Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tough and to the Point

Playing a sport for Coach Les Hipple meant a life of rigor, clean living, modest behavior and self-denial. Even so, many boys were eager to meet these demands for the right to play on one of Hipple's teams.

In A Coach's Life, author Dan Kellams narrates the story of one of the greatest high school coaches in Iowa's history, an extraordinary man who lived according the principles he taught, even when it meant losing a game or a championship--or the job he loved.

Kellams, a former Hipple athlete, offers a vivid portrait of a coach who imposed stern discipline on hundreds of boys and, in the process, transformed them into champions. A Coach's Life recalls Hipple's full eighty-six years, focusing on his long career at Marion High School in Iowa, where he led his Indians to thirty-three championships in football, basketball, track, and cross-country, giving the town its most glorious years in sports. Many young men learned unforgettable lesson they later passed on to others around the world.

Meticulously researched, this biography is set against the backdrop of small-town America during the 1940s and 1950s. Its poignant stories include those of a superb athlete who died on the verge of greatness, a school controversy that turned brother against brother, and a changing society that trapped a great coach in the vise of his own principles.

"Part Hoosiers and part Our Town . . . Tough and to the point." -- Phil Grose, author of South Carolina on the Brink

"Compelling . . . An empathetic recollection of a man and a time that no longer exist . . . A story both to enjoy and contemplate." -- ForeWord Clarion Reviews

"A poignant biography of the stern taskmaster . . . The historical backdrop of the town grips the reader." -- Jim Ecker, Metro Sports report

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hail to the Team

"Anyone working for individual glory will fall far below the level of first string material."

Thus warned Les Hipple after taking over the sports program in Marion, Iowa, in 1945.

For 20 years he preached the gospel and enforced the rules of team play, turning out 33 state and conference champions in football, basketball, track and cross-country. He coached them all.

When a boy won special recognition from an outside source, such as being named Prep of the Week by the Des Moines Register, Hipple took the young man aside and told him, "Don't let this go to your head. You are being recognized because you play on a good team."

I was raised on Hipple's values, so when I began conducting interviews for this book, I thought of an interesting experiment. I would ask his former athletes to name their three favorite movies. I actually thought the old coach's influence was so strong that some of them would name my favorites as well.

But none did.

So, as one more measure of a coach's influence, here are my all-time favorite movies, in the order in which I first saw them.

1. Battleground (1949), directed by William Wellman.  With Van Johnson, John Hodiak, James Whitmore, Ricardo Montalban and bunch of other good guys. It's to story of a squad of soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division, surrounded by the German army during the Battle of the Bulge.

2. The Wild Bunch (1969), directed by Sam Peckinpah. With William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates and other fine western actors. Here, five grizzled outlaws botch a bank and a train robbery, but then assert their honor in a bloody and suicidal shootout with a brigade of Mexican soldiers.

3. Chariots of Fire (1981), directed by Hugh Hudson. With Ben Cross, Ian Charleson and Ian Holm (magnificent as coach Sam Mussabini). This hymn to young manhood follows a group of British athletes to the Paris Olympics in 1924.

Well, I said three movies, but there's a tie for third place. We can't leave out Hoosiers (1986), directed by David Anspaugh.  Set in 1951, its the story of a basketball team that accomplished the nearly impossible.

Coach Hipple wasn't much of a movie fan, but I think he might have liked these.

-- By Dan Kellams

Monday, February 13, 2012

Drill Sergeant - Or Tough Love?

"Compelling . . . an empathetic recollection of a man and time that no longer exist . . . a story both to enjoy and ponder." --  ForeWord Clarion Reviews


Woody Hayes flashed across the sports pages and is gone, in disgrace. Joe Paterno exited college football under a cloud. Lester Hipple, an extraordinarily successful high school coach in a small rural Iowa town, died in 1999, yet he remains a legendary and controversial figure in Iowa high school athletic lore.

As described by Dan Kellams in A Coach's Life: Les Hipple and the Marion Indians, Coach Hipple's control over his athletes was nearly immutable. The games and the students he taught changed, but Hipple never did.

Kellams has written a clear, compelling, and yet careful encomium to his former coach. In an Author's Note, Kellams writes: "When I began this project, I made three promises: to try not to open old wounds, to refuse to use reporters' tricks and threats to wheedle information from people who didn't want to talk to me, and to respect the memories of those who did."

After so many years, the recollections of Les Hipple, what he meant to Marion, Iowa, and what he did for his student-athletes are still fresh for those who knew or played for him.

Clearly well trained as a journalist, Kellams writes in a direct, no-frills style. His research is thorough and the narrative replete with stories from those who knew Coach Hipple, along with references to newspaper accounts of the coach's exploits.

Kellams describes small-town life in rural Iowa and the hard existence of Midwestern tenant farmers in the early twentieth century. A product of that time and place, Hipple grew up in a farm community there and knew hard work from his early years.

In later years, parents criticized Hipple for imposing harsh rules on his players. The coach once wrote: "We will keep our dates to a minimum (school parties after home games, Saturday night or Sunday afternoon) and not let them interfere with our football. If we date often, go steady, or must see a particular girlfriend between classes or at noon, we will drop athletics."

In his defense, his sister noted: "What rules? . . . That was the way we grew up." To the end, the coach attempted to enforce his stringent expectations in the face of growing dissatisfaction in the community. Despite the fact the he had brought fame and championships to Marion, the community could no longer support his drill-sergeant approach to coaching.

A Coach's Life is an empathetic recollection of a man and a time that no longer exist. Dan Kellams has written a story both to enjoy and contemplate.

By John Michael Senger