Ernie Kivisto

The following article is from the Dispatch on Feb 7, 2003 written by Steve Tappa...


He was 1979 National Prep Coach of the Year

There are several disputes to Ernie Kivisto's self-proclaimed title as the "winningest basketball coach in the country."

However, no one can question the former United Township coach's dedication to young people. After more than five decades as a coach and teacher -- in a career that spanned from the military and industrial leagues to high schools in Illinois, Arizona and Texas -- Kivisto died Wednesday in Oklahoma at the age of 81. The 1979 National High School Coach of the Year, Kivisto claimed to be among the elite group of high-school boys basketball coaches to win more than 1,000 games, though friends and foes alike questioned the accuracy of his record-keeping.

No matter, Kivisto was fondly remembered Thursday as a colorful character and demanding coach with a heart of gold by his former players, colleagues and rivals in the Western Big 6 Conference.

"He was one of the three most influential people in my life." said Allen Knott, a 1964 all state player for Kivisto's UT Panthers. "I loved him like I love my own father."

Kivisto coached at UT from 1951 to 1967, compliling 232-154 mark and was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame in 1997.

In 16 searsons at UT, Kivisto's teams won "several" conference titles according to a 1967 article in The Dispatch hailing his move to Aurora East.

The Illinois Hall of Fame coach had three teams qualify for the state tournament at Aurora East, including a third-place finisher in 1969.

Kivisto's 1972 team still holds the distinction of losing the highest-scoring game in state tournament history -- losing 107-96 to eventual runner-up, Quincy.

Kivisto won an Arizona state title in 1950-1951 before getting the UT job.

"He was such an intense person, so enthusiastic about basketball," recalled Rich Yeargle, who played on Kivisto's final UT team. "But as much as he loved basketball, he loved kids more. I loved playing for him. He'd do anything for you."

In fact, in a 1982 article in The Dispatch, Kivisto said none of his many wins came close to making a list of his favorite coaching memories.

Instead, he took greater pleasure in what his players accomplished off the court after high school. The successes ranged from doctors to teachers and coaches like himself.

"When I think about things like that, about how well my boys turn out, it just brings tears to my eyes," Kivisto said. "That's what success in coaching is -- turning your boys into fine young men, into good citizens, into Americans we can be proud of."

An Ironwood, Mich. native like NFL coach Steve Mariucci and college hoops coach Tom Izzo, Kivisto earned a reputation as a demanding coach and sideline showman at UT and Aurora East.

"He was tough, and in 1964, he was toughest on me, because he expected more from me," Knott said. "But, he did it because he knew how good I could be and just wanted me to reach my fullest potential."

Kivisto served in the Marines in World War II, once killing two Japanese soldiers and surviving a stab wound to the leg in a hand-to-hand combat fight.

The self-made son of Finnish imigrants, Kivisto also played basketball at Notre Dame as a Marine trainee.

Kivisto got his coaching start in the military. After the War, Kivisto finished his college degree at Marquette, coaching in the industrial leagues.

"He was only 5-foot-9, maybe 5-foot-10," Knott said. "But, he was a mountain of a man to me."

Knott is not alone in that assessment.

Current Big 6 coaches like Alleman's Larry Schulte and Moline's Frank Dexter played against Kivisto before joining him in the coaching ranks.

"I lived in East Moline," said Schulte, a 1961 Alleman grad, who echoed the thoughts of others with a laugh, "we still have one of those pots-and-pans he used to sell on the side.

"As a coach, he was a real forerunner to a lot of things that happen now. He pioneered the year-round approach you see today. Teams didn't fastbreak or press a lot back then, but Ernie's teams sure did."

Dexter, who played for Galesburg back in the '60s, recalls the many memorable battles between his legendary coach, John Thiel, and Kivisto.

"They really put on a show on the sidelines," Dexter said. "They'd be yelling and screaming at the officials, the players, each other. It was hard to keep your mind on those games and not watch them."

"I remember I went to watch a Galesburg-East Moline game when I was younger. The gym was packed. There was a dead ball one time, and the crowd was just howling and howling. Down on the other end of the floor, Kivisto had thrown his jacket and got it caught on the basket supports. He got a technical from that."

What few knew then, though, Kivisto and Thiel were friendly off the court, Dexter said.

Schulte also recalled a gracious veteran coach going out of his way to welcome a young colleague to the coaching fraternity.

"I had him speak at a banquet my first year as a junior-high coach at Sherrard," Schulte said. "He made me sound like the greatest player who ever laced up high tops, and the next Bobby Knight."

"A few years later, when I was recruitng some of his Aurora East players for Black Hawk, he showed me around the school like I was Lute Olson. But, that way he was--so enthusiastic."

And, always coaching, it seems -- pushing buttons, trying to make people better.

"It's a shock," Yeargle said. " The way he was going, you just thought he'd coach forever."

Coach Kivisto died February 5, 2003 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is survived by his wife, Jane Ann; sons, Ernie Jr., Bob and Tom and daughter, Kathy.