Teacher ... coach ... mentor ... friend.
Ron “Fox” Clinton touched countless lives in those ways during his 82 years. He was the coach you never forget. He taught you how to handle life, and once he became your friend, you were linked for life.
News of Clinton’s death Sunday at Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines triggered a social media buzz as former players, competitors and fans shared memories of one of the most colorful characters in Iowa athletics history.
“The Fox” earned his nickname in the early years of his long career as a coach. As the men’s basketball coach at Southwestern Community College in 1970, the team traveled in multiple vehicles rather than by bus.
The Spartans were playing in Norfolk, Nebraska, and after the game he and the driver of the other vehicle had a contest to see who could get from the restaurant back to the hotel first. Clinton, who already had earned a wily reputation on the coaching sidelines, knew a shortcut.
Before they took off, he said, “You’re not gonna outfox a fox.” The name stuck, because Clinton used that shortcut to earn another “win” in a career that spanned at least 2,000 games, according to former SWCC colleague Bill Krejci.
“Think of the lives he’s affected,” Krejci said Monday morning. “He coached so many sports at so many different times, sometimes multiple sports. He never stopped coaching! He would watch his grandkids play basketball or softball and write them letters about what they could work on. If anyone deserves the word ‘coach’ next to his name, it’s Fox.”
Krejci, hired to coach baseball at SWCC and be Clinton’s basketball assistant in 1978, was a JV coach at Clinton’s alma mater, Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson, after playing baseball at Northwest Missouri State. He said Clinton took a chance on him.
Krejci went on to a successful career that has included being a head coach and administrator with USA Baseball, coaching the likes of major leaguers Joe Mauer, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado as teenagers. Yet, he considers himself just one small branch on a massive coaching tree rooted in Clinton’s mentorship.
“How many coaches has he mentored like myself?” Krejci said. “People like Rita Schroeder, Steve Forbes, Bill Taylor and Jesse Cox, just to name a few from here at SWCC. The Fox legacy outweighs any of the pro guys you can name. I think of Fox as a father to me and a father to every player he’s coached.”
Like Krejci, Schroeder became a national figure in her field of volleyball coaching at Southwestern after being hired by Clinton. After playing basketball at SWCC and Simpson College, she joined the SWCC staff as an assistant coach in volleyball and women’s basketball. When the volleyball job came open, Clinton persuaded a reluctant Schroeder to take the job.
“I didn’t think I was ready for that,” Schroeder said. “He believed in me. He pushed me and got me into clinics and camps to learn from the best. No matter win or lose, he always had positive things to say to help me refocus and move on to the next game.”
Schroeder went on to coach Southwestern volleyball to a 705-382 record and five national tournament appearances, including a third-place finish in 1993. In 2014 she was inducted into the NJCAA Hall of Fame. Like Krejci and Clinton, she is a member of the Southwestern Community College Athletics Hall of Fame.
Similarly, Corning native David Kragel has built a nationally renowned career as women’s basketball coach at Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee. He has coached in 13 national tournaments. In his SWCC Hall of Fame induction ceremony, he reflected on the two years he played for Clinton at Southwestern before continuing his career at Oklahoma State University.
“Fox had a huge impact on my life,” Kragel said. “He taught me a lot about basketball, but even more about being a man. His rapport with players, his sense of humor and his Midwestern values are lessons I use to this day. I still quote him to my teams and my sons, and I have lots of stories to share. His legacy will live on because of all the people he touched.”
Division I coach
Forbes came to Southwestern in 1989 as a 24-year-old former baseball and basketball player at Muscatine Community College, brought in to assist Krejci in baseball and basketball. Two years later he became the men’s basketball head coach.
Since then, Forbes has been head coach at several other stops, and served as an assistant at Wichita State for coach Gregg Marshall, Tennessee under Bruce Pearl and Texas A&M under coach Billy Gillespie. He is currently head coach at East Tennessee State University, guiding the Buccaneers to the NCAA Tournament in 2016-17.
“Fox and Krejci are the reasons why I am where I am today,” Forbes said late Sunday night, after hearing of Clinton’s death. “They gave me an opportunity and allowed me to make mistakes. Fox really took me under his wing. We would go out to lunch, and he’d be drawing up plays on napkins and just talking ball and life. I bought a car in Omaha and he chewed me out. He said, ‘Oh no, you by LOCAL!’ Those were things I hadn’t even given any thought to, but Fox knew it was important if you wanted to have support for your team.”
