HARTFORD CITY – There are facts and there are stories, and the fact is new Blackford High School boys basketball coach Jerry Hoover is 82 years old.
This story is so much more than an eyebrow-raising fact.
This story is about the importance of Indiana high school basketball in a small town, a man's love for the game, his invaluable wisdom and his devotion to family. Throw hope in there, too. Especially hope. It's quite a mix.
“I just find the game interesting,” Hoover said, taking a break last Friday while running his first week of camp. “I don't hunt. I don't fish. I don't play cards. I just like the game.”
Some background: Blackford's athletic program, and basketball in particular, has been hit by hard times. Enrollment has dropped from 900 to 550 over the years as manufacturing jobs dwindled in this small town about 50 miles southwest of Fort Wayne.
The baseball team, coached by athletic director Tony Uggen, won a sectional this spring, the first for any sport at the school since 2009. The golf team had a winning season. Those bright spots are rare.
Boys basketball sits at rock bottom. The Bruins have lost 69 of 70 games over the last three years, snapping a 61-game losing streak with their only win last season. They were winless the previous two years. Blackford hasn't finished above .500 in 15 years.
“We've been down on our luck the last few years,” Uggen said. “I knew they were in a rough stretch when I came here four years ago. For somebody of Jerry's background to come in here and say, 'I'd like to give it a shot' – by all means, we listened.”
Hoover is well known to the broader basketball community for two reasons.
One, he owns and operates the D-One Camp, a team camp that has been around for more than two decades and is, in fact, going on this week at the University of Saint Francis. Coaches know him and his emphasis on the seven fundamentals of the game: running, jumping, sliding, pivoting, dribbling, passing and shooting.
Two, he's the only coach in Indiana high school history to take eight losing programs and turn them into winners. A native of Monticello, Hoover has coached primarily boys, but his last stop was with the Logansport girls, where he took a losing program and built it into a consistent contender. He also coached at Indiana State and St. Joseph's College.
Hoover is older than the average high school coach, yes, but how much wisdom and insight has he built over his 50-plus years in the game?
“To me, age doesn't matter,” Uggen said. “We want what's best for our kids and our program.”
Hoover stepped down at Logansport after the 2014 season, but he didn't retire. He kept his mind on basketball, running his camps and watching players and teams. He estimates he watched 270 high school teams last season.
Hoover helped behind the scenes with the Winamac program last year. He felt the urge to get back into head coaching, and he had an idea that he had developed with his son, Don, who has a PhD in biomechanics with master's degrees in physical therapy and kinesiology. The two could coach together and, as a not-insignificant bonus, Don's sons would come along to play for their grandfather.
“He called me out of the blue,” Uggen said. “He said he'd like to interview for the job and I told him I'd already interviewed everyone and I even had a candidate in mind.”
Hoover can be quite persuasive, a great attribute for a coach, and he convinced Uggen to give him an interview.
Hoover opened and closed the deal. Uggen talked to people who know Hoover, found zero negatives, and liked the added plus of Don Hoover's knowledge helping all sports teams. Jerry Hoover's grandchildren include J.D., a 6-foot-5 senior who has had the Hoover way ingrained in him since he was a youngster. Steffen Hoover is a freshman and Dayton Hoover is a seventh grader.
“What you're really talking about here, it's a package,” Jerry Hoover said. “You've got a school that's been losing and so there's a need to turn that around. I have experience in that. I don't care if I'm 102 years old. I have experience in that. My experience doing that eight times is valuable.”
Don Hoover has coached in the summer-league settings, but has not been a coach for a school team, nor has he coached alongside his father.
Don Hoover calls it a “bucket list” item to coach with his father, and points out how they both are fascinated and motivated by the chance to turn something around for the school and its surrounding community. Don Hoover will move his family to the Blackford community while also handling teaching duties at Western Michigan University. He was most recently an associate professor at Western Kentucky. J.D. Hoover attended and played at Heritage Hills last year.
“For the kids in this community, empathy is the word that comes to mind,” Don Hoover said. “They have just not had some of the positive experiences that many of us point to regarding the value of interscholastic sports. If we can do something to turn that around, that's very meaningful. I'm very confident we will. It's not an 'if,' but an issue of when, how quickly it's going to happen.”
During the Blackford basketball camp last week, J.D. Hoover took on a bigger role than your average move-in player. He's the one who already knows the coach's – his grandfather's – vernacular. He knows the drills. He hasn't played for his grandfather on a school team, but he knows the work it takes.
So he stepped in as a natural leader.
