Steven Allspach, Journal sports writer Nov 13, 2003
Walt Fiegel, a sage philosopher as much as football coach and teacher, ended virtually every one of his football practices and games at East High by telling his players to “go home, give your mother a hug and a kiss and tell her you love her.”
Point being there are things in life more important than winning or losing a football game or just having a bad day at the office.
Now, Fiegel has gone home.
The legendary East High football coach died Wednesday morning after suffering what doctors called a massive heart attack at his home in Morningside.
Fiegel, a member of the Iowa High School Coaches Hall of Fame and one of the most influential prep football coaches in the country, was 69. He coached East to the school’s only state football title in 1984.
Fiegel just concluded his 22nd season as varsity football coach at East.
The personable and engaging Fiegel, the toastmaster general of Iowa high school football coaches, was the head coach at East three different times.
He began his head coaching career at Tripp, S.D., guiding that high school’s grid fortunes for four years.
Fiegel, who joined the East High teaching faculty in 1963, became East’s head coach in 1967 and the Black Raiders went 18-23 before he stepped down after the 1971 season. He served as sophomore coach from 1973-81 and succeeded Terry Stevens as head coach in 1982.
Two years later he directed East to the school’s only state championship, the 4A crown in 1984, topping Waterloo West in the title game, 21-20.
His first tenure at East produced an 18-23 record in five seasons. Then, from 1982-92, the Black Raiders were 78-29 in 11 campaigns, including nine playoff appearances.
One of his assistants an East graduate, Jim O’Hern, took over the coaching reins in 1993, but O’Hern stepped aside after the 1997 season and Fiegel was asked to return for his third term.
Fiegel, an ex-Marine, returned to the coaching sidelines a third time after being diagnosed with prostate cancer approximately a year before. On Oct. 8, 1996, he underwent surgery that successfully removed the cancer.
In the last six seasons, the Black Raiders were 32-27, advancing to the playoffs in 1999-2000-2001 and reaching the quarterfinals twice.
Fiegel directed East to a 128-79 record and 12 playoff appearances in his 22 seasons. Including his four seasons at Tripp he had 158 career wins. In addition, his sophomore teams at West were 52-18.
“East High football was his life,” said the school’s athletic director, Rich Vanderloo. “He was loyal and dedicated and there’s thousands of kids out there that he’s touched.”
Steve Zediker, who played on Fiegel’s first three teams at East, later served as his varsity assistant for four years and was also head sophomore coach under his regime.
“Walt Fiegel is one of the main reasons I’m teaching and coaching,” said Zediker. “And it is because he has always made competing such a good experience. He made the game fun.
“His little words and phrases of wisdom you always will remember.”
A driving force in establishing the Iowa Football Coaches Association as a strong governing peer group of the sport at the high school level, Fiegel served several years on the IFCA board of directors, was the group’s secretary for many years and was still active as secretary emeritus.
“I first met Walter Fiegel in 1972 when we were both members of the board of directors of the coaches association,” recalled Ken Winkler, now the football coach at West Marshall High School in State Center. “I was a 26-year-old kid from a little town of about 400 people (Hamburg) and for some reason a guy who became a legend was willing adopt me as a son, so to speak, and take me under his wing.
“He was as much a player’s coach as anyone could ever be. Walter influenced hundreds, thousands of kids. He was one of a kind in the most positive sort of way and I mean that sincerely.”
Winkler coached Treynor to an unbeaten season and Iowa’s Class 1A state championship in 1979 and was also the head coach at Sioux City West in 1983-84.
“Walt has been “Mister Football’ for all the years he’s been in the profession, setting a great example for the kids he’s coached and other coaches,” said Bud Legg, the infomation director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association. “He was a valued member of our advisory committees at the IHSAA.”
Larry Williams, the superintendent of the Sioux City schools, also lauded Fiegel.
“Coach Fiegel was involved in our school district as a coach for over 40 years, approaching a half century,” said Williams. “In that capacity, he affected many generations of students.
“He was widely admired to motivate young people into a team, to teach the fundamentals of the game.
“His ability to come up with winning teams was pretty legendary. This is a time when the community, the generations of people he’s touched, will reach out.”
The Lessman family is an example of Fiegel’s influence in touching different generations.
“When I was a sophomore, Walt brought me up the varsity,” recalled Randy Lessman, who became a Parade Magazine prep All-American in 1971 and was later the punter at the University of Nebraska. “Walt told me he made him famous with that Parade Magazine honor.
“He was probably more proud of my accomplishments than I was. He called me ‘Little Lessman’ because my older brother, Harlan, was a senior.
During the recently completed 3-6 East season, Randy’s son, Ryan, became a sophomore line starter for the Black Raiders. “When Ryan was born, Walt came to our house and said ‘Ryan’s going to be better than you.’
“It’s hard to believe he’s gone. He was a great motivator. He got you to play better than you thought you could.”
Also, Curt Lessman, Harlan’s son, was a standout in football and track and field at East in the late 1990s, winning a state shot put title before enjoying a stellar collegiate career at Northwest Missouri State University.
Fiegel, a native of Britton, S.D., is survived by his wife, Margaret, daughters Jill and Beth and son, Jim. Jill is married to former East all-stater Travis Uhl and couple resides in suburban Kansas City. Beth and her husband, Pat McAlpine, reside in Little Rock, Ark., and Jimmy lives in Iowa City.
Funeral arrangements were still pending as of late Wednesday night.
Steven Allspach can be reached at (712)-293-4207 or at email@example.com