Jesse Cox, Lenox’s girls basketball and volleyball co-coach, played at SWCC under Krejci and later coached with Forbes and Bill Taylor. He recalls a 1994 trip to an Indiana clinic with Clinton, Taylor and Diagonal native Doug Newton, now the coach at Exira/Elk Horn-Kimballton.
Indiana coach Bob Knight was the keynote speaker and nearly 2,000 coaches attended. Many of them got in line to get an autograph and have a picture taken with Knight after the clinic, including the Creston contingent.
“We get up there, and Fox sits down next to him, and coach Knight recognizes him from some kind of recruiting trips in Chicago when Fox was the men’s coach,” Cox said. “They sat and talked for about 20 minutes, and there were still a bunch of coaches in line behind us.”
Mike McCabe, Creston softball coach, served as an assistant for Clinton for 10 years while Clinton assisted him in Creston girls basketball. That’s a lot of time on the bench together, and long conversations on bus trips. McCabe speaks fondly of those memories, as does Panther assistant Teri Keeler, who played for Clinton at both CCHS and SWCC.
“We all had a love-hate relationship with coach Fox at times, but in the end there was love,” Keeler said. “Once you figured it out, you gained his respect. That was important.”
McCabe recalled Clinton’s penchant for “small ball” strategy such as squeeze bunt plays with the bases loaded, and a number of other tricks to disrupt the opposing team.
“We had a circus play for first and third baserunners,” McCabe said, chuckling. “The runner on first would take off on a steal, and then halfway act like she caught her cleat in her stirrup sock or something, and go tumbling forward in a fall. The other team would throw the ball to first as she scrambled back to the base, and that’s when we’d send the runner home from third.”
On a trip to Denison one night, the team’s equipment was left on the bus when bus driver Darwin West drove to have supper at a local restaurant. McCabe and another member of the Creston party went looking for him, while Clinton improvised in preparing the team to play.
“We get back and there’s people lined up all around the field watching our girls,” McCabe said. “Fox had them go through a phantom infield, with no bat and no balls. There were kids making diving catches and wild off-balance throws to bases, and imaginary tags at the base. It was something.”
McCabe and Clinton became good friends, and McCabe soon learned he wasn’t alone in that regard.
“We could be anywhere, and I mean even up in Canada fishing or something, and no matter where we were, I’d hear someone yell, ‘Hey Fox! Coach Fox!’ He always knew somebody,” McCabe said.
Taylor first met Clinton as a Diagonal High School player when Clinton was part of a well-known officiating crew that included the likes of Paul Somers, Steve McCann, Butch Miller or Kirk Levine. When Taylor began teaching and coaching at SWCC in 1991, he soon had a daily coaching clinic in conversations with Clinton.
After they had attended a clinic in Omaha led by legendary fast-break coach Paul Westhead, Clinton coached a SWCC women’s team that scored nearly 100 points a game with a bevy of 3-point shooters, led by Laura Allen. They placed fourth in the national tournament.
“Fox wasn’t afraid to change, and he really had some shooters on that team,” Taylor said. “They got up and down the floor. It was a fun team to watch.”
Taylor also observed the colorful personality Clinton would display, even while the game was being played. Sometimes he injected his latest hobby, such as photography.
“One year they were in a heated battle with the Kirkwood women, and the Kirkwood coach was just going ballistic about something,” Taylor recalled. “Fox grabbed his camera that he always had with him then, and started taking pictures of the other coach while he was going crazy. That just made it worse. ‘HE CAN’T DO THAT!’ the coach yelled at one of the officials. Fox just smiled.”
At other times, if he wasn’t pleased with how his team was performing, Clinton was known to momentarily slip away. One time at a home game he was observed watching the game through the glass windows above the court in the student center, munching on a hot dog while his team played. Another time at Mason City, after an exchange with one of the officials about a call, he walked into the hallway and made a purchase at the concession stand.
“Want some popcorn?” Clinton asked the official, before returning to the bench.
Wade Sick, longtime public address announcer at SWCC games, said sometimes the start of the second half of games would be delayed while Clinton was up in the stands, conversing with players’ parents or other fans he knew.
“Sometimes I had to start without him,” Sick said. “My god, he loved people.”
