Calling it a career: Rippee resigns after 27 years
January 12, 2012
“Be proud to wear this orange and black, fellas. Remember what it means. It’s not just two colors to me. It’s been my life.”
It was late November as Mike Rippee addressed his team, gathered closely around him, following its season-ending loss to eventual regional champion Reed High School in Sparks.
Although he wouldn’t come out and say it directly, he was saying goodbye.
“I love you guys,” he said. “Thank you for letting me be a part of this with you.”
Earlier this week, Rippee, 57, made the decision he’d been trying to find a way to talk himself out of for months: He stepped down as head coach of the Douglas High football team after 34 seasons with the program – 27 of which came at the helm.
He leaves having won more football games (139) than any other individual at the school has even coached (his predecessor, Bill Coverley, coached 138 games in 14 years).
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To put it in better perspective, Rippee coached 40 percent of the games the program has played in its 79 seasons (over 88 years – the program was on hiatus for a good portion of the 1920s and 30s). He was the most tenured coach in the Northern 4A region by 16 seasons (Reed’s Ernie Howren now becomes the dean of Northern Nevada coaches as he prepares for his 12th year at the helm).
“I’ve never been anyone special,” Rippee said. “I’m just one lucky man, to be able to work with so many wonderful people, especially the kids. That’s something that has added a richness and joy to my life that I could never have imagined.”
The first real signs Rippee was considering leaving came after Douglas’ regular-season finale win over Galena in Minden on Nov. 3.
As was usual, he addressed his team behind the south endzone, spoke with media and then … well, then his routine changed.
It’s at this point he’d normally journey toward the sideline and talk with former players who had come for the game, making sure to ask about all the latest news in their lives. From there, he’d slowly make his way to the locker room.
On that night, though, he stayed behind, lingering at “The Rock of India,” a large boulder he had installed in 1990 as a symbol of committment to the program.
Five, 10 minutes he remained out there before coming in. Just before leaving the field – surrounded by fellow coaches and administrators – he turned, took one last look as the lights of a Friday night shone down on the now empty field and said, “Sure are a lot of great memories out there.”
Rippee’s introduction to Douglas High football was one Tiger fans would likely rather have forgotten.
Rippee wreaked havoc across the state as a tailback and linebacker/defensive back for powerhouse Yerington High School in the late 60s and early 70s. The three-time all-state selection led the Lions to two commanding wins over Douglas in 1969 and ’70 and then a heartbreaker (for Douglas) 6-0 win in ’71.
The rivalry, at the time, was Douglas’ most heated (they hadn’t seen Carson since 1966) and the annual matchup drew standing-room-only crowds.
“I still tell the kids all the time that we really used to spank Douglas,” Rippee said with a laugh. “They were in transition at that time and we were on a roll as a program.
“We won state my sophomore year and we were right at the top again my junior year. But Bill Coverley took over at Douglas in 1970 and he got them going in the right direction. My senior year, they stuck to us pretty tight. We scored early, missed the extra point had to hold them. They had Teddy Borda playing QB and we barely scraped by.”
At the time, that was the last Rippee really thought of Douglas High School.
He went on to a stellar career with the University of Nevada, Reno and married his high school sweetheart, Bonnie.
Thanks to a red-shirt season, Mike still had a year of eligibility remaining at Nevada in 1976. Bonnie had graduated from UNR and she accepted a job at Gardnerville Elementary School.
“We moved into an apartment in Carson City,” Rippee said. “I still had a year left and I was going to take it. It’s something I tell the kids all the time, your window to play football closes so fast, you have to enjoy it while it lasts.
“So every morning, I’d head to Reno and Bonnie would head to Gardnerville.”
Rippee took full advantage of that extra season, rushing for 760 yards and earning the Wolf Pack’s MVP honors.
At the time, the plan was to for the couple to get jobs in the same district, likely somwhere in Reno.
Instead, Rippee was hired to a one-year contract teaching at Wooster High School and he caught on as an assistant coach under Joe Sellers, who would go on to win 250 games (a Nevada state record) and nine state championships.
Rippee was hired long term at Wooster following the 1977-78 school year and was content to bide his time there until the head coaching job opened up at Yerington.
“That was always our goal, to get back home to Yerington,” he said. “I never pictured myself ending up down here. Ever.”
A chance encounter at a softball tournament that summer changed everything, though.
Rippee came down to play in the Carson Valley Days softball tournament and happened to run into Bob O’Brien, the physical education teacher and wrestling coach at Carson Valley Middle School.
