WAUKON — A single chair sits along the baseline of the Waukon High School gymnasium during an early-morning holiday-break girls’ basketball practice.
Gene Klinge can’t sit still in it, but doesn’t wander far from it.
“I can’t explain it,” Klinge said. “I just can’t stand up for more than a couple minutes at a time.
“I guess I’m getting old.”
Klinge will turn 76 on Jan. 10. It’s likely that he’ll mark another milestone later in the month. And he’ll join some elite, select company.
According to the National Federation of High Schools record book, only five girls’ basketball coaches in the nation have reached 1,000 victories. Klinge is five wins away from becoming the sixth.
Heading into Friday’s Northeast Iowa Conference game at Crestwood, Klinge owns a record of 995-235. He’s in his 51st year of coaching — 41 seasons at West Central, 10 at Waukon.
In recent years, he has endured triple bypass surgery on his heart, prostate cancer, lymphoma and skin cancer. Now, an achy back.
But don’t assume this season is the end of the road, a final coronation of a career unmatched in this state.
“You know what? I don’t think he’s done yet,” said Pat Klinge, his wife for 48 years and the keeper of his scorebook for nearly as long. “I don’t know what he’ll do once he gets out, because he’s the world’s worst spectator.”
What would you expect? He can’t sit still.
At practice last Thursday, he was on the chair. And off the chair. All the while, alternating between barking and encouraging:
“Make up your mind what you’re going to do!”
“Good job, Black!”
“You gotta work, Black! Gotta work!”
“Elevate … elevate! That’s better!”
Daneshia Snitker said, “He’s got a lot of funny sayings. He’ll yell at me, ‘Snitker, you’re stinking up the place,’ or holler at the refs, ‘You’re gonna wear out the beads in those whistles.’ “
The players have learned to let it slide.
“When he gets on your case, it makes you play harder,” said point guard Abie Mellick. “He makes you tougher. And the good thing is, after he yells at you, it’s over. It doesn’t carry to the next day.”
Klinge said, “I think I have the ability to communicate with young ladies. I’ve been fortunate — all my teams have played hard for me.”
In his first 50 years, Klinge has suffered just two losing seasons. One at West Central (where he was 817-186 with 12 state appearances) and one at Waukon (where he is 178-49 with four trips to state, including the 2004 Class 3A championship), when Klinge underwent his heart surgery and the 2007-08 team stumbled down the stretch and finished 9-12.
This year’s team is 9-1 — “I never dreamed we’d be have this good a record at this point,” Klinge said — and Snitker leads the state in scoring at 25.6 points per game.
Klinge’s career is one that nearly didn’t get off the ground. A native of Monona, he was involved in a car accident two days before his sophomore year at Luther College.
Two people were killed and Klinge suffered a broken collarbone and a broken femur. He was laid up for six months.
Upon his recovery, he worked at his parents’ locker plant back home, then eventually transferred to Upper Iowa University, where he played baseball and football.
He was hired at West Central in the fall of 1962 as a teacher and assistant football coach, then took the girls’ basketball job when the previous coach resigned shortly before the school year.
“I inherited a lot of nice players and we got off to a good start,” he said.
Gene met Pat around that time — “I really liked him; he was a very good dancer,” Pat said — and they were married in 1964.
They had four children: Kathy was a cheerleader, then Vicki, Kevin and Karen were athletes.
Vicki was a six-player guard at West Central and Karen was a forward who now serves as an assistant coach at West Des Moines Valley.
Years passed, and West Central was a perennial Upper Iowa Conference powerhouse and regular state qualifier. Imagine that: 41 years, an average of 20 wins per season.
But shortly after the state’s switch to five-player basketball, participation started to dwindle statewide. And at a school the size of West Central, you need every able body you can get.
“The kids weren’t going out as much and they weren’t as dedicated as they used to be,” Pat said.
Klinge resigned at West Central in April 2003. The next day, Waukon announced his hiring there.
“I know Gene from his camps (at Upper Iowa),” former player Samantha Reiser said when the hiring went public. “I saw him a couple weeks ago and said, ‘Hey, you should come up and coach us.’
“The thought of having him here, it makes me more excited each day.”
Klinge won his first 52 games at Waukon. The Indians were 28-0 in 2003-04, rallying from a double-digit deficit to beat Atlantic in the 3A state semifinals before pasting Charles City in the championship game.
With most of the roster back in 2004-05, Waukon started 24-0 but fell to MOC-Floyd Valley in the state quarterfinals. The Indians returned to state in 2009 (reaching the semifinals) and 2010 (advancing to the title game before falling to a superior Sioux City Heelan squad).
It was in December 2009, with a win over MFL MarMac at the U.S. Cellular Center, that Klinge earned his 939th career victory, making him the winningest girls’ basketball coach in Iowa history.
“It’s awesome,” said Mary Halvorson after the win. “It’s an enjoyment to play for him. I respect him so much. He deserves this.”
So what got Klinge to this point? Longevity, yes. Attention to detail, absolutely.
“He’s good because he studies the game,” Pat said. “He subscribes to Winning Hoops Magazine, and he goes through that thoroughly.
“He watches video backward and forward. He’s willing to talk to other coaches and see what works for them.”
Klinge maps out each practice into segments, usually of 15 minutes each. In his home at Harpers Ferry lie stacks of notebooks — more than 50 seasons of practice plans and the blueprint for a remarkable career.
Waukon has 11 regular-season games remaining, so the issue doesn’t appear whether Klinge will reach 1,000 this season, but when. The Indians will be favored in four of their next five games, so a target date for the milestone could be Jan. 22, at Decorah.
“If I stay healthy, it will happen,” Klinge said. “If I get struck down this afternoon, I guess it won’t.
“A thousand wins … it’s a lot of bus rides. If you coach long enough, good and bad things will happen. A lot of good has happened to me.”