McCabe, however, noted there was one person in Clinton’s life who could control him. While coaching softball with Clinton, the two coaches’ wives sat in lawn chairs behind the outfield fence. Ruth Clinton, Fox’s wife of 60 years, wore an official’s whistle.
“If he became unruly, Ruth would toot that whistle,” McCabe said. “That was her signal to ‘Ronald,’ as she called him, to settle down and get his butt back in the dugout.”
“Ruth was unbelievable,” Taylor added. “She should write a book on how to be a coach’s wife. She was supportive, but she kept him in line. After he retired, they would sit together at every SWCC game, and a lot of high school events, too. They just liked the competition and watching young people perform. That was their life.”
“Between coaching and officiating, he was gone about every night,” said Somers, who began officiating with Clinton in 1968. “We spent a lot of nights on the road together.”
McCann, another member of the IHSAA Officials Hall of Fame, said he and Clinton worked three sports together — football, basketball and baseball — for 19 years.
“I also played basketball for him at SWCC,” McCann said. “He taught me a lot about discipline and sportsmanship.”
Forbes and Krejci both mentioned Clinton’s many interests outside of coaching, such as golf, gardening, mushroom hunting and woodworking. Just before collapsing Friday before being taken to Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines, Clinton was hitting golf balls into a net in his back yard on an unusually warm January afternoon.
“No matter what Fox decided to do, he did it enthusiastically,” Krejci said. “He was accomplished at everything he did. That’s because of his intelligence. He could learn anything if he put his mind to it.”
Funeral services for Clinton will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church in Creston, 702 W. Prairie Street. Open visitation will be from 2 to 7 p.m. Friday at Pearson Family Funeral Service and Cremation Center, 809 W. Montgomery Street, with family receiving friends from 5-7 p.m.
• Brad Baker, Creston Middle School principal and officiating colleague: Fox fable: I’ll never forget going to Diagonal as a young official to officiate a basketball game for the first time with Fox. We got to town and he drove around looking at Christmas lights. They were neat - but we ended up being 30 minutes late for the game. A dear friend and mentor. "Fox" taught me so much about ball, gardening, and life. Love you Coach. RIP.
• Mike McCabe, Creston softball coach and longtime coaching colleague: "Fox" was also responsible for the institution of dress code rules for softball coaches after wearing Birkenstocks and a Straw sombrero regularly one season.
• Adam Wilson of the Des Moines Register, former News Advertiser sports editor: When I was sports editor of the Creston News Advertiser (Fox) called timeout after a particularly bad call at first base but, instead of arguing with the umpire, he hustled over to me because he knew I got a photo of the play. The coach peeked over my shoulder as I flipped through the shots, which clearly showed his runner beating the throw. He tried to make his case by calling the umpire over, but his attempts at instituting instant replay in prep softball failed miserably. And the umpire was not at all amused.
• Jennifer (Jensen) Rasmus, former Murray and SWCC pitcher: He will be so missed. Hated playing against him but loved playing for him! His stories were endless and I loved every single one. He was a great man!
• Danny Jensen, longtime Murray softball coach and assistant for SWCC softball one season: It was always fun playing Creston because you knew they would be prepared and have good pitching. It was great compeition for us to move up two classes and play a team like that. One time at the Mount Ayr Classic we had taken the lead in the third inning. HIs kids had booted a couple and his leadoff batter had struck out twice. In the bottom of the third, he refused to go out to the third base coaching box. We played two innings with Creston having no coach in the third base box. He just sat on his bucket in the dugout. When I coached with him and we traveled, he knew everybody no matter where we went. We had a lot of fun.
• Steve Repplinger, former SWCC team manager and athletic trainer: So sorry to hear he’s passed. I remember sharing a room in Florida with him in ‘91 when Rita Schroeder’s volleyball squad went to nationals. I was putting my athletic training skills to use and was the only male traveling with her squad. The stories that man could tell!!
• Richard Johannes, former player: So many memories of the Fox! My years playing baseball through little league through high school were under his guidance and leadership. As noted in many comments seen already today, he was more than JUST a coach, he was a fine gentleman that taught so many of us how to be focused, yet sportsmen in how we approached the game and our opponents. My thoughts are with those that are close and join in their faith that he is in a peaceful place. RIP Fox!
• David Greene, fellow official: One of a kind, he encouraged me to start officiating basketball when I was going to school at SWCC back in the late 80’s. After games sometimes we would meet at Knotty Pine. Levine, Giles, Somers, Magic, Fox & I, they always made me (just a kid) feel like one of the group. Will ref 3 games this week. He planted the seed. RIP!
