Season of the Spuds — 50 Years LaterMarch 2, 2013
Story by Jason Recker
Photos from area historical archives
Maps of every county in our state are dotted with small towns that clutch glory days, holding them to their chests to shield them from the corrosion of Father Time.
There are tarnished trophies and tattered photographs and exaggerated tales to be shared at almost every stoplight. So in many ways, what the Ireland High School boys basketball team accomplished in the winter of 1963 isn’t all that different than what happened in Anywhere, Ind.
But Ireland, the team, was different. Ireland, the town, is different.
Many things make the independent, self-assured hamlet straddling State Road 56 one of a kind. Yet one thing provides, perhaps arguably, the most separation. In March 1963, a group of broad-shouldered yet short-legged young men followed a brazen coach and his bizarre style all the way to eternal nobility. The Ireland Spuds brushed aside nearby big-school shadows and fellow small-school rivals and smothered years of basketball frustration that had previously left them repeatedly stalled. Most bystanders, and even some players, guessed the season would be another struggle.
They could not have been more wrong.
Fifty years later, the Spuds are still the 1963 sectional and regional champions. It’s a crown the town will never surrender.
“It was a hell of a ride, and a few years later, the school closed down. That’s why the people have held onto that all those years,” said Dave Small, the Spuds’ leading scorer that winter. “It was a special group of people and a special coach, and the odds of it working were 1,000 to 1, maybe 10,000 to 1. But it worked, and the community has hung onto it for 50 years.”
The group will be formally celebrated at least one more time, two weeks from this weekend during the town’s annual St. Patrick’s Celebration. A plaque will be unveiled and, following the Sunday afternoon parade, players from Ireland and any other school evaporated by consolidation are invited to reminisce at the Ireland Historical Society at James and Walnut streets.
The players are in their 60s, and memories have naturally faded. But prompt them, then give them a while to disappear into the fog of days gone by, and they’ll unravel the details of a story Small says “was just one of the most unbelievable scenarios anybody had seen.”
Ireland had been playing basketball since at least 1915, when the Irish Lads, as they were then dubbed, dribbled on dirt courts. But success was perpetually elusive, and disappointment had recently peaked. The 1961 squad didn’t lose a Patoka Valley Conference game and was primed for a sectional breakthrough but its postseason faded in the sectional semifinals. The 1962 team, equally stocked with skill for a school less than 150 students, advanced to the sectional final but fell to Jasper, a bitter loss to a school — and town — that most in Ireland fiercely opposed. Figuring the talent pool had dried and willing to take a job upstate at Lapel, coach Jerome “Dimp” Stenftenagel, a universally liked man and standout on Jasper’s 1949 state championship team, left. The remaining roster consisted of one regular contributor taller than 5-foot-10 and two guys who’d accrued meaningful playing time.
“Everyone was thinking that (winning a sectional) was never going to happen,” said Small, now 67 and living in Tampa, Fla.
At what locals called the “soap and towel game” before the 1962-63 season began — the price of admission was a bar of soap or a towel, which the team used to stock its dressing room — the Spuds floundered. A radio announcer approached Small afterward.
“Dave, it’s going to be long season,” Small recalled the man saying.
Small nodded. One of them suggested the Spuds might win five games. The other didn’t argue.
Had Pete Gill heard the conversation, it’s a safe bet he would have disapproved. The new coach had already been implementing a master plan that began with him brashly spouting about how Ireland would win the sectional and then some. He’d been hired on a whim, partly out of desperation.
Principal Jim Roos advertised the opening in newspapers in Evansville and Indianapolis but still didn’t have a coach in the middle of the summer of 1962 when this fast-talking Gill fella called and claimed he’d won 100 games coaching some league in the Navy during a staccato career speckled with one- and two-year stops at schools in Indiana and Kentucky.
“Pete was somewhat sketchy,” said Mike Roos, Jim’s son and a University of Cincinnati professor who has written a book about Gill and the 1963 Ireland team, “One Small Town, One Crazy Coach,” that will be released this fall. “He’d had no real success anywhere, barely had a winning record. But he’d never been fired. He just always sort of left.”
Roos had learned that Gill wasn’t the most respected man within the communities where he’d previously coached, and Gill’s habits of frequenting Jasper bars and leaving debts unpaid didn’t endear him to Dubois County residents once he settled into the job at Ireland. But back in high school, Gill was a three-year starter on powerful basketball squads at New Albany and based on the pedigree, Jim Roos and town trustee Levi Leinenbach together made the hire.
“I knew whoever came probably wouldn’t stay very long because to fill Dimp’s shoes was a big job,” said Jim Roos, now 82 and living in Evansville. “The only way people would accept him is if he did a good job coaching. They could overlook the other things.”
Oh, there was plenty to overlook.
