30 Iowa Conference titles
Coach Ron Schipper counsels defensive back Michael Morris after an opponent’s scoring play in a 1993 game. Schipper led Central to 18 Iowa Conference championships during 36 consecutive winning seasons from 1961-96.
Ron Schipper shook his head.
"I learned another lesson today," said Schipper, telling a story at lunch midway through what was to become his final season as football coach at Pella, Iowa’s Central College in 1996.
Despite what the telestrator wizards would have you believe, football's a simple game. And after eventually being involved with the sport in one way or another for 65 years, after coaching in high school for 18 years and at Central from 1961-96, after winning more college football games than all but two other active coaches on the planet at the time of his retirement, one would think Schipper would have had all the answers.
The popular image was one of Schipper as an old, conservative coach who hadn't changed his mind about anything since he began his first season at Central, shortly before they started taking tail fins off cars. The reality is that Schipper was obsessed with finding ways to do things better. At the team banquet following each of his 36 winning seasons, Schipper would invariably tell the crowd, "I learned a lot this year." And each new season, he'd recall the lessons he'd learned in the preceding fall. That's how a fiery college football coach was able to outlast eight U.S. presidents.
One of the first NCAA Division III coaches inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, Schipper died unexpectedly March 27 near his retirement home in Holland, Mich. He was 77. He was just a small college football coach in a quiet Iowa town who spewed cornball sayings and believed in hard work and loving one’s neighbor. But his loss was felt far beyond the grassy banks that surround the Central football field that now bears his name.
“You’ve got to play with some ginegar.”
Schipper was talking about a player's visit to his office that morning.
"He was frustrated," Schipper said. "He wasn't doing as well as he wanted. He didn't know what he was doing on the field or in class. He didn't know what he wanted to do with his life. He hadn't been in my office three minutes and he was crying. And this is one of these tough kids who you could never imagine crying."
Schipper raised his hands in disgust.
"I thought, you know, we coaches can be so stupid," he said, his voice rising, the familiar fire-red tint brightening his weathered face. Heads from adjacent tables began to turn. "We'd been riding him pretty hard, trying to get him to play better. We'd been all over him. He'd always worked hard but he had limitations as an athlete and maybe we were expecting him to do the things that he simply wasn't capable of doing.
"I told him, 'You just became my number one project on this football team.'"
"Hallelujah, if we can't complete that pass 100 times out of 100 then we might as well quit right now and go home."
Anyone who heard Schipper's voice booming across the field following a botched assignment knows he didn't have any philosophical hang-ups about yelling at players. Yet the player needed to know the coach hadn’t stopped caring about him, Schipper said.
"I've probably been a little soft," he said. "But some coaches give up on kids too quickly. We put somebody in the doghouse and leave them there. You can't do that. That's horrible. The real committed kids--you've got to find a way for them to contribute. I take great pride in the kids who have contributed as non-starters."
There were 33 seniors on Schipper’s final Central football team. Fewer than half were starters but they cherished their roles on his squad.
"I hate to see a kid quit," Schipper said. "When they quit, I've missed a chance to help him and he's missed a chance to experience something very special. I don't like to miss chances."
"I could put a frog out there to cover both of you."
For a coach who was still learning, Schipper did pretty well. The numbers are staggering — a record 36 consecutive winning seasons, a career record of 287-67-3, 18 Iowa Conference championships, 12 postseason appearances, 10 undefeated seasons, the 1974 NCAA Division III championship and three trips to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.
You never heard Schipper talk about his records. Trophies and titles were celebrated, but Schipper's real payoff was watching his former linebackers, guards and tailbacks become committed doctors, teachers and parents. That's where the modesty ended. Mention a former player and he beamed like a grandparent. You half expected him to open his wallet and show off snapshots.
"There's nothing more significant than that," Schipper said. "You see them come in and then 15 years later you see how they've grown. Some of these kids after their freshman year, you wonder if they've got a prayer of finishing college. But somehow, something caught on and they become successful. The maturing that takes place and what they've done with their lives after graduation, that's what's significant."
“That kid will do anything for you. He’ll stand on his head and spit nickels if you ask him to.”
Schipper’s real contributions to football can’t be drawn up on a chalkboard. Sure, he strategized and studied like other coaches. He watched more film than Roger Ebert. His church bulletins were typically littered with play formations he diagrammed during the sermon. But play-calling wasn’t his secret.