• Sandy Webb, SWCC employee for more than 40 years: RIP, Fox. He was Ron's first little league coach, his high school baseball coach, and college baseball coach. And of course, I had the privilege of working with him for close to 40 years. A lot of memories.
• Emily (Bruce) Turner, former player: The term "love-hate" relationship always comes to mind when playing for coach Fox. In one game, you would be so aggravated with him and close to tears (once-OK, maybe twice- I was in tears, lol) and in the NEXT minute, he was your greatest hero. I often times just stood there thinking...how in the world did he just do that? He pulled off some amazing wins in true Fox fashion, often surprising us all. He was a class act and one that I will never forget having the chance to play with. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't have had the success I did in softball - I wasn't planning ongoing out my senior year until he and Oly "had a little talk with me" I will be forever grateful. RIP Coach.
• John Danks, Pleasantville High School: From another angle. I was a football/boys basketball coach at Pleasantville for 30+ years. I loved waking into a game and seeing Fox and his crew. Great officials and even better people. The state of Iowa and SWCC lost a legend.
• David Loos, former Creston player and coach: My prayers are with the Clinton family in their time of loss. My life was better for having known Fox and the time he gave to myself and my brothers that were able to play for him. We developed a bond that will last forever. When my family moved to Creston is 1968 he accepted us immediately and made the transition very easy. I will be forever grateful. God bless him.
• Jean (Oviatt) Kinyon, former SWCC pitcher: One game I had thrown a change up that the batter missed. Fox sent out the signal to do it again. Who throws two change ups in a row? I raised an eyebrow or something at him and he yelled out from the dugout, “I said to throw the change up again. Trust me she will miss it.” So, everyone watching and playing the game knew I was going to throw another change up. He was right and I struck the poor girl out. He also bought me my first DQ Blizzard. He liked his ice cream!! Peace to Ruth and the girls.
• Katie Turner, former Creston pitcher: Oh yes, “the circus play”...Creston state softball team ‘96 will know; and even remember the signal! This play was a fake “trip and fall” from runner on first attempting to “steal second” to distract infield from runner on 3rd to score...Attempted once; success! My favorite quote from coach Fox, “Don’t get too low in the valleys, or too high on the mountains...” this was said after a big win but in life came in handy after big losses. Thanks Coach Fox, your love and crazy facts of the game will always be remembered! Big smiles to you.
• Denny O'Grady, longtime Carroll Times-Herald sports editor: Great guy and friend. He always had a smile. RIP coach and condolences to family.
• Karleen Stephens, Diagonal superintendent of schools: He touched the lives of thousands of athletes for many years. Even if he had to call a foul on you, he made you feel like he was trying to make you a better athlete. A life well lived.
• Colleen (Driskell) Wachter, former Creston player: Such a loss but such a mentor/coach for many of us. I remember from one of his camps that I attended through the years, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. It makes permanent.” So make sure you practice the right form.... no matter what the sport is.
• Traci (Tassell) Berger, former SWCC player: As Dennis Tassell’s daughter and then a softball player for Fox, I remember many “life lessons” stories from gatherings after games at our house and then in many dugout outings. One great memory was when he wore a Hawaiian shirt to coach every game on our spring break softball trip. (Oh the looks he got!) Prayers to the family - heaven gained another great man!
• Polly Luther, former Creston volleyball coach and player at St. Malachy for Fox Clinton in 1983-84: That team at St. Malachy went undefeated that year. I was a seventh-grader on the team. I remember him having and teaching one heck of a chest pass!
• Rita Schroeder, SWCC Hall of Fame volleyball coach: One year we ordered new volleyball uniforms from Van Ginkel's in Des Moines. They were very expensive, nearly half of my (team) budget. In our laundry room we had one of those big old industrial dryers that practically shot out flames to get our towels dry. The first time I put our new uniforms in the dryer they melted! I was so upset! I sent our manager up to the instructional building to ask Fox in class what I should do. I was really worried that I might be fired. The manager came back and said, "Fox says to punt." I said, "WHAT? What does that mean? Am I fired or what?" Well, once I settled down, I realized it was Fox's way of saying, so what. Move on. It's OK. It was in those moments that I learned from him to shift gears and put the focus on something else. It's life."