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Remembering a Bobcat legend

Marshalltown High School basketball won’t be the same without George Funk

T-R FILE PHOTO - Marshalltown High School boys’ basketball coach George Funk holds up the game ball from the 1966 Bobcats’ state championship at the team’s awards banquet following the season. Seated in front of Funk is University of Iowa coach Ralph Miller.

For the first time since the early 1960s, Marshalltown — the community, its schools and its fans — is about to enter a high school basketball season without George Funk. It’s hard to imagine.

Funk, who died June 6 at age 85, came to Marshalltown High School as basketball coach in 1963 and remained on the sidelines until 1989. During that time, he led the Bobcats to the boys’ state basketball tournament 10 times — a ritual so commonplace that longtime Iowa radio legend Frosty Mitchell dubbed the tourney “the Marshalltown Invitational.” If you were a student at MHS between 1966 and 1979 (remember, back then, the school was only grades 10 through 12), you were guaranteed to be able to skip school and head to Vets Auditorium for tourney hoops at least once during your time there.

When we were kids — in the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s — going to a Bobcat game every Friday night was an EVENT. The Roundhouse would be packed to the rafters — 5,000 strong — for every single game. Little kids couldn’t just mill around on the track. People couldn’t get out of their seats until the quarter or halftime breaks, “even if you were dying,” I was once told. There were that many people. At the age I was back then, it might as well have been Madison Square Garden.

And then, there were the games. There was a pageantry to the way Funk’s teams would take the court for pregame, especially with that beautifully choreographed layup drill. The pep band, led by another MHS legend, Jerry Ellingson, would fire through classics like “The Horse” and “Sweet Georgia Brown.” The guy on the surfboard might come out and get the little kids fired up with “Wipeout.”

But once the ‘Cats came around the corner to take the floor — in those warm-ups that looked like red, blue and white versions of the Houston Astros’ old popsicle uniforms — the Duke would cut off the band and they would immediately launch into the beloved MHS Fight Song. And it always seemed like Coach would come through the crowd right at the point where the band circled around and started the song for round 2.

The fist pump. The growl. It got me and everyone else fired up every single time.

The message was clear — you came into his dome, you were in for a fight.

But basketball was only part of the story. He also served as athletics director for 30 years, turning Marshalltown High School and its athletics department into a class institution. He hired championship-level coaches like Brad Clement, Steve Hanson, Rich Rozell, Jerry Heying, Bruce Vopava, Tony Giannetto, Phil Henning, Eldon Ott, Tim Bell and Linda Bloom, among others. A perfect example: I remember a two-year stretch, around the time I was starting junior high, that included a boys’ track state title in 1985, a girls’ basketball state championship in 1986, and back-to-back state baseball crowns in those same two summers.

He stepped aside after the 1998-99 school year, after seeing the Bobcats win the boys’ state golf championship, take second in girls’ golf, and earn top-five finishes in both boys’ and girls’ track. Also, his beloved hoops made a long-overdue return to state that year under head coach Jerry Nikkel, taking third place after falling in the semifinals by a single point. It must be noted — Marshalltown sold more advance state tournament tickets that year than the other seven Class 4A schools combined.

(There’s an urban legend out there that the Iowa High School Athletic Association, whenever possible, gave Marshalltown as favorable a postseason draw as it could every year because they knew the whole damn town would show up if the ‘Cats made it to “The Barn.” OK, I totally made that up … or did I? Tell me that’s implausible.)

As sports editor of the Times-Republican, I had the privilege of writing Funk’s retirement story in 1999. It was picked up by The Associated Press, and it ran in many of the newspapers in the old Big Eight Conference towns — Mason City, Ames, Waterloo, Fort Dodge. I’m sure it was out of respect for the coach who challenged them on the hardwood for almost three decades.

But it was more than that.

I was born in Marshalltown. I grew up in Marshalltown. And what I can’t stop reflecting on is the how much basketball bled into the community. It was a part of my life, as well as the lives of countless other kids.

If you love sports, you start remembering and retaining them the first year you start playing them with other kids. For me, that was 1982-83. The Cardinals won the World Series, the Redskins won the Super Bowl, the Iowa Hawkeyes went to the Sweet 16 in Lute Olson’s last season in Iowa City … and the Marshalltown Bobcats went to the state tournament — again. I remember sitting in the library at Anson Elementary and watching them beat Waverly-Shell Rock in the quarterfinals on TV before eventually settling for fourth place. At age 9, I would have probably told you my three favorite basketball players in the world were Julius Erving, Iowa’s Steve Carfino and the Bobcats’ Dale Clayton, probably in reverse order.

My mother was a sophomore in high school when Funk won his only state title in 1966. Three of the guys on that team ended up being the fathers of my friends. I mean, anyone who was friends with Megan and Abbey in high school ended up posing with Ron Peterson’s life-sized wooden cutout from that team’s championship banquet that was still in their basement.

And most importantly, Coach Funk was involved in the sport at every level in that town. He was always present at YMCA youth tryouts, showing you how to dribble with your head up and how you need backspin on your jumpshot, even though we were all still just launching it off our hip at that age. And every summer, he was in command at Bobcat Basketball Camp (or, as it was unofficially better known, “practice.” Guaranteed, he always knew that winter’s starting lineup by July).

Everyone in that town certainly had an opinion about him — some critical, because that’s what happens when you’re that much of a commanding presence. But it was mostly positive — it was hard to be too critical when you could boast his results. He was a winner, and one thing is undeniable — he was Marshalltown sports and they have not been the same without him.

I said at the top of this piece this will be the first season without George Funk. But that’s wrong. As long as the court that bears his name remains inside the Roundhouse, his memory will endure. I just hope the day will come when the Marshalltown Bobcats can get the “George Funk Dome” rocking once again.

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Sam Paxton, a Marshalltown native and 1992 graduate of Marshalltown High School, is the night sports editor at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids. A 1996 graduate of the University of Iowa, Paxton served as Times-Republican sportswriter and editor from 1997-99. Comments: Sam.Paxton@thegazette.com