Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Scientist's View

"I don't know if the critical examination of the sociology of Marion, Iowa, was an objective of this book, but it certainly is an outcome . . . Kellams has captured how the city's athletic program mirrored cultural changes in society "

By John Mark Dean, PhD
Distinguished Professor Emeritus
University of South Carolina

For many of us who participated in competitive athletics, our interaction with coaches was a transforming experience. Others found their coaches were stereotypes of men trying to live out their fantasies of athletic success through "coaching" and were incompetent teachers. The most fortunate high school athletes had coaches who used sports to instill a positive set of values and behaviors that stayed with them for their adult years: discipline, teamwork, loyalty, and the knowledge that practice and hard work paid off and was rewarded.

Dan Kellams has given us unique insights into the life of exactly such a high school coach in Iowa, and concurrently a view of public education from post-WWII through the 1960s. His carefully researched analysis of Coach Les Hipple's life also documents the transition of American culture over that time.

Iowa and the rest of the country were transformed from a rural to urban culture over a 30- to 40-year period. Kellams has captured how the city's athletic programs mirrored the cultural changes in society during that time. The coach's relationships with parents and the politics of school boards and administrators are a microcosm of general society.

I don't know if the critical examination of the sociology of Marion, Iowa, a small Midwestern city, was an objective of this book, but it is certainly an outcome. Hipple saw high school athletics as an educational activity that promoted individual discipline and development that led to team success and community pride. It appears that Hipple and other coaches of that era believed in the mind-body relationships practiced in ancient Greek culture. The Greeks believed that such attributes and practices were understood as a complex interlocking system.

Hipple's coaching success in one team sport using his "rules" contributed to championships in other sports. A failure by student-athletes to perform and follow the rules had consequences. If players broke the rules, they lost starting positions, playing time, did not earn a letter, or were not permitted to remain on the team.

All this developed a feedback loop that generated a sustained culture of excellence in the school. Those championships became integrated with the economic and political affairs of the city. Slight variations of Hipple's rules were adopted by other coaches throughout the state and they, too, enjoyed success.

The success for Hipple and his Marion teams came with a personal cost to Hipple. Parents who wanted their children to have the recognition of being a starter on teams complained privately and publicly. Parents appealed to the political structure of the school board and the administrators for satisfaction. Sacrificing the coach to appease dissatisfied parents and fans is a well-understood outcome of virtually every school system at every level of competition in the U.S. This is especially well-known by families of coaches.

This book is an excellent read for those interested in biography, the evolution of high school athletics, school administration, and the changes in cultural values during this time. Could a Les Hipple use his policies and practices and succeed as a coach and teacher in 2011? How would he teach young men the classical Greek values of athletics in a world that encourages the recruitment of middle school athletes into the pop culture of contemporary college athletics and professional sports entertainment?

It is highly unlikely that today's parenting practices and school administration values would make an effort like Hipple's even possible to consider.

John Mark Dean is an internationally known marine scientist specializing in the ecology of fish habitats. He grew up in a series of  Iowa towns--Allerton, Fontanelle, and Marshalltown--the son of a high school coach.

Friday, January 7, 2011

"A Poignant Biography"

By Jim Ecker

(Note: This is an excerpt from a review written by long-time Iowa sportswriter Jim Ecker, who now heads a new sports web site, Metro Sports Report)

Marion [Iowa] native Dan Kellams gives readers a rare treat with his new book on Marion High School coach Les Hipple . . . [Kellams], who played for the legendary coach, provides a poignant biography of the stern taskmaster whose teams dominated the WaMaC Conference in the 1940s and 1950s, while also providing a keen historical look at the city of Marion itself.

Hipple compiled a 105-42-10 record in 18 years as Marion's head football coach from 1945-62 and won seven conference titles; collected a 310-120 record in 20 years as the boys basketball coach . . . and captured 12 WaMaC crowns; coached the boys track team . . . with five league titles, and also won eight state cross-country titles in a row.

Hipple is a member of the Iowa Halls of Fame in both football and basketball, one of the few coaches to hold both honors, and his basketball teams were among some of the best in the state . . . Marion High School named the school's athletic fields after him in 1978, a fitting tribute to his career, but numbers and honors don't do justice to the man or the book ("A Coach's Life: Les Hipple and the Marion Indians."

Hipple, who died in 1999 at age 86, was a strict disciplinarian who placed heavy demands on his players. He received strong support in the community during the glory years from parents and administrators, but times changed and support waned. He became a controversial figure and ultimately was fired, leaving behind a legacy of success, outstanding athletes, love, respect and some bruised feelings.

Hipple treated all this players alike--stars and deep reserves--and often said he didn't care what his players thought of him at the time but cared deeply about what they would think of him in the future when they were grown men. There are several moving tributes to Hipple by former players, who indeed grew to respect the values he instilled in them as boys.

His rules were among the strictest in the state:

1) No smoking or drinking.

2) In bed by 10 every night, except Friday and Saturday, when a midnight curfew was allowed.

3) Dates with girls must be kept to a minimum. No going steady.

4) Cannot miss practice without permission.

5) May not drive cars except on Sundays (remember, this was the 1940s and '50s).

6) Use only proper language at all times.

7) Take best possible care of equipment.

8) Keep dressing rooms clean, home and away.

Players who violated rules were ordered to run endless laps, while serious or repeat offenders were kicked off the team.

"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 about a uniform . . . To be on a championship team you have to be a champion yourself."

Kellams does an excellent job of describing some of the big games and championship seasons, but it's the historical backdrop of the town and its rapid growth that grips the reader. There are fascinating behind-the-scenes stories about Marion principals, superintendents, school board members and athletes themselves, along with the role disgruntled parents played in Hipple's demise.

There's a telling segment about racial discrimination at the municipal pool, along with detailed accounts of growing up in Iowa in the early and middle parts of the 20th century.

Kellams gives a balanced account of Hipple's life, stressing his triumphs while not ignoring the shortcomings, but author's deep respect for the man comes shining through.