Gill was a drill sergeant with a merciless drive and twisted love for conditioning his teams both physically and mentally. He peppered workouts with situps, pushups, jumping jacks, leg lifts and various forms of running. Players laid along the baseline, and Gill walked on their flexed stomachs.
Gill set the clock to 30 minutes, and players circled the court’s borders; cut a corner, and Gill whacked your backside with a paddle. Two hundred pushups became routine. Same with situps.
When the punishment stopped, defense ruled the lessons. Gill made enemies.
“The hatred for Pete was unbelievable,” Small said.
Nobody liked him less than Pat Schitter. Gill also coached baseball and one day into the first fall baseball practice in 1962, Schitter walked off the field. He decided he’d run enough.
“We all wondered what the hell we were doing there,” Schitter remembered.
When Jim Roos talked Schitter into making amends with Gill, the coach let Schitter back on the team but ensured the sophomore paid for his brief escape. For two weeks, Schitter stayed after practice for a 30-minute gauntlet he figures would get a coach accused of abuse these days. Gill whacked baseballs all over the field, sending Schitter on a zigzag chase with no relief.
“It was hell,” said Schitter, 65 and living between Jasper and Ireland. “I ran until I couldn’t run anymore. He didn’t put his hands on me and didn’t cuss. It was just, ”˜Go get the ball, go get the ball.’ He wanted me to quit, but I’d quit once and I wasn’t going to do it again.”
Gill had landed in a blue-collar community of farmers, and hard work was the expectation. Players didn’t like Gill, but they respected their superiors. So by coincidence or by design, the benefits of Gill’s military approach eventually surfaced.
In the second game of the season, facing conference favorite Holland, Gill’s boys downshifted the pace rather than try to match the opposition’s talent. Small and fellow dribbling wizard Joe Lents weaved around the court, and the Spuds protected the ball to pull away in the fourth quarter. Gill had told the players he’d walk home if they won, and he supposedly did. A week earlier, he’d promised to hitchhike to Ireland from Spurgeon if the Spuds won. They did, and Gill supposedly thumbed his way back to town. Players suspected Gill had arrangements to cover his guarantees. But by the time Gill took his first step away from Holland, bound for Ireland, he had rallied his team.
“That was the game that really demonstrated to players that the methods were working,” Mike Roos said. “It was clearly a game they were not expected to win. That was a turning point. Pete had them on his side.
The sectional of 1963 was anybody’s to take. Ireland entered having won 15 games (against only five losses) and zipped past Winslow and Huntingburg with scores — 62-46 over Winslow and 71-55 against Huntingburg — that resemble those posted these days. When Springs Valley upset Jasper to reach the final game opposite the Spuds, Ireland faced an obstacle. The Blackhawks had 6-foot-8 Lonnie Ziegler, who’d scored 33 points in the afternoon semifinals. Ireland could muster only 6-2 reserve Jim Eck and the man listed as the team’s center, the 5-10 Schitter. Nobody else stretched much past 5-9.
So, like they did against Holland early in the season, the Spuds pumped the brakes. Small and Lents rarely made mistakes, and Ireland capitalized by keeping the ball in their hands. They’d used eggs and worn work gloves in practices to acclimate themselves to moving freely with fragile objects in stressful situations; in games, they were comfortable under pressure. The guards weaved around the perimeter and passed up the first good shot for a better one.
“It was all about confidence, and we had it,” said Lents, 68 and living in Boca Raton, Fla. “It was pretty simple: The other team could be bigger and better, but if they don’t have the ball, they can’t score. We knew our limitations.”
Winslow did, too. But exploiting the Spuds wasn’t easy. The Eskimos scored late to cut Ireland’s lead to 20-19, but the Spuds let the clock expire as they inbounded the ball, and the trophy was theirs.
“You’d see that score and think it was boring as hell,” Mike Roos said. “But nobody was sitting. It was a great game to watch if you really like disciplined basketball.”
If nothing else, Ireland had creativity to thrill. As proficient as they were playing at a crawl, the Spuds regularly and ably altered schemes, running the floor one game and idling the next. A week after stalling past Springs Valley, they caught Sullivan by surprise in the regional semifinals, galloping to a 75-63 victory.
Their defense was more consistent though a bit more irregular.
Earlier in the season against Monroe City and 6-4 star Gene Powell, Gill instructed Ron Klem, the unflappable 5-7 defensive stopper, to shadow Powell wherever he went. Everywhere. Klem stopped short of standing next to Monroe City’s huddles during timeouts, but at halftime, Klem waited outside Monroe City’s locker room door. Powell sucker-punched Klem in the gut near the end of the game and the Blue Jeans won, but Ireland had developed a mental edge that was at its most applicable late in the regional finale against Washington. The Spuds trailed by six points with about two minutes to play when Lents scored, then Small scored, then Ireland stole the ball and Small sank two free throws to tie the game. Washington was again unable to navigate Ireland’s press, and the Spuds nabbed possession. In the final 11 seconds, Small missed a fallaway jumper and a Washington player, for reasons no Ireland player can explain, tried to save the ball rather than let it fade out of bounds. The ball thumped Schitter in the chest. He flipped. It skimmed high off the backboard and dropped through the net as time expired.
