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 to 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 eighty-six full years, focusing on his long career at Marion High School in Iowa, where he led his Indians to championships in football, basketball, track, and cross-country, giving the town its most glorious years in sports. Many young men learned unforgettable life lessons 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
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A Coach's LifeLes Hipple and the Marion Indians
By Dan Kellams
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Dan Kellams
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFirst Encounter
The window is open and the room is frigid when the boy awakens with a start.
"Danny, it's almost six o'clock." His father is calling through the door. His parents are up, believing they will have to prod him into action.
But the boy is wide awake and shivering with excitement. Wednesday morning in November. As dark as night. Marion, Iowa, 1947. Around town, at least twenty other sixth-grade boys are also stirring.
"Wake up, Danny. You'll be late."
He is out of bed and pulling on his clothes. His gym bag was packed the night before. It contains basketball shoes and socks, shorts, a T-shirt, a towel. And a jock strap. He never had one of those before.
He dresses quickly, bounds downstairs, and heads for the back door.
"You have to have breakfast."
"I'm not hungry."
"You have to have breakfast."
His mother and father sit with him in the kitchen. They smoke their cigarettes, drink their black coffee, and watch him eat some oatmeal and toast and drink two glasses of milk. His little brother is asleep in his room upstairs.
"I have to go now."
"Good luck, Danny."
The sky is beginning to lighten as he bolts out the back door, leaps down the steps, and turns up the driveway, starting the half-mile run to the high school gym.
Basketball practice begins today for sixth graders. He is going to play basketball for Coach Hipple. He is going to become a Marion Indian.
* * *
Some of the youngsters who gathered in the gym that morning were seeing their coach up close for the first time. Les Hipple was thirty-four years old, trim and straight-backed at just under five feet seven and weighing 150 pounds. He wore a gray T-shirt and blue satiny sweatpants with a white stripe down the legs. A whistle hung from his neck, and he carried a clipboard. The coach walked with a slight limp, and some boys sensed that each step caused him pain. His expression gave no indication that it did. His light-brown hair was thinning. His nose, in profile, was sharp and slightly hooked. His skin was pale. His eyelids drooped slightly. His mouth was small, set in a straight line.
Hipple did not smile at these awkward young players. He tousled no one's hair. He told no jokes. He conferred no nicknames. He did nothing to charm the boys or set them at ease or suggest that practice would be fun. Instead, he put them to work.
For some of the sixth graders, much of the excitement that morning came from playing basketball on a real court. The high school gym was essentially the only one in town, and some of the boys had never set foot on it. They had learned the rudiments of the game outdoors on concrete or dirt, and now they were eager to scrimmage on hardwood, to hear the squeak of their shoes as they bolted across the floor. They were impatient that morning to shoot at a regulation basket with its orange rim, white metal backboard, and roped net-to finally taste the game for real. They were to be disappointed.
Hipple did not let them shoot that day, nor for many practices to come. Instead, they drilled. Hipple taught them the proper way to catch a ball: on the fingertips, the index fingers at the center of the ball on each side-so that upon catching the ball they were immediately able to pass it.
He taught them how to dribble using a slight wrist action and moving their fingertips in a small, squeezing motion, the ball never touching the palms of their hands. Dribbling was necessary, but passing was important. It was the key to successful basketball, Hipple believed.
He taught them the two-handed chest pass, arranging the boys in circles, showing them how to get into position, feet shoulder-width apart, their weight slightly forward. He taught them to get the feel of the ball on their fingertips, how to hold it away from the palm, stepping forward with the left foot, pointing the fingers downward, then bringing the ball near the chest, moving the fingers upward to snap the wrists, releasing the ball off the index fingers of both hands, extending the arms in the critically important follow-through, following through all the way, so that arms, hands, and fingers point exactly to where the ball should go, teaching them to hit their man in the chest or the waist so he did not have to reach for the ball, so he could catch it and quickly pass it on.
