mentors, attending basketball and football coaching clinics every year, bringing home notebooks filled with meticulous diagrams and captions on the latest thinking on team sports.

Although he followed developments closely, he often chose not to adopt them for this own teams, sticking with techniques, plays, and formations that had proven their worth over the years.

He insisted, for example, that his players shoot free throws the old-fashioned way, with two hands in an underhand motion. He taught his boys to dip the ball between their knees and bring it up with the arms relaxed, letting the ball slide off their fingers with almost no wrist action. A dead ball was more likely to get a favorable bounce than a spinning one.

Some people called it the "granny shot," and it began to go out of style in the late 1940s. By the late 1950s the Marion Indians were essentially alone in their adherence to the underhand free throw. All their opponents were using the one-handed overhand form.

(Perhaps the last notable user of the underhand form was NBA star Rick Barry, who for many years held the career record for accuracy: .900. Barry said he shot free throws that way because the motion was simpler, involving essentially the shoulders, while shooting overhand required coordinated movements of the shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers--movements that could be easily compromised by fatigue or tension.)

One day in the late 1950s, some Marion players, no doubt tired of being razzed by opponents, gathered the courage to challenge Hipple's orders, claiming they could do better from the free throw line shooting overhand.

"All right, let's see you do it," Hipple replied. To add reality to the test, recalled Mike Smith, a player that year, the coach made them run and do calisthenics for most of the practice.

Then, when the boys were nearly exhausted, he sent them to the free throw line, telling them to shoot overhand first, then to shoot his way. When the results came in, "they weren't even close," Smith said. The granny shot won easily.

A few years later, school authorities, tired of hearing complaints from parents, overruled the coach, ordering him to allow his teams to shoot overhand. Relenting, he said, "They won't make as many." He probably was right.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Hoop Dreams

"Old man, I see your bald head in my dreams."

Those words, or ones very like them, are spoken by the character in the movie Seven Samurai played by Toshiro Mifune. He is addressing a wise Samurai leader who is putting together a group of warriors to defend a village against bandits. Mifune's character is a fake Samurai who wants to join the team, but has neither the credentials or the skills. Mifune is begging to be allowed on the team.

How like my dreams that scene is. Old athletes often dream of trying to get back on the team, and for years my dreams involved college football, which I dropped in my junior year. For years, the dreams came back, insisting that I try out for the team as a senior. But my attempts to do so were often frustrated by missing equipment, confused timetables, blind alleys--the stuff of nightmares.

As I worked on A Coach's Life, my dreams switched to high school basketball under Les Hipple. I was back in Marion seeking a position on the team. Hipple was as remote and iron-willed as ever. He did not welcome me back. Sometimes I couldn't get suited up. When he put me in I usually played awkwardly. I had trouble dribbling. I was slow getting to the ball.

But a few times I excelled. I discovered if I crouched very low before jumping, I could rise slowly above the rim, far above the defenders' hands, and drop the ball through the basket as I floated back to the court.

As I began to awaken from those dreams, I remembered I was writing a book about Les Hipple. Instead of trying to play for him, I thought, half awake, I should be interviewing him. Then I remembered that he had died long ago, and I was on my own.

-- Dan Kellams

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Coach's Influence

When does it hit you, the awareness of how a teacher or coach shaped your life? Some recognize it while it is happening; for others it may take years.

A few boys who played for Les Hipple understood it from the beginning. They saw him as a father figure. "I knew he was trying to help me," said Russ Seeks, halfback, forward, sprinter, and, later, corporate executive.

But Hipple was tough and demanding, not kindly. So others recognized his influence when they joined the military. As they dealt with the rigors of basic training they sensed in themselves a physical and mental toughness that was missing in some of the other recruits, and they traced its source to Hipple.

One man insisted it was Hipple's influence that gave him the strength to crawl out of a ditch after a car accident and wave down a passing motorist.

It was not until 15 years after high school that I realized how profoundly the man had affected me. I was trapped in a failing marriage and seeing a counsellor.

"You can't quit," I told him. "You can't stop trying. You can't just pull off the road and sit there."

And he said, "Oh, yes you can. You can pull off for a time and just sit there as you decide what to do next. You don't have to keep driving straight ahead."

