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.

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