Deb Coates was a legendary forward who played on a legendary team for a legendary coach in the early to mid-1970s. Her coach was Vernon “Bud” McLearn. Team: Mediapolis Bullettes, went to state 21 times in 26 years, winning two titles.
Deb Coates: I played six on six basketball. I started in junior high which was back in '69 and played for two years in junior high and then I went on to high school and played four years in high school at Mediapolis, Iowa. We were the Bullettes.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: When did you first play basketball?
Deb Coates: Actually, the reason I went out for basketball in junior high -- we didn't have anything organized before that -- but junior high was the first organized basketball that we had, but the reason that I went out was just because of the reputation that that Mediapolis team had. Barb Wishmeyer and Mary Schulte and all those ball players. I just admired them so much that I just wanted to be a part of that. That's one of the reasons I went out. I wasn't real excited about it and Mom and Dad really didn't care if I went out or not it was my choice.
And actually in junior high all we did was basically just goof around and got in trouble a couple times just because we were goofing around we played on Saturday mornings, but after junior high and I got into high school that's when I really started to get into it just I had my blinders on and that's all I wanted to do was play basketball.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Who were your idols?
Deb Coates: Back in the late '60's before I started playing basketball of course our team, Mediapolis teams always went to the state tournament, and there was a lot of times that we didn't get to go just because of school or we just didn't go. We always listened to it on the radio and it wasn't televised at the time and I can remember once when the finals were on or semi-finals and the Mediapolis girls were playing and it was a really hard game and we were sitting in the living room just screaming our heads off and it was just almost like we were there.
And that's when Barb Wishmeyer playing. Barb Wishmeyer probably was my idol. She's the one that really got me thinking about playing basketball.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Many say you were one of Iowa's most legendary players, who played for a legendary coach, and really part of a legendary team. What are your fondest memories?
Deb Coates: I have to say that playing for Mediapolis I was very fortunate to play for Mediapolis and for Bud McClearn and during the years that I actually played because those were just the dream years of basketball for all girls basketball players. But I'd have to say my fondest memories are some of our practices were so hard and all the things that we were taught and they talk about drills. Well I know why they are called drills because they would just drill, drill, drill, and drill them into your head until it just came second nature. You didn't even have to think about it.
That's one of the things that Bud did very well as a coach was that he just didn't talk about us doing something and just have it practice it once. He just did it over and over and over and over and over again until we got it right and then even then if we did it wrong once he, he made us practice it a lot. So, practices were a big part of our, big part of our game just because that's what you did more than play games.
We always had a holiday tournament during Christmas time which I don't think they have those anymore. We would invite teams that were not in our conference teams outside of our conference we, we had teams from all over the state come and we would always play in this tournament over the Christmas break and that was always fun and then we had we had our tribals with Winfield-Mt. Union and those were always stressful games.
I always got so worked up that Bud would pull me out of a game and sit me on a bench and say I'm not putting you back in until you settle down. Because I get so worked up, with all the media hype and the competition there just would get you so worked up even more so than the state tournament. But the actual highlights were winning the state tournament in '73 and then even though we did lose in '75, I'd have to say that was probably a highlight too, but going all four years to state that was our main goal even if we won the conference every year but even if we wouldn't have won the conference every year just going to state was our main goal, and what we started out striving for on the first day of practice.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What was playing at the state tournament in the barn like?
Deb Coates: When you first walk out there of course you're just in awe. There wasn't an empty seat in the house. There just, you couldn't find a ticket anywhere and when anybody found out especially from Mediapolis, they all wanted to go to the game and people from out of state when I was a senior, we had Sports Illustrated came to the tournaments. Which I don't know if they do that anymore or not just because it was so unique and it was such an interesting game.
But playing at Vets you'd walk out on the floor and it was just like it was a big, the seats were farther back than in a gym and the baskets there really wasn't anything behind the baskets to judge your shot and like I said there was just so many people, but once you started playing you forgot. You didn't pay attention to anything except what you were doing on the floor.
You didn't hear the crowd cheering or nothing. It was like you were just out there to do your job and everything else was just there.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Do any games stick out in your mind like the Lakeview-Auburn game? What about those games do you remember mentally or players stand out?
