There is an office in Ken and Judy Haupt’s home filled with memories of a life well-lived.
On the walls are photos of Ken Haupt’s 33-year high school football coaching career at Cincinnati Elder, Merrillville and Southport. One is particularly striking: a smiling Haupt surrounded by jubilant Merrillville players and fans after the Class 3A (largest at the time) state championship win over Cathedral in 1976.
There are other photos of the Haupts with their three children — Ken, Patty and Tim — at various stages of their lives. Some at football games, others on vacations. Time flies. The Haupts have six grandchildren now, the oldest a year away from college graduation.
Ken Haupt, 73, hopes to be there when Kailey Evans graduates from the University of Indianapolis. That’s his goal. He’s a fighter. After word got out that Haupt had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March, his former players reminded him of the message he had delivered to them so many times.
“You always told us, ‘When you’re knocked down, you get back up and keep fighting,’ ” Ron Bova, running back on the 1976 Merrillville team, told Haupt. “ Now we’re watching you, coach.’ ”
Outside the office, on the mantle above the fireplace, are two purple boxing gloves. Granddaughter Kailey gave them to him. On the right one is written: “Keep Fighting and Be Strong!” On the left, “We Love You!” It is signed by the children and grandchildren.
“I’m at ease with everything,” Haupt said. “But I want to see my oldest granddaughter graduate. I want to see all my other grandkids graduate.”
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Haupt will be honored at Friday night’s Southport homecoming football game against Franklin Central. A Sagamore of the Wabash Award will be presented to him from the governor’s office in honor of his 51 years as a teacher, coach and mentor.
“I couldn’t think of a better representative,” said Greg Cullison, who played on Haupt’s first two Southport teams, including the program’s first sectional champion in 1985. “The guy is a solid rock. He was there to win football games, but he was also a family man. What he instilled in us the most was a family environment.”
Haupt was a standout athlete himself, graduating from Cincinnati’s Roger Bacon High School in 1960. He played baseball with and against future major league hit king Pete Rose, future Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach and 15-year big-league shortstop Eddie Brinkman.
After playing baseball at the University of Cincinnati and graduating in 1964, he was hired as head baseball coach and assistant football coach at Roger Bacon. Four years later, he was hired as the head football coach at Cincinnati Elder, an all-boys Catholic school on the city’s west side. Haupt, despite his Cincinnati roots, was considered an outsider.
“All the coaches hired there were Elder graduates,” Haupt said.
He quickly earned his due, leading Elder to an unbeaten season in 1972 and the mythical Ohio state championship (there were no state playoffs then). He hosted a film session every Tuesday night during the season where he’d receive an honest assessment from Elder fans.
“If we didn’t win or if we’d win and didn’t play very well, they’d say, ‘Well coach, you didn’t prepare the way you should have,’ ” Haupt said. “I appreciated the honesty. We didn’t have a practice field, but we’d fill our 10,000-seat stadium every game.”
After seven years at Elder, Haupt left home to take the job at Merrillville in 1975. He and Judy, his high school sweetheart, knew nothing about Merrillville before Ken’s interview for the job. They bought a house two blocks from the school and put down roots with their young family.
“We won state in 1976, which was a mistake,” Haupt said with a laugh. “Everybody thought we could win state every year then.”
His 1977 Merrillville team was unbeaten until losing 3-0 in the sectional to Portage, a team it had defeated easily during the regular season. Portage went on to win state.
By that time, Haupt had established a couple of traditions that could be seen as controversial by today’s standards. He instituted three-a-day practices at Merrillville before the start of the season. Players would show up at school early in the morning and wouldn’t leave until the evening.
“We’d get out on the practice field at 8 in the morning,” Haupt said. “We’d practice hard until 10, then have meetings and weightlifting and rest. We’d feed them and then they’d take a nap. Then we’d go back out in T-shirts and shorts for a walkthrough. Then at 3:30 we’d go back out and practice until about 5. They’d go home and rest and then come back the next day.”
Haupt followed the same blueprint after taking the job at Southport in 1984. He had been offered the Perry Meridian job the previous year but chose to stay in Merrillville as his oldest son, Ken, finished high school.
Southport was hardly a football juggernaut when Haupt arrived. The Cardinals had enjoyed just one winning season in 12 years and were coming off an 0-10 season in 1983. Southport improved to 3-7 in his first season and 10-2 in 1985, winning the program’s first sectional title. The 1990 team went 11-2 and won the program’s only regional title.
“We had struggled and struggled for years,” Cullison said. “When he came in, the whole attitude changed. He was able to get the players to completely buy in. We were like a family.”
Haupt brought another tradition from Merrillville: He brought in a team chaplain to offer an optional service before games. He never required his players to attend, but nearly all of them did. Early in his career at Merrillville, Haupt said a few fans complained that the chaplain was on the sideline during games. Haupt said the Merrillville administration backed him, and it was never again an issue.
“We prayed together as a team,” said John Schilling, a member of the 1976 Merrillville team and now a Fishers resident. “I can’t tell you how important that was for us. You’d probably get fired today if you did that. But I think that Christian aspect of our team is a big part of why we are still so close all these years later.”
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Haupt has a hard time sleeping these days. He goes to bed about 10 p.m. but usually wakes up about 1:30 a.m. and turns on the living room television or radio. Sometimes he falls asleep again in his chair. Sometimes he doesn’t.
On a stand next to his chair is Tony Dungy’s book, “The One Year Uncommon Life Daily Challenge.” In the book, the former Indianapolis Colts coach relates Bible verses to common present-day situations. Every morning, Haupt reads a passage from the book. Then he says his prayers.
“I do what I can do,” he said.
Every other Monday since March, Haupt has undergone a chemotherapy treatment at Morgan Hospital in Martinsville. He’s about to have his 11th of 12 scheduled treatments. In mid-October, doctors will determine whether the tumor in his pancreas has shrunk to the size that surgery is possible.
“He’s fighting,” Judy said. “So many of his former players have reached out to us. It’s been great to see how successful they are in their jobs and their lives.”
One of his former Merrillville players, fullback Woody Melcher, drove more than 500 miles from his home in Blue Eye, Mo., to Haupt’s doorstep when he heard the prognosis. Many are expected to attend the game Friday to honor Haupt, who has stayed active as a coordinator of youth programs in Perry Township since his retirement.
“It’s remarkable the foundation he laid for all of us as far as integrity, high character and leadership,” Schilling said. “It’s hard to find people like him anymore.”
Haupt attends weekday mass with Judy three or four times a week. The chemo drains him at times, but there are many good days. They spend time together at the casino, go out to eat and just sit and talk at the park.
“We try to enjoy ourselves,” Haupt said. “We try to take advantage of being on an up. We’re fighting the battle.”
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.