Behind Every Champion Lies a Great Coach by Mary Banker

There are moments in life that stick. A single sound, smell, or sight can take you straight back to those moments. There are still times that I can hear his voice, telling me to hustle, to push harder, to show heart. He knew who I was before I ever did and he drove me to become that woman. He did that for all of us.

When I graduated high school, I had no idea that there was inequity in female sports. I come from a small farm town called Orfordville, Wisconsin. I am proud to report they have crossed the 1,000 mark on their population sign. There is one stop light and lots of tractors on the country roads. As you picture this tiny town it may have you wondering why or how there were so many opportunities for female athletes. The answer; Coach Chuck Kohlhepp.

He helped build a program for youth basketball that fed into the middle school and then into his winning high school program. I remember sitting in the stands watching the varsity girls play. I was in awe of the players, I knew them each by name. I would daydream about being just like them and playing for Coach Kohlhepp. What’s a bit ironic is that I almost missed the opportunity to play basketball.

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Coach Kohlhepp with former athletes at his Hall of Fame induction.

I loved being active as a kid, I played with my best friend Paul and brother David all day long and did whatever they did. We had a hoop, so we played basketball from time to time. The problem was that I didn’t know any of the rules of basketball but I played with them anyway. They did not teach me the rules, I tried to learn but instead they yelled at me for being in the ‘lane for more than 3 seconds’. I kept asking what the lane was, they never told me.

Back at school Coach Kohlhepp walked through the cafeteria and mentioned that basketball was starting the next day. That’s when it happened. I laughed a little because of my embarrassment and told him I wanted to go out but I didn’t know the rules. My friends had all played in 5th and 6th grade, I felt so far behind. Coach turned to me and said; ‘Well you’re not going to learn any younger’.  My mind was made up, I joined the team and played basketball all through high school. I was even recruited to play basketball in college (I decided to run collegiate track instead).

Through my athletic career, I have had unbelievable support and opportunities both at the high school and collegiate level. There are a lot of girls who do not have the opportunities that I did. There are a lot of girls who do not have the confidence to try a new sport when they reach middle school or high school. This is the reason Girls in the Game was established. We are working to provide equitable opportunities for girls to play sports, to help them find their voice and become confident enough to use it.

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Coach Kohlhepp at the ceremony for his induction into the Parkview Hall of Fame

Coach changed the course of my life with that single sentence. He wanted all of us to play, to be kids, to love sports, especially basketball. He opened the gym for us every Monday night, he made it the place to be, it became tradition. He encouraged us to play summer league together, to go to camps, to communicate, give each other credit, work hard, to do well in school. When we asked him to open the gym in the morning at 6am during the summer in addition to the Monday night open gym he did. Coach showed up for us, he drove us to be great which prepared us to be successful in life.

**Coach Chuck Kohlhepp was inducted into the Parkview Hall of Fame on January 27th, 2017. Coach had over 150 people at his reception to celebrate him, share stories and enjoy community. Coach Kohlhepp built and coached winning teams in girls’ basketball and softball. What most people don’t know is that he coached ten seasons of football and the seasons were tough. John Ponyicsanyi articulates better than I ever could who Coach Kohlhepp was as a coach and a man.

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A standing ovation for Coach Kohlhepp as he accepts his award

In celebration of his Hall of Fame induction, I wanted to share a Coach Kohlhepp story.

Those of us who were there at the beginning will remember: it didn’t take long for Coach Kohlhepp to become a legend at Parkview. His girls’ basketball and softball teams won early and often. His legacy rests on the performance of those teams, and rightfully so. With those teams, he brought the taste of victory to a school that had suffered through an awful lot of losing.

Those of us who played football for him saw a different kind of coach.

Our football program in the late 1980s was in disarray – during my four years of high school, our varsity team won four games total. Our freshman and junior varsity teams were about the same. With all the losing and hopelessness, we had a hard time fielding enough players for three squads, let alone putting together the kind of talent that could compete with a state powerhouse like Beloit Turner, who demolished us year after year. And by the end of the season, as the losses mounted, and the weather got cold and wet, and the days were short and the practices seemed endless, our numbers dwindled.

That was our view of Coach Kohlhepp, who was our football program’s assistant varsity and head junior varsity coach. We knew he was a great winner with his other teams, but now he suffered the losses along with the rest of us. Knowing him, he was probably suffering more.

My junior year, I split time between the varsity team and Coach Kohlhepp’s junior varsity team. I was mildly humiliated every night when the varsity practice ended and the more talented of my peers would head for the locker room, leaving me and a few other castoffs to stay late to practice with Coach Kohlhepp and the JV squad.

Why should I keep doing this? I remember thinking. It’s cold, I’m terrible, we never win anyway. And here I am, practicing twice as long as my friends, just to round out this JV squad. Basketball season’s coming up. Why not just quit?

And then, in the middle of my misery, came a moment that I’m sure Coach Kohlhepp forgot about long ago.

One of our varsity’s best players offered to play a game on the JV. He suggested he might play wide receiver – my position. With his blazing speed, and playing against inferior competition, all we needed to do was get him the ball.

“What do you think, Coach Kohlhepp?” one of the other coaches said excitedly. “Throw a few bombs? Let him score a few touchdowns?”

Coach Kohlhepp didn’t hesitate. “Screw that,” he said, though he may have used more colorful language. “I already HAVE a wide receiver.”

As the other coach shrugged and wandered away, Coach Kohlhepp caught me staring at him. I probably had a look of shock on my face, and something like an apology. Are you sure? I wanted to ask him. He’s a lot better than me… he probably COULD score a few touchdowns. We might win this week…

But there was no rethinking the decision. “Use him instead of you?” Coach Kohlhepp grumbled. “When you’re out here every night, busting your hump at practice…” He shook his head. “No WAY am I doing that.”

I wish I could say that the story has a marvelous happy ending, with a long string of victories for our team. I wish I could say I was so inspired I went on to become a star football player. Life doesn’t work that way.

We did end up eking out a couple of surprise victories against better teams. Coach Kohlhepp had hundreds of victories in his career; believe me when I tell you that the one or two victories by our woeful squad were among his greatest triumphs.

But as sweet as those were, it’s the moment when Coach Kohlhepp stood up for me that has stuck with me.

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Coach Kohlhepp with his former athletes and students

After that night, I never thought about quitting again. Why would I quit on a coach who showed me – more vividly than anyone else ever has, before or since – that he wasn’t going to quit on me?

I said before that those of us on the JV football team saw a different kind of coach than the one who coached the excellent girls’ basketball and softball teams. But of course, we didn’t see a different coach at all. We saw the same guy. We had the same view of his dedication and loyalty and character.

Our team struggled to win a single game. But we still saw everything that made Coach Kohlhepp a Hall of Fame coach. And from his example, we learned the qualities that turn a person – a person, not just a player – into a winner.

Congratulations, Coach Kohlhepp! Our debt of gratitude is deep, and your honor is richly deserved.

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