In the summer of 1962, the peripatetic and irrepressible Pete Gill was hired on a whim to coach basketball at tiny Ireland High School. There he would accomplish, against enormous odds, one of the great small-town feats in Indiana basketball history. With no starters taller than 5’10", few wins were predicted for the Spuds. Yet, after inflicting brutal preseason conditioning, employing a variety of unconventional motivational tactics, and overcoming fierce opposition, Gill molded the Spuds into a winning team that brought home the town’s first and only sectional and regional titles. Relying on narrative strategies of creative nonfiction rather than strict historical rendering, Mike Roos brings to life a colorful and varied cast of characters and provides a compelling account of their struggles, wide-ranging emotions, and triumphs throughout the season.
|Publisher:||Indiana University Press|
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About the Author
Mike Roos is Professor of English at University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College. His website is http://www.mikeroos.com.
Read an Excerpt
One Small Town, One Crazy Coach
The Ireland Spuds and the 1963 Indiana High School Basketball Season
By Mike Roos
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Michael Roos
All rights reserved.
On the morning of Saturday, June 16, 1962, the sun rose over southern Indiana like an orange Rawlings basketball, but by midday it had morphed into an angry yellow seed hanging hot and sour over the tiny hamlet of Ireland, where the mood was decidedly glum. Coach Jerome "Dimp" Stenftenagel, beloved by nearly everyone in and around the village of some four hundred souls, had tendered his resignation at the end of the school year, following six consecutive winning seasons. In the last three, he had amassed a total of 59 wins against only six losses and had gone undefeated in the Patoka Valley Conference. These were easily the three winningest seasons in Ireland High School history, which stretched back to 1915.
Unfortunately, like every Ireland coach who had come before him, Dimp had never won a Sectional, had never gotten past the first round of the storied free-for-all Indiana state tournament. And like all but one Ireland coach before him, he had never beaten Jasper, the Spuds' big and reviled neighbor to the east. And now nearly everyone in Ireland recognized that 1962 had been Dimp's best chance—their best chance—maybe for a long time, because that tall and talented starting front line of Dave Baer, Ronnie Vonderheide, and Bill Small had graduated and was gone, and the replacements—most at least a head shorter than Baer, Vonderheide, and Small—were not promising. The golden era was finished.
So who could be surprised that Dimp was gone now too—heading north, way north, north of Indianapolis even, to Lapel, to start over again as a coach? He knew what lay ahead in Ireland, and he wasn't about to beat a dead horse. And what clear-thinking person could blame him? Nevertheless, his departure was a bitter pill for the townsfolk to swallow. How could they ever replace him? And what could even the best basketball coach do with the bunch of likable runts of limited talent who would now make up the Ireland Spuds of 1963?
Just before two o'clock, Pete Wehr and Alf Leinenbach were sitting wearily in the shade of the awning outside Alf's Tire and Auto Service garage near the center of town. Business was sluggish, the town almost comatose in the heat.
"We ain't never gonna win now Dimp's gone," Pete said. "Ain't never gonna beat Jasper. Least of all this year, with what little we got comin' back." Alf wiped some grease onto his overalls and spit into the oil-stained gravel, yet said nothing. "Only did it the once, you know."
"I know, Wehr, I know," Alf sighed. "1940." He had heard the story many more times than he could count.
"Me, Max, Art and the boys. Four left-handers. Yessiree. Weren't nobody could defend us. Beat the living crap out of Jasper, we did. Wasn't even close, 55–39. That was a dang lot of points in them days."
"Forget about it, Wehr. It's gone. Leave it alone."
Pete rambled on. "Then we lost the final to Petersburg. Of course, it was the Petersburg gym that year, so they had the home court. Dang Gil Hodges and them refs. We was up 17–13 with just two minutes to play." Alf Leinenbach groaned, as Pete Wehr paused briefly and then continued as the emotion built. "Then Hodges fouled Charlie twiced, took the ball away twiced, and the refs wouldn't call no foul, even though a blind man could see they was both a foul. He was their boy, Hodges. On his way to the big time. That was it. They couldn't call no kind of foul on him, not their boy. Two buckets and we was on the short end. Final score: 20–19. That was it. That there was our best shot."
