WFCA Hall of Fame ceremony takes on Jefferson theme
MIDDLETON — Late in the program, Master of Ceremonies Dave Keel noticed a trend.
Keel was reading off the biography for the last of the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductees — former Luther Prep football coach Ken Taylor, who graduated from Jefferson High School in 1970.
“Wait a minute,” Keel said. “Ken, you graduated from Jefferson. Lance (former UW-Whitewater football coach Lance Leipold), you graduated from Jefferson. John (Stellmacher), you coached at Jefferson. What’s in the water in Jefferson? Holy smokes!”
Leipold, Stellmacher and Taylor were three of 11 inductees honored at the 39th Annual Hall of Fame Awards Banquet at the Marriott West on Saturday night.
This Jefferson-themed trio join a long list of area coaches to enter the hall. They include Watertown’s Arnold O. Landsverk (inducted in 1988) and Dan Herbst (2002), Waterloo’s Doug Miller (2008), Luther Prep’s Ron Hahm (2010), Johnson Creek’s Tim Wagner (2014), and Hustisford’s Dan Simon (2016).
Leipold enjoyed the spotlight on his alma mater. He graduated from Jefferson High School in 1982.
“It was nice,” Liepold said. “Coach Taylor did so much for so many years there at Luther Prep. John Stellmacher behind the scenes did so many things for so many people. It’s kind of neat with people in the crowd who get to share a night like this. It’s pretty special.”
Leipold’s career has certainly been special.
During his historic run at Wisconsin-Whitewater, the Warhawks won the NCAA Division III National Football Championship in 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014 and were runners-up in 2008. Their opponent in each of those title games was Mount Union.
Leipold reached 100 victories faster than any coach in National Collegiate Athletic Association history, doing so in his 106th game on Oct. 18, 2014. This broke the previous mark of 108 games set by Gil Dobie in 1921. Leipold left UW-Whitewater with a 109-6 career record to become the head coach at the University of Buffalo. His record is 13-23 over the last three seasons, but six of those wins came this past season. He is under contract through 2020.
Though he is no stranger to accolades — named the American Coaches Association Division III Coach of the Year and the D3Football.com Coach of the Year six times — Leipold appreciated this latest honor.
“For a night like this, you reflect back on how lucky and blessed that you are, and the great people you had a chance to work with, and players that you had a chance to coach,” Leipold said. “Then there’s people like the ones in the Whitewater administration and supporters of the program for many years, and the Booster Club members who came here to be part of the evening. You reflect on the lives that you touch, the coaches you had a chance to work with and the people who helped make it all possible. Hopefully, we made a little bit of a difference while we were there.”
While on-field success is certainly one measuring stick for the Hall of Fame, the WFCA also judges its inductees on their lengthy tenures both as coaches and as members of the association, and on the impact they had on the lives of so many student-athletes.
“You really find out, especially in the high school ranks, there are a lot of people who (are deserving),” Leipold said. “The resources have changed. The time these people have given up — 30, 40, 50 years — all the Friday nights and the cold nights and the scouting, and what the families give up, so we get to do what we love to do.”
Stellmacher was on the Jefferson sidelines from 1984 to 2016 and has served as head coach, defensive coordinator, linebackers coach, and JV/freshman coach during that time frame. He has left his mark on the program for a majority of those years as the defensive coordinator where he helped lead Jefferson to a state championship in 1991, and over his career has had a hand in seven conference titles, 14 playoff appearances, including a trip to the state quarterfinals in 2009. He was a part of 177 wins on the varsity level.
The inductees are led in by a group of bagpipe players for the banquet. They are recognized individually with a slide show featuring pictures from their coaching days, set to music. They are then asked to stand up one by one as Keel read off their biographies, adding touches of humor and admiration for each one. Coaches such as Stellmacher received raucous applause from supporters in attendance.
“This is the first actual banquet that I’ve been to,” Stellmacher said. “It’s amazing. They do just an outstanding job. It was very touching. I can’t even put it into words. I am so impressed with how this (was done).”
The Baraboo native has been away from coaching for one year.
“It was tough the first year,” Stellmacher said. “I missed it quite a bit. But I went and watched Jefferson play almost every week. It’s the relationships that I have had with kids is what it’s all about. I was able to develop some pretty good relationships. A lot of players came back tonight. I am very honored with their presence here tonight. Those guys I have coached with for 33 years are the best. They are all great friends. This wouldn’t have happened to me without them. It was a collective effort.”
Taylor was an assistant from 1988-94 at Northwestern Prep to Hall of Fame member Ron Hahm and continued to assist him from 1995-97 at LPS. During that time, the program posted a record of 81 wins and 13 losses and won three WISAA state championships. Taylor took over the program in the fall of 1998 and coached until retiring from football in 2012. His record over that span was 85-57, during which time the Phoenix won five conference championships, made seven playoff appearances, finished as the WISAA state runner-up in 1998 and reached Level 4 of the WIAA playoffs in 2003.
He continues to teach at LPS and serves as the head golf coach, but he’s stayed away from football since retiring.
“I have been away from the game,” Taylor said. “I do enjoy a hot fish fry eaten on a plate on a Friday night, not out of a styrofoam box. This is the very first one (of these ceremonies I have been to) … totally unprepared. It’s kind of a big deal. The association just did a wonderful job. Unbelievable that a bunch of knuckleheaded football coaches can put something like this together, but they did it!”
Taylor said it was “way beyond awkward” to stand up and be recognized, but was humbled to reflect on the trajectory of his career, in which he coached players who went on to train and ministers of the Gospel at Martin Luther College. “His guys,” as his biography states it, are pastors, teachers and missionaries all over the world.
“My guys are literally all over the world and it all started in Watertown, Wisconsin,” Taylor said. “Football’s been such an important part of their training. When they leave the seminary or Martin Luther College, when they leave those institutions, they are going out (into the world) and it’s the strength and guidance the Lord gives them. It’s a miracle. I like to think that some of the regimentation and the football, the mental toughness and discipline that are part of that great sport, they carry that with them. I see it every day.”
Taylor acknowledged his Jefferson roots while paying tribute to the people he has gotten to know in Watertown.
“Lance’s dad, Ken Leipold, I am pretty sure he was my adviser and a teacher,” Taylor said. “I didn’t play basketball, but he was the basketball coach for many years there. When I think back to my Jefferson years, the formative things that happened during the Vietman era, how that school was a solid little school. They have good people there, and many of them stay there. It says a lot about the community.
“So it’s Jefferson Night at the Hall of Fame and that’s all right. More importantly for me, it was Prep Night at the Hall of Fame, because of all the kids. You don’t get an honor like this unless you have top notch kids who do what you want them to do. I hope they can take something away from it.”
One of his former volunteer assistants and a Prep alum, Tom Uecker, has no doubt that’s the case.
“(Ken) is a mentor to me,” Uecker said. “How many kids fall through the cracks if they don’t have someone like him in their lives? How many of them ended up doing something stupid, if not for men like the ones (being honored here tonight).”