Starting as a tough little hoopster who went up against Bill Russell and became a Marine, coach Ed Pepple pushed hard Mercer Island’s rich kids to make them champs.
Ed Pepple did a most amazing thing as the boys’ high school basketball coach at affluent Mercer Island, which outsiders have had no problem calling Mercedes Island, for obvious reasons.
For 42 seasons, Pepple took teenage basketball players who were never left wanting for anything — luxury cars, expensive jeans, breathless water views — and made them play as if their existences depended on every trip up and down the floor.
Rather than let his players resemble their confident and comfortable hedge-fund, tech-company or even retired Sonics fathers, Pepple instructed all of them to be just like him, a forever scrappy, height-challenged competitor who never stopped coming.
Pepple parlayed this combination of have-and-have-not characteristics into becoming the winningest schoolboy basketball coach in Washington by a wide margin. He died in his sleep Monday at 88, from cancer. Tributes came from across the state and nation, including one from former star player Quin Snyder, the Utah Jazz head coach.
Coaching for nearly five decades, including high school stops at Mark Morris in Longview and Fife, Pepple had a 952-306 record, 882 of those victories coming while he lived on the island.
Pepple’s highly successful coaching career happened in part because he played for one. He first came into public view as a 5-foot-8 forward — yes, a forward — for Seattle’s Lincoln High School and Bill Nollan, the school’s legendary leader in football and basketball.
Pepple knew about discipline because he grew up in a military family that moved throughout the country before settling in Seattle. At Lincoln, he encountered Nollan, whose Gen. Patton style demanded everyone adhere to his rigid system.
At the north-end school, that meant only seniors played on the Lincoln varsity and everyone wore close-cropped hair, no deviations. It was a system meant to have success.
When Pepple got his chance to play, the Lynx entered the state basketball tournament as the favorite, unbeaten and poised to win it all. Didn’t happen.
Lincoln advanced to the championship game at the University of Washington’s Edmundson Pavilion, but lost 40-37 in overtime to South Kitsap, an unsung team that played like a bunch of Ed Pepples, meaning it overachieved all at once.
Pursuing his own hoop dreams, Pepple played a season for Everett Community College and transferred to the University of Utah, where he stepped up his game to meet the talent level. In 1955, he captained a Utes team that was sixth-ranked in the country when it lost to Bill Russell and eventual champion San Francisco in the NCAA tourney’s round of 16.
After a stint in the Marine Corps, People immersed himself in teaching and coaching, making a few stops before Mercer Island summoned him. The school brought him in to change its small-school status, and offered him plenty of resources to do it.
Pepple had waiting for him the state’s best big man, 6-foot-8 Steve Hawes, a 28-point scorer. His Islanders entered the state tournament 21-1, making them serious contenders. They were blown out in the opener.
It helped make Pepple work harder at building something long term. He started the Little Dribblers program that identified better players early, and had them ready by the time they reached high school. He took teams out of state to play, a first in the Seattle area.
He learned to deal with coaching adversity. His top-ranked 1972 Islanders, led by future college players Greg Jack and Steve Biehn, blew a 19-point halftime lead to Hazen in the quarterfinals. The shocking elimination came the night following a one-sided victory over Roosevelt and James Edwards, who became a 19-year NBA player.
In 1981, Mercer Island was robbed of a state championship when officials waved through a last-second shot from Spokane’s Shadle Park, led by future Super Bowl MVP QB Mark Rypien, that came after the buzzer. Weeks of appeals went nowhere.
Pepple felt so wronged by the outcome that, for the rest of his career, he stubbornly counted that game as a win and that tournament as a state title. He suffered once more, when his 1984 team, led by Snyder, unexpectedly lost in the state title game to Juanita.
The next year, Mercer Island won the first of its four basketball championships. Others came in 1993, 1997 and 1999.
Three of his players made it to the NBA — 7-foot Petur Gudmundsson and Hawes as players, and Snyder as a head coach. He coached the sons of Sonics legend Fred Brown. Pepple coached his own sons, Terry and Kyle. Several of his players became coaches, among them grandson Matt Logie, now at Point Loma Nazerene.
Many more times than not, Pepple took high school kids and made them do it his way, earning everything, rather than having anything handed them.
Dan Raley is a former Seattle Post-Intelligencer writer whose coverage of University of Washington can be found at Sports Illustrated/Maven.