CEDAR RAPIDS — Larry Niemeyer sat at his dining-room table, cleared his throat, wiped his eye and proclaimed himself “a free agent.”
Niemeyer told The Gazette and KCRG-TV9 on Tuesday that he will vacate his role as head girls’ basketball coach at Jefferson High School, a position he has held for 34 years.
“I still enjoy coaching,” he said. “Who knows what I’ll do next year. I might coach somewhere else. I might be a volunteer coach somewhere. Maybe I won’t do anything.”
Niemeyer, 74, plans to coach softball this summer, and possibly beyond.
But next winter will mark the first basketball season since 1977-78 that Niemeyer won’t be on the bench in the Jefferson gym.
“It’s going to be hard,” said Niemeyer’s wife, Gwen. “It’s been his life for so long. It’s been all of our lives for so long.
“There’s definitely going to be a void there next winter.”
Niemeyer posted a record of 871-352 in 52 seasons — ranking third all-time in Iowa behind Gene Klinge and Bob Mullen — including 537-261 in his 34 years at Jefferson. He took the J-Hawks to the state tournament nine times.
Jefferson went 27-0 and won the state championship in 1993. His two oldest daughters, Nancee and Noreen, were on that team.
The J-Hawks were runners-up in 1990, as were Niemeyer’s teams at Adel in 1973 and 1974.
“He is a one-in-a-million coach,” said Karen Schulte Daubs, a member of the 1993 title team. “Most people have opinions about him one way or the other, but I’ll always know him as a guy who cares for us as kids and as ball players.
“The older I get, the more I realize how fortunate I was to play under him.”
Jefferson made its last state trip in 2007, but the program has backtracked recently. Ravaged by youth (not a senior on the roster) and injuries (starters Taylor Jacobson, Rachel Broghammer and Kaitlyn Davidson were sidelined by the end of the season), the J-Hawks limped to a 9-14 mark in 2011-12, one of only eight losing seasons in Niemeyer’s reign.
“I’ve never had a team with so many injuries,” Niemeyer said. “Our letterwinners missed a total of 57 games.
“Sixteen-, 17-, 18-year-old kids need to be healthy, rambunctious, have fun … when they’re injured, it’s just sad.”
Everybody returns next year, and more than one incoming freshman is expected to make an immediate impact. That, Niemeyer said, is a primary reason he is deciding to step away.
“I didn’t want to be one of those guys who left the cupboard bare for the next guy,” said Niemeyer, who has dealt with health issues the past few years, most notably kidney stones.
“Everybody’s back, and we’ve got some really good kids coming. If there’s a time to leave something for the next coach, now’s the time.”
Jefferson has at least three potential successors in the building. Chad Tompkins has served as a varsity assistant the last few years. Chris Rolwes, the head sophomore coach, has coached varsity ball at Marshalltown. Jason Edwards is a counselor at Jefferson and an assistant under Frank Howell at Washington.
Scott Kibby, who will leave Jefferson as the school’s athletics director July 1 to take the same position at Iowa City West, called Niemeyer “the epitome of someone that can master just a few things and be successful.
“He doesn’t run 15 different offenses,” Kibby said. “He doesn’t care if you know what he’s going to run. He’s still going to out-execute you.”
Dennis Roloff was an assistant under Niemeyer for 12 years before taking the head varsity position at Cedar Rapids Kennedy. Roloff called Niemeyer “a wonderful coach. Dedicated. Hard-working. He is gruff around the edges, but he would do anything for his girls. He’s done more for Jefferson than any coach that has been there. I admire him immensely.”
Niemeyer taught business, then physical education, at Jefferson before retiring as a teacher in 2011. He is the winningest softball coach in national history at 2,053-423 in 51 seasons with three state titles.
“Larry has won a lot of ball games,” said Mike Dick, executive director of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union. “It’s always disappointing to lose someone like him in the profession. We have much appreciation for all that he has dedicated to the Iowa Girl. It’s hard not to root for a guy like Larry.”
Kibby said, “To most people, he has a tough exterior. It’s probably hard for the public to see, but he has a gigantic heart. He came into my office the other day and told me how proud he was of the team, how they were able to squeeze out nine wins in such a rough season.
“Maybe he didn’t tell that to the kids a whole lot. But he told me.”
GIRLS’ BASKETBALL: THE NIEMEYER YEARS AT CEDAR RAPIDS JEFFERSON
|1981-82||22-5||6-on-6 state qualifier|
|1991-92||26-2||5-on-5 3rd place|
|1996-97||18-6||Class 4A qualifier|
|1997-98||16-8||Class 4A qualifier|
|1999-2000||17-8||Class 4A qualifier|
|2005-06||21-6||Class 4A semifinalist|
|2006-07||15-10||Class 4A qualifier|
|34 Years||537-261||9 appearances, 1 title|
IOWA’S ALL-TIME COACHING LEADERS, WINS
1. Gene Klinge 986
2. Bob Mullen 938
3. Larry Niemeyer 871
4. Harold Shepherd 736
5. Carroll Rugland 735