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One Small Town, One Crazy Coach: The Ireland Spuds and the 1963 Indiana High School Basketball Season

By: Mike Roos
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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.

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28 Chapters

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1 Gloomsday

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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.

 

2 No Irish in Ireland

ePub

In the heat of this Saturday afternoon, the first of what Betty Roos decided would be a long hot summer in purgatory if not downright hell, she knew the day would be one of those that would drag her to the end of her wits. Wrapped tightly in the crook of her left arm, her nine-month-old baby boy, Scott, wriggled inside a freshly full diaper, while in the desperate grip of her right hand, the chubby paw of Eric, her three-year-old with Down syndrome and a wickedly contrary attitude, struggled to break free. Betty was now in the process of dragging Eric furiously out of the bathroom, where he had just gotten into the storage cabinet beneath the sink and spilled Ajax in powdery streams across the tiled floor. She had found him sitting in it, with both hands caked in gritty white paste, just as he was about to lick them clean. Having narrowly averted disaster, she left the bathroom mess for later. Now, she had to let go of Eric just long enough to yank the bathroom door closed, but it was more than enough time for him to waddle away out of reach toward the living room, with a devilish giggle.

 

3 Neither a Drunkard Nor a Bank Robber

ePub

As Betty was putting the second pin in Scott’s diaper and was about to go in search of Eric, she heard a loud, metallic knock at the front screen door and wondered if it was Eric trying to escape the confines of the house.

But Eric was sitting contentedly in his own wet diaper on the hardwood floor of the living room, holding his toy saxophone in one hand while quietly watching the pattern of sunbeams on the oak planks, fascinated by the play of light on the wood grain. When the figure of a man appeared knocking at the screen door, he instinctively stood up to stare at the dark outline of the stranger against the pale blue sky in the background. Then, raising his right hand to point at the man, he lifted the horn to his lips with his left hand to screech out a series of discordant notes.

“Hey there, little buddy,” the strange silhouette responded. Eric paused to gape, then blew on the sax again. “Ha ha! Real good!” the man exclaimed, then crouched and put his face next to the screen. “How about you play me ‘Summertime and the Livin’ Is Easy’?” The man crooned the words Frank Sinatra style, in a surprisingly silky timbre compared to the rasp of his speaking voice, and Eric blurted another sour note in response. “Yeah! That’s it, in the key of E minor!” The man grinned, and Eric grinned back.

 

4 Baptisms

ePub

It was 1939, and Petey Gill and his father stood before a Dayton judge in juvenile court. All the other gang members had already been sentenced to an Ohio reformatory, a youth prison upstate.

“Mr. Gill,” the judge said to Petey’s father. “I must admit I find your son’s case rather shocking.” Petey’s eyes wandered over the details of the courtroom—the judge’s black robe, his high wooden desk, his shiny wooden gavel, the grain of the wood panels behind him, the dual flags of Ohio and the United States, the bailiff’s pearl-handle gun and leather holster. Before their arrival, he had thought he would be afraid, but instead he found himself only fascinated. It was all just like a movie he’d seen, except now he was the star of the show, and he liked that feeling.

“Your son is only ten years old, Mr. Gill.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“At such a tender age, to be a member of one of the worst street gangs in our city. How could you let that happen?”

“I wish I knew, Your Honor.”

 

5 Turkey Run and the White Horse Tavern

ePub

Pete Gill shoved his way through the front door of his rented bungalow on the edge of the little town of Marshall, Indiana. “Glenda! I’m home!”

“Daddy!” Four-year-old Ellen came running to her father.

“Hey, my little darling! How was your day?” Pete swung his daughter up into his arms and gave her a loving kiss on the cheek.

“I found a shamrock, Daddy!” Ellen revealed a single shaft of clover in her small palm.

“You did! Well, that’s our good luck charm, honey. Hold on to that! We’re gonna need it! Where’s your little brother?”

“Joey’s sleeping.”

“That’s good.”

Pete’s wife, Glenda, appeared at the kitchen door. “So soon?”

Pete pecked Ellen again and set her down to run back to her room. “Don’t lose that shamrock, baby!” Pete kept his eyes away from his wife’s. “I quit, Glenda,” he mumbled.

His wife stared at him, dumbfounded. “Aw, Pete! Are you crazy? Not again!”

“I’m out. Done with it.” Pete dropped his body onto the couch.

 

6 A Wop and a Wimp and a Moon

ePub

Jim Roos was surprised the first Saturday in July to see Pete Gill at his door again, only a week after they had settled his contract, dressed in a tee shirt, soiled khaki work pants, and mud-caked black Converse All Stars.

“Here I am, Jim.” Pete stood on the front stoop outside Jim’s house, hands outstretched like a singer, grinning broadly.

“What brings you to town, Pete? House hunting?”

“Got a place, Jim. We’re all moved in.”