“I just threw it up,” Schitter said. “It hit above the square (on the backboard) and went in.”
For a team that showed up that morning figuring, should it manage to beat Sullivan, it would face heavily favored Vincennes in the final, there was plenty to celebrate.
Then and now, Ireland can party. The team received a police escort back to town and green beer flowed. The guess is that more than 5,000 people flooded the streets.
“People from Dubois County, Martin County, Pike County, they were all going nuts,” Small said. “After that, everybody in the state knew about Ireland.”
Folks compared Ireland to the 1954 team from teeny Milan High School, which won the state title and became the genesis for the movie “Hoosiers.”
Hollywood would have favored Gill’s flamboyance. Before the sectional, Gill told his team he’d take off his pants, right there in front of everyone, at a pep rally if they could emerge with the championship.
There are questions as to the authenticity of Gill’s claim, but the proof is in the film. In front of about 2,000 fans wedged into Ireland’s gym after the win over Winslow, Gill removed his coat then handed his keys and wallet to a player. He peeled his belt then his dress pants and whipped them into the crowd in a censored strip tease that drew wild applause. He was wearing one of his players’ pair of shorts under the slacks, but almost nobody knew until the moment of truth.
A Herald photographer snapped a picture before Jim Roos, terrified of the repercussions of such a stunt, pleaded to withhold the photo from the paper. Herald management obliged, but the photo showed up in another newspaper a day later and spread across the Midwest.
Gill died in 2011, but when Mike Roos interviewed Gill for his book, one of the last things Gill revealed was one regret.
“I wish I hadn’t taken off my pants,” Gill said. “I was always known as that crazy guy who took off his damn pants.”
“When he took that coat off then the pants, I nearly had a fit,” Jim Roos said. “He was a lot of fun, and those things you’ll always remember.”
Schitter visits the Shamrock CafÃ© smack in the middle of Ireland nearly every day and he doesn’t hesitate to brag about the good ol’ days.
He notes that The Herald story after the regional reported Schitter “stuffed” the ball in the hoop for the game-winning basket. The implication was that Schitter’s shot came from close range, but Schitter translates the vernacular into today’s expressions and tells anybody who will listen that he dunked the ball.
Nobody bites. No member of the 1963 Spuds needs hyperbole to become noteworthy.
Small once pulled his brother from an icy lake. Klem grew up with six siblings in a one-room house.
Lents’ parents died and he lived with his sister before eventually being cared for by Father Carl Shetler at St. Mary Catholic Church in Ireland. Among them, they played college ball and served in the Air Force and became accountants and business owners and butchers and went back to their roots as farmers.
They’re all still alive except Dennis “Red” Keusch, a starting forward and sparkplug personality who died from Parkinson’s disease in 2011. His remains the most significant loss from that treasured season.
Things didn’t end the way the Spuds would have liked. Their opponent in the first game of the semistate was Evansville Bosse, the defending state champion that many judged even better than the year before. The Bulldogs had a frontcourt of three studs 6-4 or taller. They also had an all-state guard. Ireland’s players stood at eye level with Bosse’s stars’ armpits. The Bulldogs streaked away from a 17-16 halftime edge, playing at full throttle for a 61-36 victory. Ireland scored on its first possession for a 3-0 lead but never led by more than one point the rest of the game. Had that advantage ever bulged, it’s a safe bet Gill would have told his boys to apply the brakes and see if Ireland could pluck off one more victim.
Instead, “reality set in,” Mike Roos said.
Reality might be cruel, but the reality of 1963 in Ireland had no cold shoulder.
As they reeled off victories and affixed the spotlight on themselves and those supporting them, the players agree they only fleetingly grasped the implications of their accomplishments. Pete Gill resigned the next season, bolting Ireland like he had a handful of other places. The Spuds never won another postseason trophy. Consolidation struck the final blow when, in 1970, Ireland High School closed and its students funneled into the halls at old adversary Jasper.
There isn’t much left of 1963 other than trophies and photographs and memories.
Yet, the success still resonates.
That says something about the town. That says something about the team.
“Some of those games,” said Bill Linette, a sophomore back in the day, “are played over and over again at the Shamrock.”
“Some people will tell you it was the greatest thing since ice cream. In the scheme of things...,” Schitter said, his voice trailing as if he’s about to say maybe the winter of 1963 wasn’t all that amazing.
He changes tone and direction.
“It’s hard to believe that many people can get excited about one little thing. But we’re part of history.”
Contact Jason Recker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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