Girls' basketball: Gene Klinge's quest for 1,000 nearing the end

Girls' basketball: Gene Klinge's quest for 1,000 nearing the end

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Girls' basketball: Gene Klinge's quest for 1,000 nearing the end

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Waukon, Ia. — Gene Klinge’s countdown started five decades ago in a tiny gym. After 998 victories, the final moment is getting closer with every day, every dribble, every basket.

This week, the Waukon girls’ basketball coach will try to win his 1,000th game — and become the ninth person in the U.S. to reach that milestone.

“It’s just a matter of when,” Klinge said. “If I can stay upright, it’ll happen.”

Klinge turned 76 on Jan. 10. His 12-3 team beat Charles City on Friday 58-56, rallying from a four-point halftime deficit.

On this week’s schedule: at Decorah on Tuesday, at New Hampton on Friday and at Caledonia, Minn., on Saturday.

He started coaching at West Central of Maynard in 1962. His career has seen 10 presidents, seven Iowa governors and 13 Summer Olympics.

He’s watched the transition from pleated uniform skirts and collared jersey tops to sports bras and baggy shorts.

At Thursday’s practice, he sat in a chair while players squatted in front of him in a semicircle. The athletes listened to his words of basketball wisdom.

No. 1,000 is coming. Soon.

“Everyone’s keeping count,” center Alexa Herman said.

Klinge longevity: Over five decades

Klinge went to West Central of Maynard with a chance to be an assistant football coach. Basketball was an afterthought.

Klinge, who had graduated from Upper Iowa, had played football in college. He ended up as the girls’ basketball coach when the job opened.

He stayed there for 41 seasons, winning 817 games.

Glenda (Poock) Suckow, a forward who graduated from West Central in 1975, said Klinge would stop her in the school hallways to talk about how she could improve her game.

“He was basketball,” Suckow said. “That’s what he did all the time.”

Suckow, a forward, said Klinge’s teams emphasized tight, “belly button” pressure defense popularized in Iowa by former Drake and Iowa State men’s coach Maury John.

Klinge was gruff in his early days, too.

“If you screwed up, he’d let you know about it,” Suckow said.

On one occasion, Suckow said, she couldn’t seem to do anything right.

Klinge let out a stern comment: “Why don’t you go home and read your press clippings?”

Players were told they couldn’t date and their hair had to be presentable. Things are a bit more relaxed after five decades.

“He’s not near a stickler as he used to be,” said Suckow, who witnessed Klinge’s 900th win in 2007. “Back when I was playing, that was my social life.

“It’s so much different now.”

Bill Prochaska, a former classmate of Klinge’s at Upper Iowa University, said his teams are known for talent, a good feeder system and explosive scoring.

“Gene’s a very disciplined coach and gets the maximum out of his people,” said Prochaska, who went on to coach and serve as Upper Iowa’s athletic director.

Klinge has taught the game to generations of girls. He’s in his 51st season as a head coach.

Waukon’s Herman said her grandmother, Ida Duffy, plays in a Granny Basketball league with ladies who once played for Klinge at West Central.

Suckow said she hopes to witness win No. 1,000.

“I think it’s amazing that he’s still successful, he still enjoys coaching,” Suckow said. “It’s one heck of an accomplishment.”

Transitioning to a select coaches club

Bertha Teague of Ada, Okla., became the nation’s first girls’ basketball coach to win 1,000 games.

She finished her career at Byng High School in 1969 with 1,152 victories.

Seven coaches have passed that mark since. The current record-holder is Leta Andrews of Granbury, Texas, who won No. 1,391 on Friday.

Iowa is known for producing winning high school coaches — Gene Schultz of Kee of Lansing is the national baseball leader and Larry Niemeyer, now at Waterloo West, is the top softball victor. But hoops-happy Iowa has never come up with a 1,000-win coach in high school basketball.

The game has changed during Klinge’s career. Coaches used to stay at one school for decades, said Lisa Brinkmeyer, a former Hubbard-Radcliffe star who is now an administrator with the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union.

Brinkmeyer, who led her team to the final six-on-six basketball crown in 1993, scored 65 points in Hubbard-Radcliffe’s 71-62 quarterfinal win over Klinge’s West Central squad at Veterans Memorial Auditorium.

“His teams were very disciplined,” Brinkmeyer said. “They had their fundamentals down. Those coaches, that’s what they ingrained in their athletes. Gene Klinge lives that.”

Her Hubbard-Radcliffe coach, Les Hueser, won 702 games in his career.

Klinge made that transition to the five-on-five game.

“We lost some real good coaches who refused to coach five-player ball,” Klinge said. “My feeling is basketball is still basketball. If it’s the only game in town, you still want to coach. You don’t have too much choice.”

Mike Born, a former Iowa State player who is married to Klinge’s daughter, Vicki, said the coach designed a way of bringing his six-player strengths to five-player.

“I remember talking to him about the game, because he had some concerns about the change,” Born said. “He implemented a lot of pressing. When you’re looking at it, it was very logical.”

Health problems didn’t alter Klinge’s winning trajectory. He has survived heart bypass surgery and prostate cancer.

He left West Central in 2003, contemplating retirement.

Then a waitress at a local restaurant named Samantha Reiser told him that her team needed a coach and Klinge should apply. He did and led his first Waukon squad to a state title in 2004, and Reiser was named an all-stater.

Since then, he’s continued to win about 80 percent of his games.

“To survive that long and to want to coach that long, he definitely knows the game,” Brinkmeyer said.

Passion comes with a caring touch

Born has observed legendary college coaches Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and John Calipari of Kentucky in his job as director of NBA scouting for the Portland Trail Blazers.

He sees in his father-in-law the same fire that successful pro and college coaches share.

“When you see those guys do it, they do it because they’re passionate about it,” Born said. “Gene’s probably no different. He loves being around the guys. He likes teaching basketball.”

Klinge barks out instructions to his players at practice.

“Drop your shoulders, take it to the hole.”

“You don’t get any points for a nice shot, you’ve got to finish.”

The voice is comforting to Waukon senior Daneshia Snitker, who leads the state in scoring with a 25.5-point average.

“When he’s not yelling at you is when you should be worried,” Snitker said.

Klinge was barely older than his players when he began coaching. Now he’s old enough to be a grandfather to them.

“He really cares about the girls,” Born said. “I think those girls would do anything for him.”

This week’s games will be similar in some ways to the other 1,200-plus he’s coached.

“I’m still usually nervous before games,” Klinge said.

At the scorer’s bench will be his wife, Pat, who has kept the book for 35 seasons.

The countdown continues. But not for much longer. Klinge will have the 1,000-win plateau and the memories of 50-plus years of coaching to go with it.

“He’s given back to the sport of basketball,” Brinkmeyer said, “and hopefully he’s reaped the rewards as well.”

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