With a glance at the mud on Pete’s shoes, knowing Betty had just vacuumed, Jim stepped outside. “You don’t waste time, do you?” Jim laughed.

“Ready to get started, Jim. That’s the way I am. When I’m done one place, I’m done, and I move on. ‘Don’t look back,’ Satchel Paige said. ‘Something might be gaining on ya.’”

“Where is it?”

“Where’s what?”

“Your new place.”

“Oh, uh, Jasper.”

“Jasper?” Jim replied uncomfortably.

“You know Wop Fritsch’s bar there, don’t you?”

“Yeah.” Jim grew even more uncomfortable. He’d never been inside Fritsch’s Tavern, but he’d been by there and knew its reputation as the Dubois County gambling headquarters. “Are you living there?”

 

7 Too Much Is Not Enough

ePub

As the August twilight faded over the roof of the whitewashed barn, Maurice Keusch dribbled with his back to the homemade basket, nailed to the barn boards. His brother Dennis, nicknamed Red, guarded him closely, blanketing his every movement with the special ferocity they reserved for these intense personal games of one-on-one. In an effort to break free, Maurice faked sharply to his right, then spun left to go up for a quick jumper, but Red, the skilled defenseman, recovered quickly and leaped up with his left arm extended, forcing the shot to go much higher than Maurice intended. Red then pivoted and planted his right foot firmly atop Maurice’s and successfully pinned him to the bare hard clay that served as their basketball court. When the ball hit the front of the rim and sprung harmlessly away, Red was in ready position for the defensive rebound.

“Hey! Watch the foot!” Maurice cried, looking around for an imaginary official. “He fouled me, ref!”

“Ref didn’t see it!” Red grinned as he dribbled out to the fifteen-foot range to begin his own offensive possession.

 

8 Life under the Knife

ePub

“My gosh, Joe! This is where you lived?”

“You made me bring you here.”

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in August, Joe Lents and Connie Leinenbach stood in the decay of the little shack in Burns City where Joe had lived the first eleven years of his life, the place where he had slept fitfully and uncomfortably in one room with a brother and three sisters, where his parents had fought with random and terrifying violence, and where his mother had died painfully of cancer.

“I had no idea it was this tiny and dirty,” Connie said in the gloom of the abandoned kitchen.

“Nobody’s lived here since we left. It was a little cleaner then. Not much.”

“It’s so depressing, Joe.”

“What did you expect?”

“No hot water, no indoor plumbing.”

“There are people who have it a lot worse than this.”

Connie felt the sadness welling up inside her and put her arms around him. “Oh, Joe! I’m so sorry.”

“Why?” he said, pulling away and stooping to pick up an old scrap of newspaper with an ancient headline, “Ike Re-elected.” “It’s got nothing to do with you. Come on. Let’s get out of here. This place gives me the creeps.”

 

9 Ice Man

ePub

At the edge of a large pasture on a bitterly cold, snow-covered Saturday morning in January 1961, David Small was hopping rapidly up and down on his toes in an effort to keep himself warm, while his father, Herman Small, worked on the guts of the family’s orange Allis-Chalmers tractor, which had turned recalcitrant while in process of clearing dead timber from the field. To ease his boredom, Dave squatted and put his hands into the six-inch-deep snow to compress some into a frozen ball. Then he rose up in the studied manner of a World Series pitcher, selected a fence post about fifty feet away as his catcher, and looked for a sign.

Curveball? Nope. Dave shook it off. Change-up? Dave shook that off too. Fastball? Dave nodded. Then, slowly and deliberately, he went into his windup, in the mode of Sandy Koufax, his hero, first stepping back with his right foot, in the process bringing both hands together and lifting them high over his head, all the while keeping his eyes fixed on his target, then turning his body, rearing his right knee to the level of his chest, and extending the leg as far forward as possible while pushing off with his powerful left leg to fire a blistering overhand fastball that struck the fence post dead in the center about knee high, leaving a small circle of powdered snow where it splattered.

 

10 Your Blood, Your Sweat, Your Tears

ePub

As the summer of ’62 neared its end and Pete Gill found himself greeted ever more commonly with rank skepticism among Ireland townfolk, a natural tendency toward paranoia began gnawing at his mental health. Jim Roos was doing all he could to plant the seeds of optimism around the village, but there remained intense pockets of resistance. As Pete well knew, the most intense such pocket was located inside Tommy Schitter’s grocery and butcher shop only a few blocks from the high school. The fact that Tommy’s son Pat was regarded by many, including Jim Roos, as one of the best basketball prospects among an inexperienced but promising sophomore class only added to Pete’s mental disturbance. Irrationally, he concluded that the best solution would be to see to it that Pat did not make the team. Roy Allen, with whom Pete had otherwise quickly achieved a harmonious rapport, did not agree.