Deb Coates: Yeah, Joyce Elder, we played against her and that was a team we beat in '73, and they were a very good team. It wasn't a real close game but we felt the pressure from them and we had to stay on our toes just to stay ahead of them because if you give them an inch they take a mile and we didn't want to get behind and of course we were in the habit of not being behind and we were always used to being out in front and so whenever we got behind it was almost like a panic situation because we didn't know what that felt like and so a lot, sometimes we really didn't know how to handle it very well.
Because you think oh you're five points behind, how are we ever going to catch up? Well five points isn't really that much but it's still a mental thing. But Joyce Elder and all of her teammates in that '73 team and then 1975 when we played Lake View Auburn for the championship and we lost to them in overtime by one point and I'll never forget Jolene ____. She was probably one of the toughest guards if not the toughest guard. At least she was the tallest guard I'd ever played against and their defense that they came out with in that game was something that we had never practiced, practiced against. It was something that we'd never seen before. So, here we were, that kind of threw our game off a little bit too, but she was a very good ball player had a lot of heart and played very hard, and they deserved to win that game because they actually they pretty much out smarted us, as far as their defense goes.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: 115 wins and only 4 losses. Tell me a little bit about Bud McClearan and what he was like as a coach and why do you think he was so successful with your team?
Deb Coates: Bud was a perfectionist and he put probably more time into looking at film, basketball film and going and scouting other teams than oh gosh anybody that I know. I mean he just, he put his whole heart and soul into this because he, he was perfectionist, he liked to win, and he was a good coach. He played who he thought he needed to play and community pressure or anything like that didn't bother him at all… you should use this person instead of this person or whatever. He did what he needed to do and that's why he was successful and it got to be to the point where they wouldn't question why he would do this or put this person, they just wouldn't because it was, it worked.
And he was a math whiz. I never have figured out how math and basketball tied into each other but they do somehow as far as angles and all this stuff, but he would have plays and we would make up plays and he would adjust if someone got hurt, we would adjust to that, but he had a lot of drills.
A lot of drills that we would run and very rarely would we ever scrimmage. There were some times where he would bring in some of the basketball boys and we would scrimmage against them but he had certain rules and regulations like you do not block their shots and there will be no physical contact because he didn't want anybody hurt, but that really taught us a lot too. When you're playing against guys, they make you really work hard. So, he just had a lot of tricks up his sleeve, and he's the only coach I ever played under which I was very fortunate, too, because when you switch coaches that's always tough, when you have to go to a different coach who had different ideas and different plans, it's hard to adjust as a player sometimes.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Any funny stories about him or your team?
Deb Coates: There's a couple. There's one that was kind of stressful. We were playing Winfield-Mt. Union and I was a senior and we got into the locker room and of course this was my fourth year with Bud and usually you didn't talk back to him or say he was wrong or anything like that but he, he looked at me and he said you're not moving out there. He goes you're not doing anything and he was a little upset to say the least and so was I. Frustrated and I looked at him and I said well what do you want me to do, and he goes well if you don't know by now I'm not going to tell you, and when I went back out on the floor, I think he knew how to get to me and that just got me going and we didn't have any problems the rest of the game.
So he was kind of a psychological coach too because he knew how to talk to his players to get them to go and then when we won the state tournament, this is kind of silly, but when we won the state tournament, Jim Zabel was interviewing Heather Heddens and myself and he was going to talk to Heather and he went to take the microphone over and he hit her in the mouth with it and of course we were all giddy because we had won the state tournament and we both started laughing and when I look at that on film now it is like you can't even tell he hit her in the mouth with the microphone and people are probably wondering: well, what are you guys laughing at? I'm sure there's probably more, but those were the two things that kind of stick out in my mind.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What did it feel like once the state tourney was over when you could think about the atmosphere?
Deb Coates: Its kind of like… I don't even know what to compare it to. You're just so excited you don't know what to do. I mean, you would think after playing a whole game you'd be tired, but you weren't. You were jumping up and down, and of course at 18 or 17 you're full of energy anyway, but it's just the feeling of excitement and afterwards all that hard work pays off, because you have to remind yourself that during the season when your coach wants you to run fifty laps or do all these drills and stuff you think golly, what's the point in doing all this stuff? Well, that's the point, and it all pays off in the end. All that hard work just pays off in the end and then right away, it's uncanny, but right away you start thinking about next year.
