Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Part "Hoosiers," Part "Our Town"

By Phil Grose

Americans treasure their individual freedoms and liberties and fight fiercely to defend them.

With one or two notable exceptions.

Among them is the extraordinary lattitude afforded athletic coaches in the exercise of control over the lives and behavior of their players. Dan Kellams' book tells just such a story.

Framed in the day-to-day, game-by-game, year-by-year chronology of a small town in eastern Iowa, it seems part Hoosiers and part Our Town as the fates of the football and basketball eams play out in the broader scope of a town which draws much of its self-worth from the outcome of Friday night athletic events.

Central to all that is Les Hipple, the man who spent most of his life coaching the boys' football, basketball, baseball and track teams at Marion High School. Along the way, he imposed his own rules of conduct on this players' lives, rules which not only controlled those things which might relate to their ability to play sports but which also imposed limits on their family and social lives.

Players were not supposed to be dating and they were even forbidden from driving and automobile. One football player caught in the act of operating a motor vehicle was excused when it was explained that he was picking up medication for this mother.

It was all part of what created a cadre of Iowans known as "Hipplemen," players who not only survived the coach's regimen, but lived with it proudly, much as Marines or members of the 82nd Airborne might do.

Hipple was firm and occasionally arbitrary, and as long as he was winning--which he did with great frequency--things were fine. But he made no friends when he declined varsity letters to five regulars on the basketball team one year because he judged their effort had not been sufficient. In time, these acts of public affront piled up.

As the victories declined, so--too--did Hipple's status. Changes in coaching methods, changes in the politics of Marion High School, changes in the population of the town itself, led to his downfall.

Hipple had little in the way of social or political skills, other than bluster, and when his world toppled, it crashed badly. His humiliating demise left him bitter and confused. He had spent more time winning games than making friends, and he had no fallback when the teams began to fail. In the end, his basketball players were still being instructed to shoot free throws underhand.

Kellams dutifully records Hipple's rise and fall, writing with a sportswriter's attention to detail and reporting with an eye for statistics and outcomes. His accounts of Marion High's  football and basketball records during the 20 years of Hipple's tenure include wins, losses, key players and their performances and comments from newspapers, radio commentatiors and townspeople in general.

Marion becomes Hickory, Indiana, or Grovers Corners, New Hampshire--or Camden, South Carolina, for that matter. The attention accorded sports teams in the town's order of priorities is not unfamiliar to anyone who ever occupied the bleachers on a high school Friday night.

Kellams was a "Hippleman" and clearly liked the man. But he keeps the story straight and uncluttered. He treats Hipple the way Hipple probably treated him. Tough and to the point.

(Phil Grose is a research associate at the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of South Carolina on the Brink, a biography of Governor Robert E. McNair.)