“You’ll be cutting off your nose to spite your face, Pete,” Roy said the day before fall classes were to begin. They were huddled together behind the locked door of the coach’s office in the gymnasium, amidst a cloud of cigarette smoke.

 

11 Drill, Baby, Drill!

ePub

The Spuds played nine baseball games in the fall of 1962 and won eight, though their success owed less to the coaching of Pete Gill than to the superior talents of Dave Small. This was no surprise to anyone. Since his early childhood on the farm, Dave had devoted almost as much attention to baseball as to basketball. In September 1962, he pitched complete-game shutouts three times and led the team in batting average. The only disappointment was the team’s one loss, which came in the season finale against Chrisney and cost the Spuds the conference championship.

Success on the diamond, however, earned the players no reprieves on the practice field. Pete Gill never relaxed his backbreaking workouts, and the players’ regard for their coach improved not a whit. If anything, it only grew worse.

Neither did Pete, for his part, make much effort to win the affections of his players. In his mind the days on which baseball games were scheduled served only as inconvenient interruptions from the task at hand—which was, of course, to get ready for basketball. Knowing this, the players—with the exception of Red Keusch, that is—hardly relished the start of basketball season. A sense of dread would have been a more accurate description of their feelings. Dave Small and Joe Lents, who more than others had tasted the good life during the Dimp Stenftenagel era, resigned themselves to the expectation that their senior year of basketball would be a protracted state of misery, imprisoned in the confines of a madman’s torture chamber. They could not bring themselves to understand how a coach could seem so hell-bent on sucking every bit of fun out of playing the sport they loved so much.

 

12 Soap and Towel and Wings of Fire

ePub

A week before the team’s season opener against Spurgeon, Pete had Jim Roos announce to students, parents, and public that there would be what he termed a “Soap and Towel” game, an exhibition scrimmage among Ireland players, Tuesday night prior to the Spurgeon game.

“But, Coach, this is nuts,” Dave Small pointed out. “We haven’t even scrimmaged full-court yet.”

“When I want your opinion, Small, I’ll ask for it.”

Dave said no more, but he could not imagine how the drills they had been doing in practice would translate into game conditions. His worst fear was an embarrassment in front of the whole town, but Pete would not be dissuaded. Pete wanted a show, a demonstration before all his detractors of what he was building. He overestimated, however, the readiness of his team.

Such an exhibition was a first for the town of Ireland. It was Pete’s idea that anyone could gain admission with a bar of soap or a towel, which he intended to stockpile for the team’s locker room supplies. Although hardly anyone expected to see high-quality basketball at the practice game, there was a great deal of curiosity about the team as tales of Pete’s bizarre and brutal practices had spread among townsfolk and even beyond. When Jack Brandt, sports director for Jasper radio station WITZ, heard about the game, he made plans to be there. Jasper athletic director Cabby O’Neill, on the other hand, decided it would be best not to attend, lest he be confused for an Ireland supporter, but he asked Jack to provide him with a full report on “this fellow Gill.”

 

13 Highway 61 Revisited

ePub

Game day arrived, and an unusually agitated Roy Allen stood in the doorway to Pete Gill’s office. “Pete, now you’ve really lost your mind! Hitchhiking home from Spurgeon? It’s nuts!”

Pete was studiously shuffling through a stack of index cards. He glanced up expressionless, then resumed the shuffling. “Did you see the looks on the boys’ faces, Roy? I think I got ’em stirred up.”

“I’m not worried about that. We will win the game,” Roy said. “As bad as we looked the other night, Spurgeon is likely to be several degrees worse. And if we play better, which is a real possibility, then it’s you and me I’m worried about, Pete.”

Pete did not look up. “Take it easy, Roy.”

“Listen, Pete, Spurgeon is thirty miles away. And there’s no direct route between here and there. You have to take a bunch of different roads. Hitchhiking so late at night is—well, it’s no simple matter.”

“I’m going to start Stan Klem,” Pete said, lifting out one of the cards. “Don’t you think he looked the best of what we got?”

 

14 The Buy In

ePub

Everyone was aware that Ireland’s second opponent, the Holland Dutchmen, would be a far sterner test for the Spuds and Pete Gill than Spurgeon had been. In fact, they were likely to be one of the most difficult opponents on the entire schedule. Holland had several returning starters, led by big men Butch Fenneman and Bill Buse, and many experts in the area favored them not only to replace Ireland atop the Patoka Valley Conference but to be a genuine small-school threat to capture the Huntingburg Sectional title. Thus, Pete Gill began ruminating on strategy against them almost as soon as he returned home from Spurgeon.

It helped that his support among students and townsfolk was now growing, even if only incrementally, in the wake of the victory over Spurgeon. The hitchhiking stunt had not only motivated his team but had also won him a few new fans, who found him at least to be more entertaining than his predecessor. Whether he was truly a better basketball coach would remain an open question.

