HUTTON: Valpo grad Ckuck Koeppen elected to national HOF after 23 titles, but can’t forget title his old coach didn’t win
June 29, 2013 8:24PM
Updated: August 2, 2013 7:14AM
Chuck Koeppen spent his formative running years pounding out monotonous mile after mile under the tutelage of Ken Pifer, the cross country coach at Valparaiso High School.
Koeppen, a 1964 Valparaiso graduate, loved Pifer, a stern, old-school coach who made running cross country fun. He was demanding but dedicated. He was the kind of coach that kids appreciated long after they left.
They trained at Ogden Gardens, a place then that wasn’t so densely populated with flower gardens. They ran their meets at Forest Park Golf Course, the same course that butts up against the high school now.
Cross country was a popular sport, mostly because of Pifer. All the runners loved Pifer.
“He had a great following,” Koeppen said. “I had so many great teammates. They always treated me nice. The upper classmen, like Ken Jankowski, they were always good to me. When they graduated, I cried.”
Pifer was a big name across the state in cross country. He had coaching friends in every corner and 1963 was the year they were poised to win their first title.
But Pifer was thwarted by a rule the school board had just instituted — that freshmen couldn’t run. Don Vandrey, a ringer, who would go on to be a four-time state champion in track and cross country, was a freshman that year.
Pifer had pleaded with the school board to make an exception for Vandrey but they wouldn’t budge.
The Vikings were still plenty good that year, still perhaps good enough to win, but they weren’t on the day of the finals. They finished third.
Koeppen remembers seeing Pifer slumped over in a chair, broken and defeated after the finish. The city had pre-planned a celebration, with fire trucks and a parade. Pifer’s despair was exasperated by one other mitigating factor: He had a heart condition, according to Earl Deal, a runner on the team who won the mile at the state track meet that year. School officials had asked him to step down because of the condition after the season.
The next year, Koeppen left for Ball State, inspired by Pifer, with his mind set on running and coaching.
He can’t ever forget getting the phone call from his mother at school in March of 1966: Pifer, 67, had shot and killed his wife, Esmah, and himself.
Koeppen said his coach died of a broken heart the day in 1963 they didn’t win the state title. He was never the same after the loss.
“He blamed himself,” Koeppen said. “All he wanted was a state title. He blamed the board. He begged them to let Vandrey run. Oh, my God, he was one of the best runners ever. That killed him. He had been there his entire career. It just meant the world to him.”
Even though Pifer wasn’t the coach anymore, Deal would work out with the team and Tom Stokes, who was the coach then, and again with Pifer because he knew how to whip him into shape.
Deal, who was in the Army, couldn’t come for the funeral, but he wanted to. Pifer had steered him away from football and turned him into a star in both track and cross country.
The details of the deaths were dramatic.
When police found Pifer, his scrap book was open to the page of Deal winning the mile in the state track meet.
Pifer had shot his wife at the kitchen table and then walked into the bathroom, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger in front of a mirror, according to a story in the Vidette-Messenger. He had been to a psychiatrist just days earlier, despondent over the demands of his job as probation officer for Porter County. A note left for his daughter, Margaret Larson, said “Mother and I have reached the end of the road health wise.” Police, however, wouldn’t reveal the rest of the note.
“The heart condition and being thrown to the curb, it just got to him,” Deal said. “He was still a great man. I loved that guy.”
Koeppen didn’t go home for the funeral, a memory that still nags at him today. But the thought of the way Pifer coached them and the way he departed from this earth has never left Koeppen.
On Thursday, Koeppen, the Carmel cross country coach for 37 years, was honored in Colorado with one of the most prestigious awards a high school coach can have bestowed on him.
He was elected into the National Federation High School Hall of Fame. Only five coaches from Indiana — and 12 people from the state — have ever made it through the rigorous selection process for the NFHS.
Koeppen’s career at Carmel reads like a track and cross country fairy tale. He won 23 state titles — 11 for the girls and 11 for the boys in cross country, and one in boys track — in 37 years of coaching. That’s more than any coach in Indiana. He started at Carmel when it wasn’t a blip on the radar in cross country and track — they hadn’t won a sectional — and he retired in 2008. Like the Yankees, Carmel was the school in cross country that everyone hated because they were so good. He is universally revered by kids and coaches alike, for his self-deprecating sense of humor and his complete dedication to the sport.
In 2008, after his retirement, he took over as the cross country coach at IUPUI. He has quickly built the Jaguars program into a formidable one.
To this day, the one state title that hits Koeppen the hardest is the first one in 1976 — the one that Pifer never could get. It took him five years. He worried about it and put lots of pressure on himself. He needed to get past it because of what happened to his old coach.
Every title after that was something he “never would’ve dreamed of.”
Yes, it’s been an unbelievable run for Koeppen but in his heart, he still aches for Piper, the coach who deserved a much better ending than he was dealt in that state final in 1963.
The coach who, in no small way, was the seed for everything that Koeppen had accomplished.