EDITOR'S NOTE: Hod Nielsen is currently recovering from bypass surgery at McKennon Hospital in Sioux Falls. This column originally ran in the April 12, 1986, edition of the Press & Dakotan.
There is no doubt that the best thing that I will take along into the golden years will be the friendships — the many hundreds of them — that I have made over the years. Friends, not only colleagues in the media, but people who have devoted their lives and talents to coaching and teaching our young people others who have kept active in sports by taking precious time to officiate, others who are just there because they are interested — fans and spectators — and, of course, the athletes themselves.
In this and in future columns, I will recall incidents that separate some of these individuals from the crowd — incidents that make them characters. In the field of coaching, for example, I have known, competed against and with, and observed most of the gentlemen of this profession who are enshrined in the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame. Howard Wood, Joe Quintal, Euc Cobb, George DeKlotz, Rube Hoy, Harry Gamage and Carl Youngworth, to name a few. I have categorized, in my own mind some of these people.
For a deep competitive spirit (remembering that all coaches are competitive,) I put on top my old friend of Southern State Pointer fame, the late Jack Martin, and Clark Swisher of Northern State. The mental picture that I have of those two die-hard foes walking off the football field arm-in-arm after their last go at one another — a game in which the Pointers pulled off one of their greatest upsets ever — will be with me forever. They went after each other hard, prowling the sidelines, snapping at officials, players, other coaches or anyone else in the way, but after the game they were gentlemen sportsmen — and I was moved by the moment.
For smooth operators how about Bill Fitch of the North Dakota Fighting Sioux and Reginald "Red" Threlfall of the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. Fitch now the coach of the Houston Rockets of the NBA, once welcomed Dwayne Clodfelter's USD Coyotes to Grand Forks in an unusual way. The Coyotes entered their visitor's locker room at UND and found 2x4 lumber all over the place. The boards, in varying lengths, were placed on the lockers, on the benches, wherever they could be placed. When Cloddie asked the colorful Fitch for an explanation, Fitch, who with the rest of the North Central Conference coaches had been plagued with the Coyote's tough, hard-working defensive team, said that it was for the 'Yotes to warm up their "karate" defense.
Then there was Red Threlfall, who is now all but forgotten in the NCC by the passage of time. Threlfall spent four seasons in the 1930's as the football coach of the SDSU Jackrabbits, and with some success. But it was his summer activity that made him somewhat unusual.
When I knew Threlfall some years later, he was the vice-president in charge of sales for Western States Life Insurance Co. of Fargo, N.D. It turned out that he had cut his eye teeth in the life insurance business during his tenure in Brookings. He would take his portfolio after school was out for the spring and head to Chicago, where he had a clientele that wanted and needed his product — and a group who discouraged competition. Reg sold life insurance to many of the gangsters of those days, and there were many of them in the Windy City. He claimed that he knew most of the famed thugs of that era, and that he was accepted by them and did well in sales to the "mob." Threlfall, incidentally, left the Jackrabbits after the 1937 season to become the first coach for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the newly-formed Canadian Professional Football League.
For flamboyance, I think of O'Gorman's Bob Burns and Jamestown College coach Rollie Greeno, although there are many others. These two have had fantastic careers. They have had more winning seasons and championships and accolades than they can recall. Yet, as the retirement years near for each of them, their contributions live on. Their own forceful personalities have resulted in innovations and in changes that have been good for sports. Their long years of service have been given credence to their eccentricities and to their ideas. It might be a harder world to live in if there were very many Bob Burns and Rollie Greenos, but it is a better world to live in because there has been one of each.
For a real character, USD's Dwayne "Cloddie" Clodfelter might top the list. The handsome, naive demeanor belies and impish sense of humor. Cloddie — don't forget — was an excellent basketball coach whose 1958 Coyotes won the College Division national championship; he was successful as a coach of all sports at Centerville High School and, and when he followed Burns into Yankton High, took the Bucks to an ESD title in football.
But his exploits were often times hilarious and absolutely irreverent. Like the time that he threw the crutches belonging to a crippled mutual friend into his fireplace during a good-natured argument; or the time he threw a large raincoat over the head of a frustrated radio announcer, the late Les Davis, during the broadcast of a basketball tournament at the Huron Arena, causing the airways to be subject to some comments not intended for the airways. Perhaps my favorite Clodfelter story happened during a basketball game in the noisy "New Armory" at USD. At one point during the heated game, the opposing coach was having one of those intimate nose-to-nose discussions with one of the officials, Pal Christensen, of Yankton. Cloddy slipped up behind Pal and pinched him in the backside (goosed him, to be accurate.) Pal reached by leaping forward into the opposing coach, causing him to lose balance and fall into his bench, very nearly causing a riot. And all the time Clodfelter watched with his very innocent expression, enjoying every minute of the commotion that he caused.
There are so many stories as there are coaches. They, by their nature, are involved in interesting incidents and have things happen to them. That's that makes life among the coaching fraternity and its environs interesting and sometime entertaining.
The fact that I have been privileged to work with them has made me appreciate them, and I am thankful for having the opportunity to do so.