He drilled them on the one-handed bounce pass, the two-handed bounce pass, the overhead pass. After they knew how to pass, he taught them to run and pass, pass and cut. They passed and ran all winter until it became a habit. Then he taught them how to pivot, how to set a screen, how to take a defensive position with the hands up and the arms outstretched, how to move when guarding the man with the ball, how to get in position for a rebound.
At last he taught them how to shoot. The one-handed push shot, the jump shot, the lay-up all required the same wrist and hand motion: the ball always on the fingertips, released softly off the first two fingers, the wrist snapping and the hand dropping as the ball is released, then coming back up to point toward the target. Everyone must shoot exactly that way. He stressed free-throw shooting, insisting on the two-handed underhand shot, the ball sliding off the fingertips with a minimum of wrist action.
The boys practiced and practiced all that winter and never got into a scrimmage.
First you grind, Hipple told a reporter many years later, and then you polish.
* * *
When those hopeful sixth graders gathered at the Marion High School gym that early morning in November 1947, Les Hipple was in his third year at Marion, in charge of the boys' and girls' physical education programs and head coach of all of Marion's varsity teams: football, cross-country, basketball, and track. All were boys' teams. There were no varsity sports for girls.
In his brief time at Marion, Hipple had turned around a floundering sports program. His teams had begun to stir the imagination of the townspeople with their spirited play, their victories, and their prospects for even greater achievements. The sixth graders knew that, or sensed it, and they wanted to be part of it. In fact, years of athletic glory, beyond the wildest dreams of the townspeople and the sixth graders, lay just ahead and would continue for more than a decade. Hipple's teams would dominate their conference and rank among the best in their class, creating a palpable sense of pride among the players, the students, and the townspeople.
Hipple himself would become a legend, one of the few high school coaches whose name was known throughout the state. He would become one of the few men in Iowa to be inducted into both the Basketball and the Football Coaches Halls of Fame. In time, the expression Hippleman would become famous as well. It described not only a Marion player but also a boy forged by the coach's austere disciplines and strict rules-requirements that not only closely governed athletic technique, conditioning, and on-field behavior but also regulated a boy's private life and intruded upon his relationship with his family. Hipple's rules were considered the strictest in the state and the most zealously enforced. Playing for Hipple meant a life of rigor, clean living, modest behavior, and self-denial. Being a Hippleman was more than being an athlete. Like being a Marine, it marked a boy forever.
Even as Hipple's teams were winning thousands of fans, his rules and tactics were making enemies and sparking controversy among a few parents and citizens. Eventually, as the times and the town and the school changed, Hipple would come under fire.
But the coach's triumphs and troubles all lay in the future that Wednesday morning in 1947 when the sixth graders gathered in the gym. Hipple was far ahead of his time in starting players young. Most school systems offered no organized sports before high school. On Tuesday nights, Hipple's varsity team usually had a game, yet there he was the next day at dawn in a cold and dusty gym to work with sixth graders. On other mornings, the junior high principal coached the seventh and eighth graders. But Hipple worked with sixth graders because he wanted to see what talent was coming down the pike. He wanted them to learn basketball the right way from day one. His way.
A friend used to say, "I always thought Iowa was one of those square states," lumping it with Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, and other states on the Great Plains. My friend is from Michigan, a state anything but square, and not so far from Iowa that she might have known better. But she is to be forgiven: Many people think of Iowa, if they think of it at all, as a state somewhere out West, and far away from wherever they are.
On a map of the United States, Iowa is more or less in the middle of the nation, actually tending toward the East, and admittedly square-like in shape. It would be even more so without the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, which make its western and eastern borders so curly. On a map of Iowa itself, if the towns, roads, and rivers were removed and nothing left but the lines that mark the borders of each county, there would be ninety-nine more or less square counties laid across the state in rows from top to bottom, as if a child had covered the map with playing cards, not worrying too much about precision.
In each of these ninety-nine counties, more or less at its center, is a small town that serves as the county seat. In the center of many of these towns is a small, square park, and in that park is an essentially square building, the county courthouse. Business establishments line the streets around the park. Iowa formed ninety-nine counties to assure that every farmer could make the trip to town in a horse-drawn buggy, conduct his business, and return home before nightfall.
