Wednesday, June 1, 2011

In His Mentor's Footsteps

"UCLA had John Wooden. The Packers had Lombardi. But I feel even luckier, for I had Les Hipple. Coach Hipple gave me the guidance and discipline to shape my life."

These words are from a letter written in 1978 by a young high school basketball coach who was nominating his former coach to the Iowa Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.

Twenty-three years later, in 2011, that younger coach, Gordon Rundquist, joined his mentor, Les Hipple, in the hall. Rundquist was honored for a 38-year head coaching career that brought his teams 559 victories against 250 losses, the 12th most victories registered by an Iowa coach. His teams won 16 conference titles and made five appearances in the state finals.

For most of his career, Rundquist coached at Maquoketa Valley High School in Delhi, Iowa, about 50 miles from where he grew up in Marion. His parents were divorced and he was raised by his mother, grandmother and an aunt. But by the time he was in fourth grade, he knew where he was headed: to the gym, where there was free play for kids every morning before school.

The boy learned to time his early morning departures so that Hipple could drive him to school, and, once there, teach him the fundamentals. In time the boy viewed Hipple as a father figure. From a very young age, he knew he wanted to be a coach, too.

This gentleness in Hipple was not apparent to most boys who played under the coach, and as Rundquist grew older and began playing on high school teams, he was treated no differently from his teammates. Spotted in the hallway with his girlfriend, a violation of one of Hipple's rules, Rundquist was ordered to make extra climbs of the rope to the ceiling of the gym. He was in trouble so often he did it routinely before almost every practice.

Nevertheless, Rundquist always felt he could go to his coach for advice about anything. That was the way he wanted to be, too. "I wanted my players to be able to talk to me, but once we got on the court, they had to know who the boss was."

Rundquist inherited many traits from Hipple, including a tendency to give very short answers to complex questions, but the one he points to most often is the practice of starting kids young. "Coach Hipple had a basketball program for elementary school kids back in the 1950s, and nobody had that. Nobody. He was far ahead of his time."

School programs that taught basketball fundamentals to fifth and sixth graders were still rare when Rundquist went to Maquoketa Valley in 1970. He started one, and it may have saved his job. His teams were struggling and his future uncertain until his first class of sixth graders grew up to play on the varsity. Their mastery of the fundamentals and knowledge of the game began a winning tradition that carried through to Rundquist's final season.

Rundquist left Maquoketa Valley when offered an early retirement package in 2005. "We lost a game we probably shouldn't have lost, and I just thought it was time to quit."

He was wrong. He was immediately offered a job as assistant coach at Iowa City West, and in an experimental first year, discovered that he loved it. "I get to be the good guy," he said.

For years, as his success grew, Rundquist made annual pilgrimages back to Marion to visit his old coach and talk about the game. They diagrammed plays together. Hipple never failed to send Rundquist congratulatory notes when his teams made state or won championships. "I knew you could do it, Gordon," Hipple wrote.

The Hipple legacy has passed to another generation. Rundquist's son, Paul, is an successful basketball coach at Mount Pleasant.

---

The telephone interview with Rundquist lasted nearly an hour. Shortly after it ended, he called me back. There was something else he wanted me to know.

Rundquist's coaching career began at West Branch in 1967, the year he graduated from Coe College. The untested coach was in his early 20s.

"You know who came to our first game?" he asked.  "Les Hipple. We played at Mount Vernon and Coach came to see it. We staged a late rally and won the game."

-- Dan Kellams

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