Football: For Rippee, it was always about the players first
I don’t need Mike Rippee to read this first to know he is going to hate it.
While his wife, Bonnie, might squirrel away a couple copies for the grandkids, Mike would probably rather use this page to kindle the morning fire.
This is, after all, the same man who attempted to sneak off the south end of the field when administrators tried to commemorate his 100th win.
This is the same man who sent the 2007 list of all-region and all-league honorees to my e-mail account with the “Coach of the Year” slot conspicuously left blank.
Of everything Mike Rippee got into coaching for, the last thing he ever wanted was personal recognition.
If it had been possible to coach the game from a phone booth six miles away, odds are he probably would have found a way to do it.
Heck, after starting out his career winning only two of his first 17 games, he might have given it some honest thought.
But the simple fact of it was that this program, and what it grew into over the last 27 years, was never about the wins and losses.
What gave Rippee the longevity he’s been able to enjoy (He was the longest-tenured coach in the 4A by 17 seasons – a full six seasons longer than any other active 4A coach has even been at the helm – heading into his retirement) was that this program was about life.
Year in and year out, it was about growing awkward teenagers into stand-up adults.
“So much more every year, the bottom line seems to be more about winning,” Rippee once said. “You can’t do that. You can’t teach kids that winning is everything. They don’t learn anything from that except how to win at all costs.”
He was human, prone to his own mistakes, and that translated through to the way he coached his teams.
“On any given Friday night, there’s probably 20 other people in the bleachers that could call a better game than I can – that would make better decisions than I would,” he said the first time I interviewed him here at The R-C in 2004. “But the difference is, where are they during the week? Are they willing to put the time in caring for these kids and making sure they do the right thing? That’s where you become a coach.”
Rippee took his own life lessons and tried to pass those on to his players.
Mistakes – on the field and off – have consequences. But just because mistakes are made, that doesn’t mean they can’t be fixed.
“You have to have a chance to learn,” he said. “A kid makes a big mistake in his life, you lay out his punishment and see what he can do after that. You have to learn how to bounce back from losses.
“That carries through the rest of their lives.”
Through 27 years at the helm, Rippee saw nearly as many losses as he saw wins (he finishes his career with a 139-125 record).
His teams clinched 15 playoff berths, five playoff wins, two league titles and one appearance in a regional championship.
His players won seven regional player of the year awards, 16 division or league player of the year awards and 73 first-team all-region selections.
A handful of players advanced on to play at the Division I level in college – being rural and remote kept Tiger standouts largely off the recruiting radar until only recently.
Not that it ever really mattered.
Anytime you’d ask Rippee about the recruiting situation, whoever was drawing attention heading into the year, he’d bristle a little.
“Most college coaches just look at what’s on paper,” he’d say. “They miss some of the best players because of that.”
The foundations of his program – heart, desire, integrity and effort – were simply things that recruiters couldn’t survey with their stopwatches, scales and measuring tapes.
Even so, he had players go on to success in all walks of life, including stints in the NFL, Ivy League schools and service academies. Some answered the call of another type of recruiter and went straight into the trenches of actual war.
He seemed to take particular pride in the players who might not have piled up the individual awards, eye-popping statistics, or even seen that much playing time, but found it within themselves to overcome adversity and excel beyond their natural abilities.
And every one, regardless of their accomplishments on the field, received the same attention and care.
“This goes for each and every one of you,” he’d say without fail to his team after the final game of every season. “You ever need anything in your life, I don’t care what it is, you call Coach Rippee and I will be there.”
He’s celebrated the victories of his former players later on in their lives, gone to their weddings, been in the bleachers of their games at the next level and mourned at their funerals.
He was a player’s coach in every sense of the word.
The crowds of alumni who would regularly gather along the sidelines during Douglas games served as evidence to that.
More so, though, he was a student’s coach.
He continually sought out the students at the school who, due to physical or mental disability or disease, were unable to play football and included them in team activities, often bringing them down on the sidelines during games.
“It’s a privilege to play this game,” he’d say. “There are so many more important things in life, so many tougher battles to fight than football. I want our players to realize that and to see it.”
He tirelessly built the idea of teamwork into the program, stressing that no one part was more important, or necessary for that matter, than the collective.
Even in contemplating retirement, he wouldn’t step outside that philosophy.
“This program is strong,” he said. “I’ve worked hard to build it, but losing me will not make any difference.
“We teach the kids that no single player is bigger than the program. The same goes for coaches. The same goes for me.”
But even so, one can’t just take an eraser to his career and act like he hasn’t had an effect on the lives of a great majority of Carson Valley residents.
I’d ask him after the final game of every season whether or not he was coming back.
He always said the same, that he “was weighing his options,” even this year when his plans to step away became one of the worst kept secrets in Carson Valley.
And this year, like every year, he was very clear about one thing.
“If I don’t come back, I don’t want anything going in the paper, OK?” his voice turning sharp in that only half-joking way of his.
I’m sorry, coach, but the kids you built the program on wouldn’t have stood for it.
What do you say about a coach who has been at the head of a team – and the figurehead of a community’s pride – for more than half his life?
It’s simple, really.
You just tip your cap and let the body of work stand for itself.