Alf groaned in disgust. "Will you shut the heck up about 1940, Wehr? I've heard that crap about all I can stand. This here year, 1962, was our best shot, and we couldn't do it. If this year's bunch couldn't do it, I don't see how nobody can."
Pete Wehr bent to pick up a small stone and tossed it into the center of Highway 56. "It's hotter than blazes out here, Alf."
"It's boilin' all right."
"But we beat Jasper, didn't we, now, Alf? And that's a dang sight more than any other team can say."
Alf lifted his right foot and its dirty work boot off the ground. "How would you like this boot in your mouth, Wehr?"
"The only bunch of Spuds to ever do it," Pete went on. "Beat a Cabby O'Neill team, that is. That danged Irishman. That's saying something. You gotta admit."
"I don't give a hoot what you did, Wehr. You didn't win no Sectional and no team from this godforsaken town ain't never won no Sectional, and if you don't at least win a Sectional it don't really mean nothin' now, does it?" Alf slouched back into his wooden folding chair. "Jesus Lord, there ain't nothin' I want more before I die." He raised his eyes to the blinding sun. "Just onced, Lord, just onced before they bury me back yonder in St. Mary's cemetery, I want to see some Ireland boys cut down the nets and bring home the Sectional trophy. Just onced."
Pete Wehr curled his lip and frowned. "Forget it, Alf. Ain't gonna happen this year or likely never, but sure as heck not this here year. Back in '40, now, boy oh boy, we was so close we could smell it, and Gil Hodges and them refs stole it from us. Ain't no doubt about it. Plumb stole it from us."
Alf took off his dirty cap and slapped Pete across his bald head with it. "In the name of Bobby Plump, I said shut your dang pie hole, you old coot!"
Alf was prepared to take a couple more swats at Pete's head when a most bizarre-looking vehicle just then rolled past, moving at a ponderously slow pace. With Alf's hat paused in midair, the two men studied the automobile as it trolled by, a battered and dirty, two-toned cream and green '59 Chevrolet Impala wagon chugging east and spewing blue smoke across Highway 56, the road that bisected the town of Ireland on its way to Jasper.
"Good Golly Miss Molly, if that ain't the ugliest machine on four wheels I ever seen!" Pete declared.
"Chevy should've quit for sure when they made the '57," Alf said. "The '59—now that was never nothing but a big mistake."
"Well, whoever the owner is of that vehicle sure ain't taking care of it."
"Why the heck should he?" Alf spit again into the gravel.
"What's that license plate? UE? What county's that? Never seen that one before."
"Probably way up north somewheres," Alf said. "Just passing through."
"So why's he driving so dang slow?" Pete coughed, waving his arm through the cloud of exhaust smoke. "Move along, fella! Take that heap to the dump!"
While the '59 Impala was surely one of the ugliest automobiles Chevrolet had ever produced, with slits and projectiles and bullet points along the front grill and two huge taillights shaped like the eyes of a hungover being from a distant planet, this one, with its acrid exhaust, bald tires caked in dried mud, two missing hubcaps, large dents and scrapes on the front and side, and several pieces of chrome missing, seemed even more likely to arouse fear, loathing, and suspicion.
Then abruptly, as the demented auto was about to pass Leinenbach's Cafe a short distance down the road, it made a sharp turn to the right, into the lot in front of the restaurant, where it came to a halt. The car door complained loudly as it opened, and out stepped a wiry, pug-nosed man with a fair-haired crew-cut and a narrow black necktie dangling loose at the open collar of a short-sleeved white shirt, half out of wrinkled black trousers. The man flicked away a cigarette and stretched himself lazily, then tucked his shirttail back inside his pants. With his flattened nose pointing up into the hot air, he took note of the other sleepy businesses huddled around the town's main intersection: Bartley's Feed Mill, Wigand's Grocery, Eskew's Barbering and TV Repair Shop, the Shamrock Cafe, and Alf's competitor, D-T Auto. He had a boxer's profile and a protruding lower lip, and he moved in a studied manner, like an old-school Hollywood street cat—Jimmy Cagney or Edward G. Robinson or maybe Charlie Chaplin.
Beside him, in the center of the small parking lot, a brick planter overflowed with impassioned red and white petunias in full bloom. The man bent slightly to pinch off one of the blossoms with his fingers, lifted it to his nose to check the fragrance, thought momentarily about sticking it into his shirt pocket, but then flicked it casually into the air and watched it float gently to the ground.
