Where Are They Now?: John ChurchJuly 31, 2014
By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer
It’s always the kids. It’s always the kids.
That’s what reverberates most with John Church. It’s why he loved coaching so much. It’s why he’ll never forget those years in Dubois. They’re what mattered most, always.
And altogether — the players, the coaches, the fans, the gyms, the locker rooms — he’ll never forget that either. He’ll think about it as he casts his line on another fly-fishing excursion on the Laramie River in northern Colorado. Church is out there by himself, just him and his thoughts.
The reflections often drift back to those years on the Northeast Dubois coaching staff in the 1970s and ’80s, when Church served as an assistant on the Jeeps’ first-ever sectional- and regional-title winning basketball team in ’77 and worked at the helm of the ’84 team that did it all again.
In the peace and tranquility of those sometimes calm, sometimes gushing waters, the passion, commotion and chaos of southern Indiana hoops will never, can never, leave him.
“Those 15 years at Dubois were the best years of my life,” said Church, 69.
OK, he’s got to admit. “I’ve got a sweet life going right now,” he clarified with that cool smile of his. He’s been back in Jasper for eight years with Martha, his wife of 45 years who’s “still working to get me to be the man she wants,” Church kidded. “She admits she has a long way to go.”
The two are part-owners and work as caretakers for a farm in Martin County. Every morning, John repeats a quasi-prescribed routine. First, a couple hours at the gym. “It’s kind of sad, but that’s my social life these days,” he said, again with a grin. Then he whips back to the farm in his top-down Jeep with his shades on and ball cap down over his eyes just slightly. Time to labor.
“A lot of people play golf, a lot of people do this and that,” Church said. “I work. That’s what I like to do.”
It shows. His shoulders are still broad. His arms, built. He talks in a calmer manner now than when he patrolled the sidelines, but that hint of authority still seeps through. As Bruce Terwiske, a senior on that ’84 team and current Jeep assistant coach, referred to it, Church has “the voice of God” when he projects.
The volume often elevated in the gym. Church demanded everything from his players because “they have a good habit at Dubois,” said Church, who compiled a 77-55 record in his six years as head coach. “It’s play hard, work hard. And that’s exactly the way I was brought up.
“There was a connection there.”
Church’s father died at the too-early age of 40. John was 8 at the time. His mother worked two jobs to support him and his five siblings. He began working in the fourth grade, selling newspapers and mowing lawns “so I know what work is all about,” Church said.
After high school, it was off to the Navy for four years, where “those (drill instructors) that I had really changed a person around … so I brought that same mentality in, because I knew what they did for me as far as growing up. I didn’t like it at the time, but as I look back it was the best thing, and I kind of had that approach when I came to Dubois,” Church said. “I wanted them to look back when they were 25 years old and say, ‘Ohhh, I understand now. I understand why he was like he was.’”
It took working on the railroad for 14 months after the Navy — perhaps as he walked from cargo freight to freight checking each boxcar’s brakes and fearing for his life as the train sat idle in crime-infested East St. Louis — for Church to realize, “‘There’s got to be a better life than working every day,’” he recalled thinking. “But four years in the service and working on the railroad for 14 months, my vocabulary was really good, too. I knew all the words. And sometimes, when things didn’t go right, I’d go through that vocabulary three times.”
Coaching high school hoops seemed the next logical step; first as an assistant for Jim Mueller for nine years, then as the Jeeps’ head coach when Mueller stepped down after the magical ’77 ride, which Church claims “is still the best memory for me in my basketball career.” The Jeeps topped Evansville Central in their first semistate game before bowing out to Terre Haute South, one game from the state finals.
While Church’s teams had some near misses in sectional, like his first year as head coach in ’79, when Southridge clipped the Jeeps 46-44 on two late free throws, the ingredients didn’t all come together until ’84, when the Jeeps got revenge on the Raiders inthe sectional final before cuffing Bedford North Lawrence and Loogootee at regional. The combination of talents “wasn’t the best team that I ever coached,” Church said, “but they had no fear of anybody.”
Or the limelight.
“When we went to the semistate in 1984, a reporter asked me, ‘Do you think your kids are going to be intimidated by this crowd up here at Hulman Center?’” Church recalled. “I said, ‘Evidently, you’ve never been to the Southridge sectional. Or you’ve never been to the Washington regional. But let me answer your question right now. No. Not only do they not have a fear of anybody, but they’re not going to be intimidated by any crowd.’”
The semistate game, a 56-44 loss to Vincennes Lincoln, proved Church’s last game at Dubois. He left for Madison the following year, a three-year coaching stint he succinctly describes as “a nightmare.” He had the administration’s support, but that was about it, it seemed. So he resigned, “but they loved my wife,” Church said with a chuckle. “‘She can stay but he’s got to go.’”
After that, he returned to Clay City to coach his alma mater’s boys team for 10 years and then the girls team for two years after that until his daughter Deidra graduated in 2001.
And then, that was it.
“That was the best way I could have finished my career,” Church said, praising the girls’ work ethic and desire to please. “But you’re not playing in front of bigger crowds, so referees can hear about anything. Their ears were a little more sensitive.”
Church isn’t sure his coarse coaching methods — or similar techniques teaching high school math, for that matter — would fly nowadays. But he’s also relieved to no longer be dealing with “some peripheral things,” either, that seemed to worsen through the years. (Cough, cough, parents.)
Church is old-school. But he also coached before his time, in a sense. While at Dubois, he emphasized the importance of developing a feeder system all the way down to second grade — a concept being valued perhaps now more than ever.
But as he said, life now is pretty sweet. When he and Martha aren’t at the farm or unwinding at their cabin just outside of Celestine, they’re meeting up with their other daughter, Denise, and her husband Mark, the linebackers coach for the Texas A&M football team, and their four granddaughters wherever the Aggies might be playing that Saturday, or visiting Deidra in Fort Collins, Colo., lending John the chance to head back into the mountains.
Sadly, Martha and John lost their son, Douglas, in March, because of blood clots in his lungs.
“We miss him every day,” John said with moist eyes. “But the outpouring of support we got ... it was just overwhelming. You don’t forget that.”
He regrets not giving more credit to his assistant coaches back at Dubois. “They were the backbone,” he said, particularly in the ’84 season. “That was 30 years ago. It feels like just last week.”
Those days were good, but “I’ve got a sweet life,” said Church, once more with that devilish grin. “I don’t want to change it now.”
Contact Joe Jasinski
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