We're going to start next year and we're going to do it again, we want to do it again because it feels so good.
Losing isn't such a good feeling but winning is.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: You made your mark in '73 when you were a sophomore?
Deb Coates: We went when I was a freshman, but we didn’t get to the finals. I think we lost the second game and I can't even tell you who we played against.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: In '73 you are part of the all-tournament team as a sophomore and after that you kind of became a local celebrity. How did you deal with that?
Deb Coates: A lot of it is my parents didn't make a big deal out of it, and my classmates never really made a big deal out of it. They made a big deal out of us winning as a team, and I think that's one of the things that that you have to remember as a player. No matter how good you are, you're not the only one out there on the floor. You have to have someone that steals the ball, someone that gets the ball to you, or someone that you can pass to that has an easier shot.
You just have to remember, you just have to play as a team because I think a lot of the hard work that you do, you do get recognized for it but it's more special if you win as a team, and that's what our big success was as players. There weren't any grudges or anything on our team. If someone went in for somebody else hey, do it. Go out and get them, I'll have another chance to get out there. Like I said, my folks never made a real big deal out of it and it's kind of overwhelming when you're that age just because you don't think you're doing anything that special. You're just out there trying to win and play and if you're the go-to gal, then that's your job. So as a team that's what we did.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What kind of support did you get from a small town?
Deb Coates: Of course everybody expected us to go to the tournament, and there was a lot of pressure there too -- the town and everybody -- but once we won and we were going, then of course everybody went out and got their tickets in advance because you couldn't get them if you waited too long. They always sent the school so many tickets, and that helped, too, because your team was going, you should have the first choice to get tickets, but actually all the businesses in town would close. I mean, it was like ghost town when we went, and that really showed a lot of support, of course. Of course the school closed down. We didn't have school all week and they sent shuttle buses up with students in it.
Some of them just went up and stayed for the whole week. Just for the whole tournament because it was so special even if we wouldn't have won. We would have hung around, and as a team we did stay up there all week whether we won or lost. And then when we did win, there was a huge caravan. I think everybody in Mediapolis was following us home and we sang songs all the way in the bus and all the towns that we went through, they had signs up and it was just awesome, it was something that you could take pictures all you wanted but it would never ever capture the feeling or the atmosphere of what was going on at the time.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: I don't think it goes on like that, at that level.
Deb Coates: Yeah and then back then, there was only one winner, period. I mean, if you won the state tournament, you were the top in all of Iowa. We didn’t have any classes and so that really made it special. You were the only light up there shining and it was for class A or class B or class one or two or whatever, but you were the only one, and that really made it special, too, because if you think of all the kids that are out there just working so hard and trying to get to where you got and you're the ones that did it, it really feels good.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: You were number one in Iowa and that's so true. Asking about teen magazines, etc. How does it make you feel to be a part of and maybe today you were part of something that really showed how Iowa led the nation in girls’ sports?
Deb Coates: I think that feeling really didn't come about real strong until after we got away from six on six. Because then you look back and you think this is what we had, we don't have it anymore. And so that's another thing that kind of makes it really special, because if we were still playing six on six, there'd still be kids scoring up in the 70's, 80's, I mean, you'd still have the same kind of stats and the exciting games and stuff like that as far as high scoring goes, but I think that now that we don't have it anymore, it makes it even more special, just because that was a special time.
I know like you said when you're younger -- well, especially me; I can't speak for everybody -- but I know that it was like okay, I just went out and did what I was supposed to do. And we won, and our whole team had a good attitude about it and then when all these like Sports Illustrated and Teen magazine and stuff and then I got a whole box of letters at home. Just a whole box full of letters and I answered everyone. Very, very nice letters from kids that wanted to know how our team got to where we were and techniques on how to shoot, to as far as I want a haircut like yours and just different stuff like that, teenage stuff, but like I said, I answered every one and I guess you really don't- It was just something that you did and you don't really think about it until you get older.