He glanced at his watch and turned quickly to open the cafe door and step into the dark interior of the tavern. Inside he was met with a refreshing cavelike coolness, and when his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he found a few Saturday afternoon patrons staring at him from a long row of stools. Between bottles of liquor in the center of a shelf behind the bar, a Rawlings basketball glowed like a tabernacle in the center of an altar. Alf Leinenbach's cousin Amos Leinenbach, known as Ame among the townsfolk, was proprietor of the place, which he had made reasonably known and reasonably prosperous owing to its hallowed fried chicken recipe, a carefully guarded secret, conveniently provided by Ame's jolly mother when he opened the joint in 1949. As usual, Ame tended bar, and, along with his sullen flock of patrons, he was studying the mysterious stranger and his one unpolished black shoe placed aggressively at the top of the three stairs just inside the doorway. The fellow, who appeared to be in his early thirties, looked tough enough to hold his own in a boxing ring, slightly smaller than average in height yet clearly trim and fit. After a brief pause, he swaggered up to the bar, breaking the silence with a gruff and jarring nasally voice, a blend of an off-key tenor saxophone and a chainsaw. "Anybody here could give a man directions?"
He was greeted with silence. If the men had seemed interested in the stranger at first, now they seemed to find their frosted mugs of beer more intriguing. The stately, plump bulk of Amos Leinenbach stood before the bar mirror, drying a schooner with a towel.
"Just whereabouts you want to go?" he asked.
"Well, now," said the stranger, placing his palms on the bar, "I'm looking for a man name of Jim Roos. I believe he's principal of your high school, is he not?"
"That's correct," said Ame, tossing the towel into a heap in the corner. "I know Jim. A fine young fellow, fine as you'll ever want to meet. Been here one year and straightened some things out that needed straightening. Jim Roos is the kind of man who wants no crooked sticks, if you know what I mean. I have a lot of respect for him. So what do you want with him?"
The stranger lifted his chin a little higher. "I've got me an appointment with him is all."
"Huh!" A voice huffed from the dark end of the bar. "Jim Roos don't hang with your type, mister."
The stranger grinned. "You don't say. Well, I do have me an appointment with him is all I can say."
"And who are you?" said the man at the far end. His right eye was bandaged with a mess of cotton gauze held in place by a rubber band encircling a head of unruly gray hair. "What's your game?"
"Easy, Stevie," Ame said, raising his hand.
The stranger rested his elbows on the bar and thrust his boxer's face forward. "Mister," he said firmly and proudly, "my name is Pete Gill. I'm a fighting Irishman is what I am. In a town called Ireland, if it's worthy of the name, I would think folks would be kinda partial to such a man as me, at least show a little respect."
"We ain't none of us Irish," the one-eyed man at the end said.
Pete Gill bowed his head and chuckled. "Then what, may I ask, are you doing in a town called Ireland?"
"Our German ancestors run the lazy Irish outta here a long, long time ago, before any of us was born," declared another man from the middle of the group.
"Tell him, Leo!" the one-eyed man called Stevie said.
Amos Leinenbach leaned over the bar and stared into Pete Gill's eyes. "So don't think you're gonna win any friends here, Mr. Pete Gill, just because you say you're Irish. That's all these boys are saying. We all come from hardworking German stock. About all we have in common with the Irish is we like our beer."
"Here's to that," Leo said, raising his schooner.
"Yes, I can see how hardworking you all are," Pete Gill said, his eyes scanning the men resting comfortably on the row of barstools. "Well, that don't matter anyhow. You are what you are, and I am what I am. You asked me what my game was, so I'll tell you. My game is basketball."
The room became quiet. Ame stared pointedly at Pete Gill and leaned back. "Zat so? Well, now, young fella, basketball's the game of just about everybody around here, including Jim Roos. In fact, it's just about the only game in town, except for a little duck hunting. That and maybe some baseball on a hot summer's day."
"What did the Cards do last night, Ame?" one of the men asked.
"Beat the Giants, 5–2."
"That's three in a row. Who pitched?" Leo asked.
"Dodgers lost. Puts the Cards six and a half back now," said Stevie.
"What about the Reds?" asked Pete Gill.
"Mister, they was crushed by the Phillies, 13–8," said Leo. "They're a game back of the Cards now in fifth."