From the air, squares and rectangles also define the Iowa landscape. The roads, many of them gravel, mark off the farmland in right angles. Travelers flying into Cedar Rapids on a commuter jet can sometimes see a farmer's truck kicking up dust as it scoots along a gravel road, headed to town on an errand. Iowa has hundreds of small towns, more, it has been said, than any other state, scattered along rivers, railroads, and crossroads to serve the area farmers. The farmlands, too, as seen from the air, are laid out in hard-edged geometries, softened here and there by a wooded stream or a curving swath of green land planted in grass or cover crop to prevent erosion.
When the first settlers arrived, Iowa was covered in prairie grass so tall in places that a man on horseback could tie it across his saddle horn. The land was virtually treeless because prairie fires regularly incinerated every growing thing for miles around, and the grass recovered more quickly than the trees.
Originally, 75 percent or more of the state was covered in grassland. Today, all that land is under cultivation. There is almost no prairie grass left in the state, except where it is cultivated as a tribute to the past. There are no great forests here, no mountains or deserts, but a landscape thoroughly tamed, with farms following upon farms until, before long, a town appears.
From the air, Iowa looks flat. But out in the farmland in the eastern part of the state, where this story is set, the land is not flat at all. In November, when the earth is bare and the cows are eating the corn stubbles, travelers can see clearly how the ground undulates, swelling and heaving around them. This fertile land is all soft curves, belly and thigh, round, full, and fat. This is Grant Wood country. There are places in eastern Iowa where motorists looking out their car windows realize that the artist exaggerated only a little in his famous paintings of the rolling earth.
Glaciers shaped the land in Iowa and left it rich with topsoil. But some people see in the undulating land a reflection of the ocean waves that covered it millions of years before the glaciers arrived. Iowa Poet Laureate Robert Dana described it this way in his poem, "A Short History of the Middle West": "Under this corn, / these beans, / these acres of tamed grasses, / the prairie still rolls, / heave and trough, / breaker and green curl, / an ocean of dirt tilting and tipping. / Its towns / toss up on the distance, your distance, / like the wink / of islands."
One of the towns winking in the distance is Tipton.
Chapter ThreeThe Early Years, 1913-1932
Lester Charles Hipple was born April 1, 1913, in a farmhouse his family rented north of Tipton, Iowa. No physician attended his birth, and there probably wasn't a midwife, either. Money was scarce. The baby's family worked in farming. Everyone knew the work of bringing a new life into the world. Lester's sister Bess, who was five and would witness the birth of three more Hipple children, said she was almost certain that her father, Charles, assisted in the delivery. "Pop was right there whenever a baby was born," she remembered. Also on hand were a group of aunts, uncles, and cousins. All worked as hired hands for Iowa farmers, living together and sharing the costs.
Lester was the third of six children born to Karolina and Charles Hipple, their first boy. His older sisters, Bess and Florence (called Floss), were born in 1908 and 1910 respectively. After Lester came Helen in 1916, Don in 1919, and Shirley in 1924.
Charles Hipple was born in Silver City, Iowa, on June 15, 1885. He became a blacksmith and set up shop in Tipton. The Hipple name is said to be German, but it's not known how long the family lived in the United States. Lester's great-grandfather, Reuben Jackson Hipple, came to Iowa from Indiana in a covered wagon and, in 1855, married Leah McClain. They had eight children, one of whom was Lester's grandfather, John Hipple.
Lester's mother, Karolina (called Lena) Olsson, was born in Sweden on April 15, 1886, the second daughter of Lars Olsson and Anna Jonsdotter. Lena was four years old when she came to the United States with her mother, a sister, and a brother, following her father, who had moved to the new country earlier. The Olssons had been farmers in Sweden, but were drawn to new opportunities in America, saving their money for at least two years to help pay their passage.
When Lena and Charles married, in 1907, Charles was twenty-two, and had a secure job in his father's smithy. Lena, twenty-one, grew up on a farm, and it was a life she loved. She soon persuaded Charles to give up working with iron and fire and take a position as a hired hand on area farms.