It was just an amazing time.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: How do you think they really made Iowa a leader when it came to basketball?
Deb Coates: They really created a state that was known by others as a leader, and then Title Nine changed a lot of things too.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Why are you proud to have been a part of that?
Deb Coates: They did a lot of publicity and the in-between games that show that they had in-between games with all the flags and you're talking about this was an entertainment, this wasn't just basketball. They had a lot of entertainment and they included in a lot of schools that didn't make it to the state tournament, and that makes a big part of this isn't just the teams that made it to state. This is the whole state. Bands, flags, they did the flag thing, and the marching, and they had just had a lot of different singing and they just had a lot of different things going on at that time.
And I think that really helped it, because it was such a spectacle. It wasn't just basketball games. It was a big spectacle.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: How did you handle the pressure of other teams?
Deb Coates: There's a lot of times where they'd put two or three guards around me, which was great for us because that left somebody else open and we had three good forwards, I don't care who was out there, but all of our forwards could shoot very well. So, it wasn't just actually me, I might have been the go-to, but everybody else could shoot very well and when they shut me off or had me surrounded and I couldn't do anything, everybody else was able to pick up the slack. And that really worked very well. It wasn't just one, it wasn't just me that stressed on my shooting or practice on my shooting a lot, it was everybody.
Bud would always have us go in after practice, he'd said say okay, before the forwards can leave, you had to make 25 free throws in a row. Well guess who was always the last one out there? There was one night he came in and he goes: Deb, you can go home. Because I'd get up to twenty and then I'd miss or something like that, and everybody else was gone. So, we had really good shooters on our team. It wasn't just necessarily me but all of our forwards could shoot so when they did that, really got me boxed in and we'd the back door and someone would get a lay-up. I mean, we got pretty easy shots. A lot of times that worked to our advantage is to have them focus on me and it'd leave other people open.
Or we would change our offense.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Why were you a good forward? What do you think made you a good forward in your mind?
Deb Coates: Well, that's all I did, was play basketball. I wasn't in band, I was in chorus, but that didn't take a lot of your time. I was in softball and that was a different season, but anytime that we didn't have practice, I was playing one on one with the neighborhood, a guy in our neighborhood, Randy Gothner, he was two years younger than me and he was a very good basketball player, and we'd play one on one till it got dark and finally the neighbors who had a very nice cement basketball court, we'd play there until it got dark and finally they put up a light for us, and we'd play out there till it was 9-9:30 at night or even later sometimes. I think sometimes you can spread yourself out too thin. If you want to really be good at something, you have to really focus on it. There's people that do have God-given talent, but you have to develop that and that takes a lot of practice and a lot of focus. Basically that's what I did. That's all I did was eat, breathe, and sleep basketball. I wouldn't do it any other way. It was a fun high school.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: How did you feel when you learned six on six was going to end?
Deb Coates: I really was broken-hearted, because I always say if it isn't broke, don't fix it. It's done and people can look back and reminisce about six on six. I know there's a lot of kids that don't even know what that is now because it's been so long, but it just it really broke my heart because it was a special type of ball and it was different than the guys. It was our own brand, our own style of basketball and there was a lot strategy with it. There was a lot of hard work. I guess I just don't understand it. That's what happened and so it's done, but yeah it did break my heart.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What do you think we've lost?
Deb Coates: Like I said I'm just speaking from my experience, but we practiced fundamentals a lot. You had to be in shape, but then you didn't have to run the whole floor, which makes a big difference too. I think a lot of the five on five they work on conditioning, because if you're too tired then you get sloppy. And so they work a lot of conditioning and then the fundamentals go down the drain. So what we did was we worked mostly on fundamentals and we did do some conditioning, but not a lot. Just because like I said you only had to run half the floor.
Also another thing about six on six ending is one of their arguments was kids would get more experience with the five on five, but you have one less player that can play. In six on six you had six girls playing and in five on five you have five. And then I have been to the tournament when it was changed to six to five on five and there are so many empty seats and you see the teams that are there, their crowds there cheering them on, which is wonderful. But when we played there were people from teams that didn't even have from towns that didn't even have teams, and they were there cheering on their favorite team.