A feeling of great relief swept over me. I was almost euphoric in the realization that I could change my life in ways I never thought possible.

Later, as I thought about the experience, I realized whose voice it was in the back of my head saying, "Quitters never win and winners never quit." It was Les Hipple's voice, and in this case he was wrong.

What do you remember about a favorite coach or teacher?

-- Dan Kellams

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Meet the Coach

This is a blog about a book and about writing that book, but it is also about a man. It is for anyone who knew Les Hipple and anyone who reads the book about him--and anyone who had a coach he or she would like to remember.

The book, A Coach's Life, is due out this summer, but the dialogue can begin now.

Here's an introduction to Les Hipple, taken from the book. Hipple, thirty-two, has just taken over the reins at Marion High School in Iowa.


The Marion Indians of 1945 discovered that Hipple did not yell much. He never cursed at his players or punched or kicked them as his predecessor had. He sometimes growled. He fumed when his players did not live up to his expectations, but the emotion was transmitted not in a scream, but in a grimace, a head shake, or a cold stare. Some said his lips trembled when he was really angry. He governed his players not so much with words as with gestures, postures, and facial expressions. His glare was so icy it could freeze a boy in his tracks.

Hipple had, as other players have said about their coaches, "God-like tendencies," super-human powers of observation, the ability to see what was in their hearts, and judgment that was as immediate and ruthless as it was fair. Some players over the years feared him. A few saw a twinkle in his eye or sensed subterranean warmth under his severity, but they were a minority. Most of his players regarded him with fear-tinged awe . . . He was deadly serious about what he was doing . . . Whatever was going on here, it wasn't just a game.

And though Hipple was relentless in his concentration on fundamentals and conditioning, a meticulous student of the games he taught, a masterful strategist, a keen judge of character and talent, and a genius at motivation who could turn gangling boys into disciplined athletes and good athletes into great ones, he was not unique among coaches in these matters. In his dedication to his craft and his success in terms of victories, he ranked with the very best, but other coaches had winning percentages as good or better.

Hipple outdistanced most great coaches in one respect, however: He repeatedly turned out championship teams in four different sports--football, basketball, track, and cross country. He was elected to the state halls of fame for basketball and football, an honor he shares with only a few other men. When Hipple started coaching, multi-sport head coaches in high schools, especially small ones, were common. When he stopped, some thirty years later, they were rare. His commitment, his love of coaching, his versatility, and his sheer stamina set him apart from all but a very few coaches.

His rules made him unique. Over the years, they became the most significant aspect of his coaching reputation. Eventually, he was known all over the state as much for his rules as for his victories, and since his rules were often a matter of rumor instead of fact, his reputation for fearsomeness grew far beyond reality.

With the onset of the 1945 football season at Marion, he introduced his rules to players and parents who had been accustomed to a casual approach to sports. "Hipple told all the players to bring their parents to the school for a meeting," recalled John Vernon, a junior that year. "He handed out the rules and read them aloud, and all of us, parents and players alike, had to agree to abide by them. It was kind of like joining the military. You take a step forward, make a pledge and you're in, for better or worse." Both parents and the players had to sign a statement agreeing to the rules.

Here are the rules in summary.
  1. No smoking or drinking.

  2. In bed by 10 pm every night except Friday and Saturday, "when we may stay out until 12:00, although this will not be done often."

  3. Dates with girls must be kept at a minimum. No going steady. "If we must see a particular girlfriend between classes or at noon, we will drop athletics."

  4. We will not miss practice. If for any reason you must miss practice, you must receive permission ahead of time.

  5. We may not drive cars except on Sundays during specified hours and even then we will not "just drive around town."

  6. We will use only proper language at all times.

  7. We will take the best possible care of our equipment.

  8. We will keep our dressing rooms clean, at home or away.

  9. We will take off and put on our football shoes outside when it is muddy, in the lower exit when not muddy.

"You, as a Marion Indian, cannot do some of the things other students do," Hipple wrote in 1952. "If you think more of smoking, drinking, dating or going steady, staying out late at night, or riding around in automobiles, then you are not willing to 'pay the price' and it is best for you not to take out a uniform . . . To be on a championship team you have to be a champion yourself."

--Dan Kellams