‘Fox’ follows his coach to Creston
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on the induction of longtime SWCC coach and athletic director Ron “Fox” Clinton into the Southwestern Athletics Hall of Fame.
The seeds of Ron “Fox” Clinton’s coaching legend were planted while still a student at Simpson College in Indianola in the 1950s.
The former pitcher for Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson’s state championship baseball team also played for Simpson. He also gave basketball a try, but his career took a different turn there. Les Deaton, the men’s basketball coach, must have recognized some leadership qualities.
“I was JV talent,” Clinton said. “So, now I’m a junior and we’ve established the fact that I’m not going to play. So, I’m the JV coach, a student coach. I coached my first game against the Drake University freshmen. Back then there were no women’s teams, so the JV was the prelim game. I coached JV for two years.”
What was born was a coaching and officiating career spanning nearly five decades. Clinton, 76, was honored Saturday as the first inductee into the Southwestern Community College Athletic Hall of Fame.
Things always happened in a hurry for Clinton. Playing in the national tournament in the spring of 1958 for Simpson baseball coach R.B. “Hap” Miller, Clinton returned from the tournament and four days later, he and wife Ruth were married.
In the fall of 1958 Clinton completed his student-teaching assignment, and then enrolled in the Army for a six-month stint.
“My mother’s three brothers were all in the war,” Clinton explained. “It was kind of inbred in the family that you do your duty to your country. Ruth was about to kill me!”
After his discharge, Clinton returned to Council Bluffs in June 1959 and went to visit his high school baseball coach, Roy Jessen. As it turned out, Jessen was about to leave to become Creston’s high school principal.
“He asked what I was doing, and I said I was looking for a job,” Clinton said. “He said, ‘why don’t you come to Creston with me?’ I told him that sounded like a pretty idea! And that was the end of the interview.”
Clinton’s first job in Creston was seventh-grade general science teacher and junior high coach for football, basketball and track.
After two years, Clinton was recalled for another six months of military duty, which delayed an opportunity that had come up to coach the high school basketball team when Maury Geist moved to the junior college as a counselor. So, upon his return to Creston, Clinton coached two years of sophomore basketball under Bill Baldwin, who attended Saturday’s ceremony at SWCC. Clinton was also assigned to coach high school baseball with Dale Howard.
Howard lost his job as Creston Junior College basketball coach after an incident in the old junior high gym, where the Golden Bears played home games. Howard would go on to a career as coach at Iowa Central, and then a successful auto dealership in Iowa Falls. He is now known as one of the largest contributors and sponsors for University of Iowa athletics.
But his departure opened the door for Clinton, who tells the story in his own unique fashion:
“Dale coached the juco men’s basketball team to the national tournament,” Clinton said. “We played at the old junior high, and they had those old gray benches to sit on. They’re probably still sitting around in the locker room there or something. Dale didn’t like a call, and he kind of kicked, not really kicked as much as stuck his foot under the bench and flipped it.
“There was this loud crash of the bench flipping over and landing on the floor,” Clinton continued. “Well, back then the school and the junior college were under the same board and authority, and one of the school board members was at the game. She said, ‘That’s it. We don’t act that way here.’ And they fired Howard from the basketball job. Well, he said he wasn’t going to stick around and coach the (high school) baseball team that summer. So, that’s how I got that job.”
Meanwhile, some weeks passed without the junior college basketball coaching position being filled, and this bold newcomer in his 20s from Simpson College made his pitch to Superintendent Gene Hertz. (Clinton would end up playing with his son, Tom Hertz, on the Creston Saints semipro baseball team. Hertz became one of Creston’s all-time football greats as a University of Missouri player.)
“I went up to Gene Hertz and told him I’d like to have the (basketball) job at the junior college,” Clinton recalled. “He told me to get out of there, that no kid who’d only coached two years of sophomore ball was going to be the juco head coach.”
Armed with two years of college JV coaching while a student, Clinton persisted and refused to be intimidated. His power of persuasion won Hertz over and Clinton succeeded Howard as coach of the Creston Junior College Golden Bears.
An era had dawned.
“About the third time I went up to his office, he told me, OK, that I’d worn him down,” Clinton said, smiling.
Clinton earned his master’s degree from what is now Northwest Missouri State University, and joined the SWCC faculty in 1968.
For a decade, Clinton coached Creston High School baseball, Creston Junior College baseball and the juco basketball team simultaneously. He said when one of the juco teams was strong, the other tended not to be, because it was hard to consistently recruit both at a high level.
One year, the junior college basketball team had won only four games, and was likely to get drubbed in the conference tournament opener at top-seeded Grand View. Clinton turned the team over to his assistant for that game, and took baseball player Jimmy Rogers, also a reserve on the basketball team, to Chicago to visit former SWCC player Steve Antrim, who was then coaching in the city.
Antrim would go on to be an assistant for Johnny Orr at Iowa State and make other coaching stops, including head coach at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Antrim gave Clinton an inside track to Chicago talent.
“We were there for five days,” Clinton said. “We stayed with Antrim, and he took us around. I got to meet the head man of the Catholic League there. Now I’m in there, and we have an influx of Chicago kids.”