“He said he was going to be stepping aside and mentioned that if I was interested that I should talk to the district,” Rippee said.
He jumped at the opportunity and, quickly, his heart began to change.
“I think we still hoped that eventually both of us could go back to Yerington, but living down here, we just started to fall in love with the place,” Rippee said.
He taught physical education at CVMS, coached wrestling and caught on as an assistant with the Douglas football team.
In the time since Rippee’s high school career, Coverley had turned Douglas into one of the best football programs in the state, winning a 2A state title in 1974 and posting multiple winning seasons in a row.
After the 1983 season, Rippee was offered his dream job – the head spot at Yerington. But it wasn’t his dream any more.
“I was happy being an assistant with Coach Coverley,” Rippee said. “He had surrounded himself with outstanding people and he’d turned this program into the most successful in the state during the ’70s. We had decided to stay here long before that.”
Following the 1984 football season, Coverley decided to step down.
At the time, Douglas was struggling as a program to adjust to the large-school level and the Reno powerhouses were beginning to take shape.
“Coach Coverley was just a great, great coach – the best this school has ever had,” Rippee said. “They lost a great coach in the deal, but for some reason, someone asked me to apply.
“I figured if there was no one else that was going to take the job, I’d put myself on the line and give it a shot. I wanted to coach. I loved coaching. But I didn’t really know what it was going to lead to at the time.”
It’s impossible to take the last 27 years as one lump sum.
Instead, Rippee grasps landmark moments and brilliant plays out of thin air.
“There are some things that stick and some things that don’t,” he said. “I could go through every year and tell you about games, kids that stick with me to this day.
You could fill a book with the incredible kids that have come through here.
“My first game, we gained maybe 37 total yards of offense against Wooster, and we were lucky to get that much. I remember our first win (vs. Sparks a week after his son, Luke, was born), I remember coming back from three scores down to beat South Tahoe at the Lake in 1991. We had guys out, that’s a team (South Tahoe) that went on to win the region that year. That was an incredible game.
“Beating Carson in a snow storm to clinch our first-ever playoff berth (1996) and then the snow storm against Reno in the regional championship in 2003. There are vivid, vivid memories.”
There were difficult decisions, both in-game and off the field, too.
When it would come down to those, he had a network of mentors, from Coverley to Sellers that he could look back on.
But ultimately, it was his high school coach, Mike Lommori, who always prevailed in his mind.
“He was the greatest coach ever,” Rippee said. “He was a great influence in my life and what I wanted to do. All the tough decisions I had to make along the way, thinking about what to do, I’d always come back to, ‘What would Coach Lommori do in this situation? What would he think of me based on the decision I make?'”
Rippee said there were things he still wished the program could have accomplished – that elusive regional title, for instance – but that looking back he had no regrets over where the program stands today.
“I always put in the effort and tried my hardest,” he said. “That’s something I told my coaches is that we are allowed to make the wrong decision as long as we have put the time and effort into preparing to make it. We thought things out, we worked hard. We put the kids first. At the end of the day, that’s all you can really do.”
“People talk about a coach being a ‘molder of men’ or things like that,” Rippee said. “That’s just not true here. The kids came to me the way they were, we just re-enforced the way they’d been brought up.
“The way this program has developed, it’s a credit to Douglas County. People raise good kids here. It’s one of those things where hopefully I made a difference for them, because I know they made a difference for me.”
Douglas developed a reputation for tough, hard-nosed football over the years and Rippee said that was also a credit to the kids.
“People tend to judge players based on talent, but the more important thing was character, desire and being a great teammate,” Rippee said. “We had hundreds of those types of guys over the years. It was just a great experience to be around them. Some people look forward to retirement, but I never saw this as a job.
“I always told the kids I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this. It’s something I always just loved to do. It’s something I still love to do.”
Rippee also had stints coaching wrestling and softball when his daughter, Rebecca, made varsity. There was even a failed expiriment as a boys’ basketball coach – “I’m the only coach in the history of the sport to have a five-point lead with 30 seconds left and lose the game by seven,” he said.
“I’ve coached other sports, and I enjoyed every moment of that too,” he said. “But football was my passion. It still is. I think it’s the greatest game around. It’s something I’ll really miss.”
Even in the few days since making the decision official, it’s something he already misses.
“I’ve woken up thinking ‘What have I done?'” he said. “But it just keeps coming back to it being the right moment, for various reasons.
“My wife, I just can’t thank her enough. She has been the rock in this family. She held things together when I couldn’t be there. Without someone like her to support you, you can’t do this as long as I have. I was one of the lucky ones.”