Ask Harry Smith, a network television co-host of “CBS This Morning,” and a 1973 Central graduate who played defensive tackle. Smith arrived on campus in the late ‘60s as a cynical suburban Chicago teenager who didn’t much care for the rules about hair length or curfews that Schipper imposed. But with each passing year, he developed a greater appreciation for Schipper’s genius, a grudging respect at first that grew far deeper in the years after graduation. It blossomed to the point that when a reporter called and broke the news of Schipper’s death, the unflappable, smooth-talking network star silently put the receiver down for several seconds, struggling to compose himself before responding.
“He knew more about football than just about any coach in the country,” Smith said. “But here was the difference: He loved us, his players, unconditionally. I'm convinced that's why we won.”
To Schipper, football wasn’t XBox. It wasn’t about pushing buttons or manipulating dueling teams of robots on a grid. Football is people.
“We believed he cared about us as more than football players," said Eric Jones '86, a former offensive lineman. "We didn’t want to disappoint him."
One of the first Division III coaches to ever serve as president of the 9,000-member American Football Coaches Association (AFCA), Schipper’s address to that group at its 1997 convention in Orlando, Fla. was titled "X's and O's Don't Win Football Games, People Do.”
"You're letting them take the loaf of bread off the table!"
Student. Athlete. Gentleman. That was the mantra Central players heard as high school recruits and still carry with them. Schipper wanted players who desired to be all three and he viewed them not as separate, distinct qualities but intertwined. In Schipper’s mind, whether a team ran a wing-t formation or the West Coast offense mattered little if the players weren’t committed to success and didn’t care enough about each other to become a family.
Tim Lewis, who played defensive end at Central and is now a high school coach, attended the Iowa State University Coaching Clinic in Ames in 2005, primarily to hear Schipper deliver the keynote lecture.
“For over an hour, I listened to a 76-year-old, semi-retired football coach passionately talk about commitment, perseverance, pride, integrity, attitude, preparation and the love of the game,” Lewis said. “He talked to us about the responsibility that we have as coaches to be a positive role model to our student-athletes. He spoke of his concern for the direction that youth sports are heading. He drove home how important it is to be a great servant, a caring father, a wonderful husband and a first-class citizen. I'm not sure he mentioned anything about formations, plays, or coverages.
“When he was done, my heart was racing, my palms were sweating, and I had butterflies in my stomach-- much like I did on a Saturday afternoon 15 years earlier as a player on Coach Schipper's football team. “
“That kid plays with sandpaper on his nose.”
Schipper’s off-the-field resume mirrored his glossy coaching record. A former chair of the NCAA Division III Football Committee, he was the NCAA representative at countless Division III playoff games. He earlier served on the NCAA Football Rules Committee and was the lone Division III representative on the influential NCAA Football Television Committee in the early 1980s.
Schipper received the inaugural Butterfield Award for outstanding performance as an NCAA Division III coach. He was given a Citation of Honor award from the Football Writers Association of America for his service to college athletics and contributions to football and the Johnny Vaught Lifetime Achievement Award from the All-American Football Foundation.
America’s boundaries couldn’t contain Schipper’s passion for the game. He carted Central players to Italy, England, Scotland, Australia, Switzerland, Austria and France to conduct clinics and play exhibitions. He took a sabbatical from his teaching duties at Central to lead clinics at the college’s study center in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico and to coach a semi-professional team in England.
Those efforts didn’t end with retirement. Todd Bell, director of media relations and special projects for the AFCA, worked closely with Schipper in selecting the organization’s Division III all-star team and journeying to Mexico for the Aztec Bowl each December for the past nine years. Schipper coached the squad that competed against Mexican all-stars.
“We would not be doing this for the 10th year if it weren’t for him,” Bell said. “That game meant so much to him. I don’t know another coach out there who could have made it happen. It was his sheer willpower that got it going.”
Schipper attended nearly 50 AFCA annual workshops. In 2004 he was given the organization’s loftiest honor, the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award, for his contributions to college football.
“He was probably one of the most dedicated members we’ve ever had,” Bell said. “Even after he retired, he was always at the clinic sessions, sitting down in the front row, taking notes.”
“You’ve got to pin your ears back and get after them.”
Retirement took Schipper back to his beloved home state of Michigan. He did not go eagerly. Not even Mayflower could pack all the memories he took with him.