"It's a tough league," said Pete.
"Say that again," Leo replied. "Any one of five teams can win it."
"Unlike that other league," said Ame.
"Damn Yankees!" Stevie snorted. "Why can't nobody knock them off their high horse?"
"Kinda like them jerks up the road, ain't they?" Ame said, followed by another dead pause.
Pete Gill broke the silence. "You mean the Jasper Wildcats."
Someone coughed angrily. "Mister, we don't utter them words in here," Leo said.
"What? 'Jasper'?" Pete Gill laughed. "Huh! I ain't afraid of no Jasper. I don't like 'em, but I ain't afraid of 'em. You fellas sure do hate Jasper, though, don'tcha? Really want to kick their butt, don'tcha?"
"Well, we give 'em what for in the Great Egg War, didn't we, boys?" Leo said.
"The Great Egg War!" Pete Gill laughed. "Don't believe I read about that one in the history books."
"Sunday after the Sectional just this past March," Leo said. "A bunch of their kids come to town and start throwin' raw eggs everywheres, but they didn't know what they was in for!"
"I heard an Ireland boy started it," another man said. "Threw an egg at one of their cheerleaders after the game."
One-eyed Stevie slammed his fist on the bar, splashing beer out of several schooners. "I don't give a damn!" he cried. "There was no call for them to bring carloads of eggs here and bombs away on us after they beat us like that in the Sectional. Who do they think they are?"
"They say there weren't no more eggs in any supermarket that day," Leo said.
"Yeah, but they weren't thinking, those boys," Ame chimed in. "Because our boys had all the ammo they could ever want, what with all the chicken farms around here. So, naturally, our kids chased them right back outta here with their tails between their legs."
"Yeah, and a whole lotta egg on their faces!" Stevie said.
"And everything else!" Leo added. Everyone laughed raucously but then quickly fell back into silence.
"Well, now, that's a good story," said Pete Gill after a while. "I can relate. Yes, sir, I can relate. You see, I hate Jasper too. Had a grudge against 'em ever since they beat my New Albany team in the Semi-State in 1948 when I was a junior. I wanted to get back at 'em so bad the next year I could taste it, and then Jeffersonville beat us in the Sectional, which never should've happened. And that was when Jasper went on and won the State."
"With our boy, Dimp," Stevie said from the dark end.
"I know that," Pete Gill said. "I know Dimp Stenftenagel was on that Jasper team, and then he was your coach. And not a bad coach at that."
"Huh! The best this town's ever gonna have," Stevie said. "And now we lost him."
"Well, sir," Pete Gill said, "I believe the good Lord has a reason for everything. Yes, Dimp, is gone, but he will be replaced. The question is, with who? That's the $64,000 question, now, isn't it? And let me tell you, boys, that's just what I'm here for."
"Meaning I come to town to help you people smash hell outta the Jasper Wildcats. And I don't mean with eggs! We'll do it on the basketball court, the righteous field of battle. We'll stuff a damn basketball right down their throats!"
Stevie slammed his empty schooner onto the bar. "Bullcrap!"
Pete Gill took a step toward the far end of the bar. "You want to make a wager on that, sir? Huh? I'll wager you any thing you want. I happen to know this town is in search of a new basketball coach, and that's what I'm here to talk to Jim Roos about."
"Ha ha!" came Stevie's abrupt response.
Pete Gill advanced another step. "Last week I sent Jim Roos my letter of application, and now I'm here to be interviewed for the job."
"What a load of horse manure," said Stevie. Others at the bar too were shaking their heads in disbelief.
"I guess you'll be talking to my brother Levi then," Ame said.
"How's that?" Pete Gill asked. "My appointment is with Jim Roos, the principal, is all I know."
"My brother, Levi Leinenbach, is the township trustee," Ame said firmly. "He hires and fires all the school people. He'll have something to say about who the next basketball coach is."
"Well, I'll be happy to talk to anybody I need to," Pete Gill said. "I reckon Jim Roos'll see to that."