“I'm beyond excited,” J.D. Hoover said. “This is an opportunity not a lot of people get, to play with my brother, to play for my grandfather, to play for my dad. The community has been extremely welcoming. We're excited to be here and we think they're excited to have us.”
Blackford senior Jake Ross said the change in atmosphere has been immediate.
“I've already seen a lot of improvement through the whole team after only one week,” Ross said. “It's mixture of him (coach Hoover) pushing us and us pushing each other.”
Quinten Howard, another senior, agreed.
“This has been the most effort everybody on the team has given in practice in the last three years,” Howard said.
Some of that change is due to J.D. Hoover and his brothers, Uggen said. He has watched the younger Hoovers play, and particularly how they display an outstanding work ethic. Uggen said one father told him how much his son loved the camp atmosphere and the way the Hoovers were pushing players to work.
“When they watch his grandson, they see this is how hard you have to play,” Uggen said. “I expect that in my (baseball) program. They can see what I've been trying to tell them, too. They see this is how you lead. It's bigger than basketball for our community.”
Turning things around
The list of schools Jerry Hoover has helped turn from losing programs into winners includes DeMotte, Salem, North Judson, Lake Central, Ben Davis, Monrovia, Kankakee Valley and Logansport. Perhaps his most famous player was Ben Davis' Randy Wittman, who went on to play at Indiana University and the NBA and become an NBA coach.
Hoover said it generally takes three years to turn a boys program into a winner and five years to turn a girls program around.
But there are common denominators everywhere.
“Skills and numbers,” he said. “When you go to a place that's losing, they don't have skills and they don't have numbers, almost universally. When you have a lack of numbers, then you get this cancer called entitlement. 'I'm a sophomore and I'm entitled to play because I sat the bench as a freshman.' Or 'I'm a senior and I'm entitled to play because I have played here three years.' That's the sign of a losing program.”
Hoover often sprinkles his points with anecdotes, and he has examples of how he turned programs around, including early in his career when farmers' sons in DeMotte weren't playing because the previous coach said they couldn't miss practice to help on the farm. He visited the families and changed the policy. Eventually, no players missed a practice.
At Lake Central, many of the Catholic players were going to Hammond Bishop Noll when Hoover arrived, he said. He opened the Lake Central gym on Sundays for the Catholic youth leagues to play. He had a sandwich and a beer with the fathers afterward. “We never lost a kid to Noll,” he said.
“Everything is based on players,” Hoover said. “You have to figure out a way to get them.”
When he coached the Logansport girls, Hoover sensed the players were disappointed to be getting an older, male coach when he arrived. So he convinced the school's leadership to allow him to bring in WNBA player Stephanie White to help for a season. He eventually took the Logansport girls on a trip to China as ambassadors.
Hoover explores all avenues, and in the case of Blackford, brings some players with him.
The grandsons are a package deal and above-average players. Jerry Hoover did not coach his son when Don was in high school.
“What man wouldn't want to be around his grandchildren?” Jerry Hoover said. “If you're a welder and you had the chance to teach your grandson how to weld, it would be joyful for you, and satisfying. This situation, I make no bones about it, I'm happy about that. I can be with my grandsons and teach them about a game that has been very good to me.
“I love the game and I know what it can do for young people, particularly in the state of Indiana, so I don't think it is unusual at all that I'd want to teach my grandsons.”
By the time I was done talking with Jerry Hoover, I realized his years of experience give him an edge. He won't be shaken if his team starts 0-5 this year. He knows what it takes to be a successful coach, so he won't be weighed down by wins and losses initially.
“In my career as a university professor, I encourage students to be lifelong learners,” Don Hoover said. “My father, as he gets into his 80s, that message is more solidified in my own mind, seeing someone who's living that.
“A lot of people get into their 50s, 60s and 70s and they've lost that fire. They're somewhat disengaged. That's not my father.”
Jerry Hoover, married 56 years to Loretta, coaches basketball. He doesn't hunt. He doesn't fish. He doesn't play cards.
“I've thought about what if I just buy an RV and travel around the United States?” Jerry Hoover said. “I think that would be interesting. But I don't think it's me.”
Hoover mentions his favorite coach of all time, legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant.
“He said, 'The day I quit this job, I'll croak in six months,' ” Hoover said. “He was dead in three weeks. This is so much a part of me, there's no question right now I have additional energy than I had two months ago because of the challenge of this job.”
Uggen said the community reception for Hoover has been 99.9 percent positive. The other 0.1 percent obviously hasn't met the coach yet.
“We have that hope, that light at the end of the tunnel,” Uggen said. “The pendulum is swinging the other way.”
If you happen to be near Blackford this winter, stop in for a game. Hoover will be giving that pendulum a knowing nudge.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.