So many magic moments. Rick Perry streaking down the sideline with the winning touchdown in a double-overtime playoff win over Augustana in 1988. Mike Street blocking the extra point in a 17-16 playoff win against Evansville in 1974, and the Gary Cutler-to-Randy Busscher bomb in the final seconds of a stunning win over Ferris State that same year. Brian Gordon picking off a St. Thomas pass in the back of the end zone to preserve a playoff win in 1990.
So many scenes that the gentle waves of Lake Michigan never washed away. Matt Schulte kicking barefoot in a snowstorm at Upper Iowa. Mark Kacmarynski knocking over would-be tacklers in a sea of mud at Buena Vista.
And the familiar routines away from the field. Team hog-calling contests in the Recital Hall during the preseason. Assistant coaches Don De Waard and Kevin Sanger inhaling pizzas during Monday night staff meetings. Eating ice cream with freshmen on their first night on campus, and going fishing with seniors the morning before commencement.
The endless recruiting trips. Hurtling down Iowa county roads, arguing with Rush Limbaugh on the car radio while heading to familiar stops like Aplington-Parkersburg, Pekin of Packwood, and Grundy Center.
More than anything, though, Schipper missed the locker room following a big win. Few moments in life are better, he insisted.
"From the standpoint of your profession, shucks, nothing compares to it," Schipper said. "People who have not been exposed to it don't know what they're missing. I wish every member of our faculty and administration could experience it. It's not just because you won a football game. It's the thrill of knowing the dedication that it's taken to get you there. People have made a commitment together and worked so hard. That's why there's that explosion of emotion.
"To be successful as a doctor, lawyer, or parent, you have to put in that same kind of commitment. There's so much preparation to arrive at that point. That's what makes it so special."
“What are you doing out there? Do you think you’re King Kong? Do you think you’re Godzilla?”
Schipper’s love for the game was great. Yet his devotion to his faith, his family and to others was greater.
Jones, now an assistant coach at Central, called Schipper a conscience for the game.
“He was able to make football an important thing without making it the most important thing,” Jones said. “Sometimes coaches start thinking that football is the only thing that matters. He made sure we put some balance in it and kept football in its proper place.”
That made Schipper an especially effective spokesman for Division III. Dr. Kenneth J. Weller, a co-author of the original Division III philosophy and a former NCAA vice-president, was Central’s president from 1969-90. But his relationship with Schipper goes back to Holland, Mich., where Weller was an economics professor and assistant football coach when Schipper played quarterback at Hope College in the early 1950s.
“’Skip’ was a strong advocate of the Division III philosophy, which is that college athletics exist primarily for the benefit of the participant, rather than the spectator,” Weller said. “He personified that.”
In 1964, Schipper received the first of many offers to coach in Division I. But his priority was his interaction with the players and he feared that the outside demands of coaching on a bigger stage might interfere with that. What mattered to him didn’t require his own TV show or a shoe contract.
“I don’t need 60,000 people in a stadium to get me excited about a football game,” he said.
Which is why Schipper took equal pleasure in his retirement job, serving for nine seasons as a volunteer assistant to his son Tim, the head coach at tiny Fennville (Mich.) High School.
“His relationship with the players was the core of who he was,” Weller said. “That was his primary interest. That’s how he could become so totally involved with that Fennville High School team. He was absorbed in how the team was doing on the field but also in what he was doing to help those kids personally.”
“Gentlemen, the horse is in the barn.”
“Ron Schipper is a hero to a lot of us in Division III,” said Rick Coles, then coach at Lawrence University (Wis.) after learning of Schipper’s retirement in 1996. “Not just because he won, but because he is an educator. His teams played with class, and his players are better people for having played for him.
“Some have called him the Joe Paterno or Tom Osborne of Division III,” Coles said. “I disagree. Joe Paterno and Tom Osborne are the Ron Schippers of Division I.”
For Marc Hernandez, it was more personal. He came to small-town Iowa from the streets of Los Angeles to play for Schipper. It was a proud moment when he received his degree, and a prouder moment that same day in 1992 when he introduced his mother to Schipper.
“I said ‘Mom, this is Coach Skip, and he was my football coach,’” Hernandez recalled.
“Coach put his hand on my shoulder, looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘Marcus, I will always be your football coach.’”