Excerpted from One Small Town, One Crazy Coach by Mike Roos. Copyright © 2013 Michael Roos. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Gloomsday 1
2 No Irish in Ireland 12
3 Neither a Drunkard Nor a Bank Robber 21
4 Baptisms 35
5 Turkey Run and the White Horse Tavern 48
6 A Wop and a Wimp and a Moon 55
7 Too Much Is Not Enough 68
8 Life under the Knife 74
9 Ice Man 81
10 Your Blood, Your Sweat, Your Tears 92
11 Drill, Baby, Drill! 107
12 Soap and Towel and Wings of Fire 115
13 Highway 61 Revisited 125
14 The Buy In 139
15 Devil in Blue Jeans 154
16 Coal for Christmas 163
17 I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing 171
18 Of Jeeps and Giants 177
19 The Dude 184
20 Preliminaries 190
21 Walk Like a Man 200
22 The Prophet's Vision 213
23 Divine Insanity 226
24 Keep Your Pants On 241
25 The Axe Just Fell 253
26 Fame 265
27 Small Potatoes 277
28 Invasion of the Little Green Men 285
What People are Saying About This
One Small Town, One Crazy Coach is a piece of Indiana basketball history that reawakens memories of the glory days of high school teams in Southern Indiana.
Mike Roos has captured for basketball fans and general readers alike the essence of what Indiana basketball and small town life was all about in the 1960s. Along the way, there's lots of 'string music' that will send readers right back to a bygone golden era of Hoosier Hysteria.
One Small Town, One Crazy Coachis an outstanding book that reflects the true passion of high school basketball in Indiana and its impact on a community. This story is a clear expression of a coach and his team's unwavering belief in accomplishing something special. You’ll thoroughly enjoy following the 1963 Ireland Spuds as they chase their piece of Indiana Basketball History.
For anyone who grew up in this 'basketball crazy state' . . .One Small Town, One Crazy Coach is a must read.Mike Roos takes us on a wonderful trip back to when Hoosier Basketball was the ONLY game in town . . . not just a story about High School Hoops . . . but an inside look at that glorious era when Indiana Boys basketball meant everything to an entire community.
Many of the schools Ireland High School played in 1962-1963 disappeared in the consolidation rush of the 1970s. Mike Roos . . . grew up in this world ('the golden age of Indiana high school basketball'), his father was the principal of Ireland High School during its trip to the promised land, and he knows basketball inside and out. I can't imagine anyone more qualified than Mr. Roos to bring Indiana high school basketball history to lifeespecially in this the 50th anniversary year. His is indeed an originaland valuablework.
Memories of 50 years ago....After reading the book, Pete [Gill] was crazier than I imagined.
A great tribute to Coach Pete Gill and the 1963 Ireland Spuds. It is a message of faith as a 'crazy' coach leads an underdog team to high achievements against all odds. This book is a true picture of what small town basketball was like in southern Indiana in 1963, and the power of small town spirit.
Fifty years ago the term ‘Hoosier Hysteria’ had a truly special meaning and a band of ‘Spuds’ solidified it. In short, Mike Roos’s work about this unique team and special time is a must read! Any true ‘Hoosier’ will be taken to a better place!
For everyone that loved Hoosiers, here is the next volume. But unlike Hoosiers, which was only based on a true event but was embellished with an anthology of events that occurred in dozens of small post-war Indiana towns, this one is took place in a town half the size of "Hickory". You will laugh and cry as you fall in love with the characters and the compelling story of the Ireland Spuds circa 1963.
Mike Roos's One Small Town, One Crazy Coach is a wonderful addition to the literature of the only game that matters in the Hoosier state. Fans of Hoosiers and John Feinstein's A Season on the Brink will discover not simply a tale of Davids taking on Goliaths but a tribute to the villages and hamlets of the Midwest, many of whose home high schools disappeared thanks to public-school consolidation in the 1970s. The minute Ireland's gentle giant principal, Jim Roosthe author's fatherhires the raw, impassioned Pete Gill to lead the Spuds, readers also know they're meeting one of the all-time characters in coachinga man with a peculiar mixture of discipline and impulse, and one given to spectacle. The iconic moment Gill tosses his trousers into the stands captures the sheer exhilaration of victorya rightful reminder that winning is as much about giddy absurdity as sentimental triumph.
Mike Roos cleverly articulates the trials and tribulations faced by all small town Indiana basketball coaches during an era of HoosierHysteria when against all odds, little known high schools became legendary in defeating those larger schools that routinely dominated the game. Relive one such unpredictable quest orchestrated by Pete Gill's motivational style andexecuted by the 1963 Ireland Spud players who believed in their coach.