 

15 Devil in Blue Jeans

ePub

Jim Roos was pleased to see a remarkable difference in the atmosphere in Ireland High School the following Monday morning. The pall of gloom that had hung over the building since the beginning of fall classes was gone, and in its place was a mood of sunny optimism, focus, and anticipation. Everything seemed brighter now in the light of the two season-opening wins. Students were more attentive and respectful of their teachers, the buzz in the hallways between classes was louder and more energized, and even janitor John Radke took greater pride in his work. And the generalized optimism was only enhanced by the Spuds’ third game, a road contest against nonconference opponent English, which offered no special difficulty and required no special strategy or stunts to motivate the players. The team cruised to an easy twenty-point win, 65–45, and now stood 3–0, although they faced next a challenging match with the Monroe City Blue Jeans, a home game on Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

Rapidly Pete Gill was becoming the talk of the town. In these early weeks of the season, he began to make a habit after practice of stopping for coffee and friendly chatter at Ame Leinenbach’s cafe. Although, on occasion, Pete had privately sampled some of Morris Weidenbenner’s home brew or would sneak a beer at Wop Fritsch’s tavern in Jasper, he had so far carefully avoided public consumption of alcoholic beverages in Ireland. Roy Allen, on the other hand, while only a moderate drinker, never tried to hide his consumption of alcohol, and in fact he frequently tended bar for Ame as summer employment, which had caused Roy some difficulty when Tommy Schitter was township trustee.

 

16 Coal for Christmas

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A confrontation with an unsolved mystery generally tended to feed Pete Gill’s paranoid inclinations. And in Pete’s mind, there was no greater mystery at this time than the mystery of Joe Lents. One day after the boys had all gone home from practice, Pete was sitting in his office ruminating on Joe, and the more he ruminated, the more he could not resist a stroll into the dressing room to snoop into Joe’s locker. What he found justified the mission—in his mind, at least. On the top shelf were three bottles of prescription medications. Although the drug names were not familiar to him, he took note of the prescriber—Dr. Charles Klamer of Jasper—then stuffed the bottles into his coat pocket and drove home.

Joe’s sister Doty worked as a nurse in Klamer’s office. When Joe arrived in Ireland as a freshman, he was seriously underweight and malnourished. He often complained of fatigue and, not surprisingly, given the trauma of his childhood, suffered from chronic depression. Doty asked her boss to examine her little brother, and Dr. Klamer prescribed a regimen of vitamin and mineral supplements, most importantly iron pills for anemia. He may also have prescribed a mild antidepressant.

 

17 I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing

ePub

Someone had put coal in the Spuds’ Christmas stockings. Mercifully Pete did not force the team to practice on Christmas Day, but he held practice on Christmas Eve and on the day after Christmas and on every other day over Christmas break. The practices were every bit as merciless as they had been in the preseason, if not more so. Pete, however, backed off from any special focus on Joe Lents, who nevertheless retreated into a quiet funk, while the rest of the team waited for him to return his head to winning basketball. It would take a while.

Joe was not about to get over the incident quickly. In January and February, his scoring markedly declined from the sixteen points he was averaging per game prior to the tourney. Most games he barely reached double figures. Before the holidays, Joe was fourth in the conference in scoring. By the end of the regular season, he had dropped to ninth. This was not the way he had wanted his senior season to go, but he just could not get himself motivated to play his best for Pete Gill.

 

18 Of Jeeps and Giants

ePub

Now 8–0 in conference play and 12–3 overall, the Spuds found themselves in control of the race to the conference championship, with only four weeks and five games remaining before the Sectional. Only Chrisney remained as a conference opponent, but the Wildcats would have to wait. As a group, the final five games would present a variety of challenges, and Pete Gill regarded them most importantly as excellent tune-ups to prepare for the postseason. The first of the four weeks appeared the most difficult, with two road games: a Wednesday night trip to Dubois followed by a Saturday jaunt to the big city of Evansville to play the state’s top-ranked team, Rex Mundi.

Dubois was the only opponent Ireland regularly scheduled for two games per season. Since the two teams had already split two games between them, both regarded this as the rubber match to settle the score between arch-rivals, provided, of course, they didn’t meet again in the Sectional, which was always a possibility. Ireland had looked very impressive in the first meeting and very unimpressive in the second at the Holiday Tourney, the game that had, in essence, begun the ongoing tug-of-war between Pete Gill and Joe Lents. Although Joe’s productivity since December had fallen dramatically, Pete had chosen a version of trench warfare in dealing with his recalcitrant star. There was no actual truce between them, although there were few shots being fired on either side. Still, anyone who thought things had quieted between them would have been deluded. For Joe especially, another game with Dubois only served to reopen the wounds. As a result, his frame of mind for the game was considerably less than optimal.

 

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