Clinton stopped coaching the juco baseball team after 10 years. Dick Coskey and Lou Yacinich (who went on to a legendary career at Grand View) had brief tenures. When Yacinich returned to Des Moines, Clinton was athletic director at what was then Southwestern Community College, and he made what he calls the most important hire of his life.
An assistant coach at his alma mater, Council Bluffs TJ, was a young man from Chicago who had played baseball at Northwest Missouri State.
It was the summer of 1978. Clinton had met Bill Krejci, both through TJ and having Krejci as an umpire for some Creston High School games.
Rick Mathews, who went on to several professional baseball positions as well as Indian Hills head coach, was at Iowa Western Community College then. He convinced Krejci that taking the job in Creston would be a good stepping stone to another good college job.
Krejci ended up not only coaching baseball at SWCC and later national teams for USA Baseball, but assisted Clinton in men’s basketball. One day in 1984, Clinton wanted to give up the men’s basketball gig, and convinced Krejci to take it.
“I did it out of loyalty to Fox, frankly,” Krejci said, “because I really didn’t know what I was doing.”
Krejci remains at the college, retired from coaching and the faculty, but still on duty as Clinton’s successor as athletic director.
“The best moves I ever made at Southwestern was to grab Bill Krejci and Rita Schroeder as coaches for me,” Clinton said. Schroeder was a highly-successful volleyball coach, now retired, but his escort for Saturday’s Hall of Fame ceremony.
“Those two really made me look good,” Clinton said.
During his final two years as basketball coach, which ended in 1991, Krejci’s assistant was an up-and-coming Lone Tree native named Steve Forbes, who had played at Southern Arkansas.
The Forbes story is now legend. He succeeded Krejci as head coach of the Spartans for two years, moved to Barton County, Kan., became their head coach and latched on to assistant positions at five Division I universities, including Texas A&M and Tennessee.
Forbes was part of the fallout of Bruce Pearl’s demise at Tennessee, and landed a job at one of the nation’s top junior colleges. He is head coach at Northwest Florida State, where his team has been 57-4 in the past two seasons with the school’s first appearance in the national juco finals in 17 years.
In Creston, Clinton was Forbes’ “basketball encyclopedia” as a coach learning the ropes.
“We talked a lot of ball,” Clinton said. “Steve wrote me the nicest letter when he heard about the Hall of Fame thing.”
“Forbes has always been very complimentary of Fox, he was like a mentor to him here,” Krejci said. “He called Fox ‘the gift that keeps on giving’ with his service to Southwestern.”
When the Pearl regime was rolling high in the SEC, Clinton and Krejci visited the staff and sat down with Pearl and Forbes in the basketball office on a game day. For Clinton, the mentor, it was validation that his young protege had made the big time.
About the time Krejci took over the men’s basketball job in 1984, St. Malachy School needed a girls basketball coach, and Clinton, ever the coach, filled that role for a year.
It spawned a realization that he kind of liked coaching girls athletics, and soon the SWCC women’s basketball position was filled.
“I appointed myself as women’s coach,” he said. “It wasn’t like there were a lot of applicants.”
Five years later Clinton had one of the highest-scoring junior college women’s teams in the nation, and made the national tournament. The coach of a Michigan team in the first round was Tom Barnes, who had succeeded Clinton as Creston High School baseball coach.
“I remember superintendent (Paul) Grumley telling me one day at the golf club that Barnes wanted the high school baseball job, and he was going to give it to him because he was a teacher on staff, and I wasn’t,” Clinton said. “I said, OK, well I’m going to go play golf now. Then, all those years later, there we are in Bismarck, N.D., and I look up and there’s Barnes coaching the other team.”
SWCC lost that game, but over the years the “Fox” — who got the nickname for “outfoxing” other drivers in taking a quicker way to the motel in Norfolk, Neb. — won considerably more games than he lost. Krejci loved studying Clinton’s moves, whether it be in basketball or on the ball diamond.
“Fox is one of the best game coaches I’ve ever been around, in any sport,” Krejci said. “He saw things that only he could see. He sees the game, and knows when to make a move. He picks out details that you and I might not see.”
He could also launch a few verbal jabs at officials and umpires, but only because he had a working knowledge of the sport through his own work as an official, which earned him Hall of Fame status as well. One of his longtime colleagues in officiating was Paul Somers, SWCC’s longtime student services director. That position oversees athletics.
Clinton, who says he never got restless seeking another job because Ruth convinced him this was the place to raise their family, became well-known throughout the area as a flamboyant story-teller.
Shenandoah native Chuck Offenburger, former Iowa Boy columnist in the Des Moines Register, and an author currently living in Greene County, was a baseball enthusiast and fondly remembers encounters with “Fox” around southwest Iowa.
“Ron “Fox” Clinton is one of the great characters who’ve graced the Iowa sports scene through the decades. Oh, the stories!,” Offenburger said, when informed of Clinton’s Hall of Fame induction.
“He was a great coach, and an even better talker. Nobody ever had more fun at work than Ron ‘Fox’ Clinton,” Offenburger said.