—by Todd Thorson
I remember when Coach Kerry Van Winkle first arrived at Roland-Story back in 1974. I was an eighth grader, one year away from moving into the high school ranks. Following his first season as the varsity football coach, which didn’t go very well, by the way, it was my turn to meet the new coach. After the fall football season he took over as coach of the eighth grade boys’ basketball program. Those of us out for basketball that winter of 1974-75 immediately became introduced to Coach Van Winkle’s philosophy, routine and leadership qualities. Though he was a strict disciplinarian, who expected nothing short of your best effort, Coach Van Winkle was a teacher and an instructor in not only athletics, but in the game of life. He instilled in his athletes, and in his students (he was a history teacher as well), that you should always give it your all, work hard, and "do it right or not at all". He could be harsh at times, and he would get angry on a many an occasion. He did not tolerate lackadaisical performances and especially did not allow negative attitudes or efforts. He was a daunting presence, and I’m sure some students even feared and disliked him. But for all practical purposes, Coach Van Winkle was not here to be your best friend. He was here to teach, instruct and instill in his students the all-important "lessons in life". Giving less than 100 percent just wasn’t acceptable in his eyes. He strives to be the very best, and he passed that quality on to his students and athletes from day one.
Now some may say Coach Van Winkle softened in his later years, and perhaps he did. I do recall seeing more smiles from him as the years passed. But in the end, he continued to excel in what he loved best - and that was coaching; especially football. For those who experienced him later in his coaching career, I’m sure most of them would still say he coached hard, he coached well and he coached with high expectations. He truly was the epitome of what a football coach is and always will be. We all learned from him. We all experienced him. We all appreciated his success. Not only in the school system, but as members of the Roland and Story City communities. The accolades and successes are and were many. And it all pretty much started not long after his first season as head football coach.
Following his first game at Roland-Story, an 18-0 loss to Colo-Nesco on September 6, 1974, Van Winkle won his first game as the new head coach the very next week against North Polk, 14-6. Unfortunately, that would be the only victory of a rather forgettable 1-7 campaign that season. The very next season, however, things started to turn around rather quickly. My freshman year (1975), when I first started writing sports for the Herald, the Norsemen went 6-2 and shared the Heart of Iowa Conference title. It was the Norsemen’s best season since reorganization in 1968. Coach Van Winkle, just a little over a year in from first arriving at Roland-Story, was also named the HOIC Coach of the Year. It was the beginning of a long and prosperous career, the likes of which this school district’s football program may never see again.
I’ll never forget the many Friday nights, first as a scared, little freshman, on through my senior year, going over stats with team statistician John Njus in the coaches’ room, and eventually talking to Coach Van Winkle after he had met with his players. It was sometimes quite intimidating when he’d walk through that door, especially after a loss. But those moments spent talking football was truly rewarding and memorable. And the more I got to know Coach Van Winkle, the more I respected and appreciated him. Even when I went off to college I was never far removed from knowing what was going on with the Roland-Story football program (I do regret missing the two state championships, however, but I was aware of what was happening, believe me). My kids also had the opportunity to be a part of Van Winkle’s coaching tenure, as both Nick and Olivia managed for him as recently as just a few years ago. Coach Van Winkle always had nice things to say about them, and that meant a lot to me. Now, after 40 years at Roland-Story, Coach Van Winkle has coached his last football game. His final game was a 42-26 loss to Nevada on Friday, October 25, 2013. He will no longer be pacing the sidelines come this fall. It is truly the end of an era for Roland-Story football.
"I’m ending my football coaching career for personal reasons," Van Winkle told Paul Clark of The Rocket last week, "some of which I have no control over - and also due to medical concerns. It will also give me the opportunity to attend games my son coaches (at Ames High School) and to attend more of my grandchildren’s activities." Those medical issues included having major surgery on his shoulder last month, and knee replacement surgery before that.
Van Winkle arrived at Roland-Story following six seasons at Kanawha High School (1968-73). All totaled, he won 275 games and lost only 147, with three ties. He is one of only 15 Iowa high school football coaches to amass 275 or more career wins. His record here at Roland-Story stands at 243-131, following a 32-16-3 record at Kanawha.
The success story is long for Van Winkle and his Norsemen. He led Roland-Story to back-to-back Class 2A state championships in 1980 and 1981, defeating Hudson 12-0 and Columbus Junction 22-21, respectively, in successive title games. He may have had three titles in a row had it not been for an opening season 13-12 loss to New Hampton in the fall of 1979. The Norse proceeded to go on to a 7-1 season that year, shutting out their opponents 251-0 the rest of the way following that lone loss. Unfortunately, they missed the playoffs by just a few points due to the way the playoff slots were selected back then. They found themselves in the same points battle with undefeated Hudson and Sumner that year, and just missed making the 2A field. Coach Van Winkle was once again named HOIC Coach of the Year and eight members of that team were selected first team all conference. Van Winkle would end up calling the 1979 season "a fantastic one I’m sure I’ll never forget". As the years passed, that 1979 team was always highly regarded as one of the best, if not the best, teams Coach Van Winkle ever had at Roland-Story.
Al Christian, who played on that 1979 team as a senior and was one of those eight first team all conference players named, is now the head coach at Ballard. He remembers Coach Van Winkle fondly:
"His influence was huge on me. A lot of times a coach is a father figure, and he was even more of one to me with me not having one around. A lot of things that he did, that he said and the way he carried himself has carried over to what I do as a coach and a person."
Even today, Christian still sees the same coach now that he was back then:
"Coach Van Winkle was tougher than nails," continued Christian. "Practice was not fun. We worked hard, and there were days when you weren’t happy with the way you got treated, but it all led to what he wanted, to make you tougher, to make you work hard, to make you a better person. Being a better football player and football team just happened to come with it."
The Norsemen also advanced to the Class 2A state semifinals three additional times during Van Winkle’s career, most recently in 2008. Other state semifinal seasons came in 1978 and 1982. The Norsemen advanced to the state quarterfinals in 1991, 1997 and 1999, and have made the playoffs a total of 16 times during Van Winkle’s 40 years. Roland-Story also won a total of 12 conference and district titles with Van Winkle at the helm.
Van Winkle, who has also coached the R-S girls’ track team for many years, may still coach the Norse girls again this spring, but he hasn’t decided yet for sure.
Coach Van Winkle also felt inclined to say a few thank yous upon making his announcement last week:
"I want to thank all the players and managers I dealt with all these years. They are all very special to me. I want to thank the assistant coaches who were hard working and loyal, and many remain good friends. And I want to thank the Roland-Story fans who have been very loyal for 40 years, and some for more than that. And to all of the people that supported my teams and me."
And so as the sun now sets on a 40 year career full of memorable moments in Roland-Story football, it is a time of reflection and memories for all of the students and athletes who had the distinction and privilege to have "grown up", learned and experienced the Van Winkle "regime" at Roland-Story. Another regime will undoubtedly rise come next fall, but it will be hard pressed to meet or match that of its predecessor. It will have to be a long and a highly successful one in order to even come close to what Coach Van Winkle has accomplished in 40 years at Roland-Story!
"I enjoyed going to practice every night and being with the kids and the assistant coaches," Van Winkle said. "I enjoyed the preparation for the games and working toward our goal for that particular week. But I really did enjoy working with those kids."
And so, from someone who witnessed Coach Van Winkle’s coaching, teachings and larger than life presence from the beginning to the end, from both the sidelines and from afar, thanks for the memories Coach! They will truly last a lifetime!
—Paul Clark of The Rocket and Dan Wright of the Ames Tribune also contributed to this story