It was almost like when if you like the Seattle Seahawks or something -- you're not from Seattle, but yet you're cheering them on. You're there cheering them on or the Packers or somebody. These people they didn't have teams there but they had their favorite teams and that's what they want to go watch was their favorite teams whether it would have been Montezuma, Farragut, Mediapolis, Roland-Story, I mean anybody, they just, oh gosh, I really like them. I'd like them to win and they'd go to the tournament and watch.
And then the nation I don't think watches us as much. Just because we've jumped on the bandwagon, so to speak. We're not unique anymore. We're like everybody else, and that's another sad part of it that we've lost.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What would you say about the game- what was the six on six game like?
Deb Coates: Well you brought up the dribbling aspect of it. How many people, how much can you do with two dribbles. If you can dribble as many times as you want you can go anywhere on the floor, you can and dribble as many times as you want. We had to practice what we could do with two dribbles. We had a hesitation dribble that we did with two dribbles and we practiced dribbling with two dribbles from half court.
So there was a lot of strategy with that, because you only had two dribbles to do. You didn't have an unlimited amount, so you didn't just catch the ball and put the ball on the floor. You had to think about what you were going to do and where you were going to go. As far as people who have never played the sport like you said just, they wouldn't understand but there was a lot of strategy. I don't know how many offenses we had and the defenses, you had to gear your offense around the defense that you were playing against so there was so many different defenses and there were so many different offenses. Hard work is hard work, practice is practice or playing five or six or six, but whether you play five on five or six on six, fundamentals are fundamentals and fundamentals will win you the game. That's why we have a lot of turnovers in a game is because you screw up on a fundamental. Whether it be passing or not protecting your dribble or traveling. Those are fundamentals and those are turnovers.
So all of the fancy-dancy stuff that you can do, there's not a lot of turnovers there but you get a lot of fundamentals incorporated into that but make a difference.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Did you play ball after high school?
Deb Coates: Yeah, I did want to go on, and I did go on and play college ball. I felt very comfortable playing five on five just because I'd played so much basketball in high school and we did so much in high school that I felt comfortable with my fundamentals. Here we go back again to the fundamentals. I played one year at Grandview and then I finished out my career at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mt. Pleasant.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What was the transition like for you as a forward and then going cross court?
Deb Coates: Well again we get back to the fundamentals. If a player knows their fundamentals and they're good with their fundamentals, they can play either style of ball. If you can't pass, or if you can't dribble, even if you're only dribbling twice on six on six, you're not going to get very far. So basically your passing, pivoting, cross-over steps, all that stuff that's just your basic fundamentals. If you know all that stuff and it comes second nature to you, you won't have any problem with the transition. You wouldn't have any problem with the transition from six on six to five on five.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What do you think playing on a basketball team, maybe even six on six in particular taught you? What lessons did you learn from that?
Deb Coates: Playing basketball -- and this goes with any sport, whether it's track or baseball or softball or volleyball or whatever it is -- it teaches you hard work and discipline, and to get anywhere you need to work hard and to be disciplined to be focused on your goals. That's where success comes, is hard work and discipline and staying focused.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Talking about generations- What do you think they owe women, the pioneers of basketball?And being able to play sports today and the success they're having?
Deb Coates: I don't know the answer to that question because basketball, oh gosh, we've had basketball in Iowa for a long time and the style of basketball has changed quite a bit. I mean, they used to shoot underhanded, and they used to have three courts, and so it's probably when they went from 3 court basketball to 6 on 6, they probably thought well, what are they doing that for? So,I think it has contributed just to the state and our lifestyle. Women have been a working force in Iowa for years, and I think a lot of it has to do with because it's a farming state.
You have a lot of women that work in the fields and do all that. I'm not saying that’s the only reason, but I think that's one of the strong reasons why. I know in the state park system, it wasn't the park ranger that used to work in the park, it was the whole family. It was a family affair, it was the wife and the children and everybody would go out and work in the park. It's not that way now but basically that's what it was. So, I think that has a lot to do with it is our, is our lifestyle and our traditions and women are an active part in the workforce from way back.