Life was tough. The men rose early to milk the cows and feed the animals before they had their own breakfasts. Horses were still used for plowing. Much of the harvesting was done by hand. Bess, the oldest child, remembered long, tedious days of husking corn in a wagon box pulled by horses. She and the other hands worked late into the night and so far into the fall that the weather turned wintry and her hands became chapped and raw.
While the men labored in the fields and barns, the women cared for the children, prepared the meals, did the housework, fed and raised the chickens and geese, and tended large vegetable gardens. All the children had chores around the house, and they were occasionally assigned a goose or duck to raise. Lester learned at an early age the value and necessity of hard work. But an education was important, too. The children's principal jobs were to do their schoolwork. Farms had no electricity, so the children studied by the light of kerosene lamps on the dining room table. On Saturdays, the family often went to town to shop or see a movie. This was a special treat for the children, but Bess remembered that the family always had to return home in time to milk the cows.
Life as a hired hand was nomadic. The growing Hipple family moved often to new rented houses when work ran out or disagreements arose with employers, or when bad feelings erupted among members of the extended family. In addition, there was a constant tug of war between Charles and Lena. He wanted to go back to town; she didn't want to leave the farm.
Excerpted from A Coach's Life by Dan Kellams Copyright © 2010 by Dan Kellams. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 First Encounter....................1
Chapter 2 Iowa....................5
Chapter 3 The Early Years, 1913-1932....................7
Chapter 4 College Man, 1932-1937....................19
Chapter 5 Callender, 1937-1940....................22
Chapter 6 Walker, 1940-1942....................26
Chapter 7 West Branch, 1942-1945....................29
Chapter 8 Marion at War, 1942-1945....................36
Chapter 9 Vernon at the Helm, 1943-1945....................44
Chapter 10 Hipple Is Hired, 1945....................50
Chapter 11 Hipple's Way, 1945-1946....................54
Chapter 12 Landmarks, 1947....................67
Chapter 13 "We Can't Have Dishonesty," 1946-1947....................75
Chapter 14 Coach Lyle....................81
Chapter 15 Falling in Love, 1947-1948....................87
Chapter 16 Racing into the Glory Years, 1948-1949....................95
Chapter 17 Sweethearts, 1949-1950....................105
Chapter 18 The Gym....................115
Chapter 19 Shooting Star, 1950-1951....................123
Chapter 20 The Peak of Glory, 1951-1952....................133
Chapter 21 Leffingwell Out....................140
Chapter 22 A Man for All Seasons....................148
Chapter 23 The Missed Shot, 1952-1953....................173
Chapter 24 How Paddles Made a Champion, 1953....................185
Chapter 25 Overachievers, 1953-1954....................192
Chapter 26 Living with the Rules....................207
Chapter 27 Piling Up the Wins, 1954-1955....................216
Chapter 28 Falling Stars, 1955-1956....................225
Chapter 29 A House Divided, 1956-1958....................236
Chapter 30 Changing Times....................251
Chapter 31 The Magic Fades, 1958-1960....................262
Chapter 32 The Beginning of the End, 1960-1962....................270
Chapter 33 A Thousand Cuts, 1963-1964....................278
Chapter 34 Hipple Is Fired, 1964-1965....................289
Chapter 35 Aftermath, 1965....................306
Chapter 36 Just Teaching, 1965-1978....................311
Chapter 37 Redemption....................320
Chapter 38 Later Years, 1978-1998....................328
Chapter 39 Messerli's Memories....................331
Chapter 40 Farewell, 1998-1999....................336
Hipple's Record at Marion....................339
George Murdoch's Letter....................347
Sources and Notes....................349
About the Author....................367
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a fascinating look into the career of Les Hipple, a high school coach of various sports who became a legend in the Iowa community where he lived and worked. It is also a story of a bygone time, when entire communities bonded over high school sports competitions. In some ways, Hipple did his job too well, and both parents and school administrators dragged him down - at least temporarily - when he would not compromise over the way he turned out his student athletes. But the kids themselves, especially later in life, found the values and determination instilled in them by their high school coach immensely valuable.