A farewell to Gene

A farewell to Gene

 

By Jerry Wadian
jwadian@thefayettecountyunion.com

 

 

After 82 years, the gravelly voice of legendary West Central girl’s head basketball coach gene Klinge is still. Untold thousands of people across northeast Iowa lament the passing, including this lowly sports writer. 

  I wish that I could go to the memorial service Saturday because I greatly admired the man. Unfortunately, the UIC wrestling meet is the same day, and duty calls; I am sure Gene would understand.

  Klinge’s basketball legacy stands as one of the greatest in Iowa high school sports history. But aside from the numerous honors and awards, Klinge was always a greater man than he was a coach.

  My first memories are of walking into the gym that now bears his name. Before I even entered, I could hear the loud, gravelly voice yelling away at somebody. 

I wondered what the voice would say in an interview when I asked a pretty dumb question. After all, I knew some basketball, but the whole idea of six-on-six was more alien than the organic chem classes I had in college.

  It turned out the man behind the rasp was a perfect gentleman who not only answered every question, but also took time to very patiently explain the nuances of the game and his coaching philosophy.

  As I covered the Blue Devil girls, I noticed that all of Gene’s yelling was directed at his team, and sometimes the refs, but he never yelled at an opposing player or coach. 

  As I talked to him about games, I came to realize, as the girls that grew to idolize him, that as competitive as he was, as much as he wanted to win; what he really wanted most was for his girls to be their best – to be better than they ever thought they could be.

Gene yelled and drove his teams relentlessly. He could be tough and hard as nails, but as one alumna said, “It was always tough love.”

  And, Gene was always a class act. One night in Elkader he reached one of those 100 plateaus. I don’t recall if it was 400, 500, or whatever. The Blue Devils won, but the Central activities director won’t allow a celebration in their gym after the game; everyone had to go to Keystone for an impromptu celebration.

  There was some grumbling about not being allowed to celebrate on the court. The one person defending the AD was Klinge, saying to the effect, “It’s okay, I know him, I’ve competed against him for years; he’s just very intense and I respect him a lot.”

  Many of Gene’s closest friends were rival coaches. Former Denver coach Dave Moon was one of many who enjoyed Gene’s hospitality at the cabin hunting and fishing.

  As Moon told the story, “I was one of the few coaches to actually have a winning record against Gene (4-3) and that was a subject of lively discussion on the boat.” 

  Actually, I’d love to have been a mouse with a camcorder on that boat because Gene was quite a storyteller. Whether it be his dogs, the fishing and hunting trips, or his days as a driver’s ed teacher, Gene could really tell a tale, especially about some of the games he coached and the people he coached against.

And for al of his imposing manner, Gene had a wonderful sense of humor. He once summarized his 52-year career as “It represents a lot of cold feet on the bottom of a lot of yellow buses.”

  However, what he loved to recall was all of the girls that played for him. He not only remembered them all, what they did, their strengths and weaknesses, but he could also tell you what happened to them after graduation and what they were currently doing. 

  On the court, basketball for Gene wasn’t just a career; it was a labor of love. He was competitive and wanted to win, but more than anything else he wanted the girls he coached to enjoy the game and be their best they could be on and off the court.

  Goodbye, Gene. The voice may be quiet, but the countless lives you have touched will carry your legacy on for ages.

 

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