REMEMBERING THE GREATS: The late Larry Fie was a born leader, on and off the court
By BRANDON HURLEY
Larry Fie never failed to command a huddle or a board room, engineering the latest and greatest wherever he landed.
For all his success in the athletic equipment world, Fie truly excelled in the realm of basketball.
He set in motion a Jefferson High School revival, which later culminated in the school’s greatest multi-year run in history, while later guiding AAI to new heights. He was a man beloved by many, residing in Jefferson for several decades despite originally arriving as a transplant.
Sadly, the former Jefferson High basketball coach, former co-owner of American Athletic, Inc. (in Jefferson) and ISU basketball star passed away Saturday, May 23 at the age of 81 in Sarasota, Florida.
Fie’s mesmerizing coaching tactics were instantly memorable. He possessed a keen ability to reach each and every player, whether that was through relentless criticism or the gentle touch from a string of kind words, he naturally had a way with people.
John Faaborg remembers Fie’s coaching style vividly. He was a junior on the final Fie-led Jefferson High squad in 1966. He’d eventually help guide the Rams to the school’s first - and only - state tournament run a year later, but credited Fie’s prior guidance as a significant reason for their eventual and historic success. Fie taught the Rams how to shoot and how to fight. It paid off and stuck with Faaborg more than five decades later.
“He was a super coach, the other coaches we had over the years were great too, but we had a guy that had played at Iowa State,” Faaborg said in a Jefferson Herald interview in 2017. “(We would) see him shooting shots before practice. It was neat, he taught us how to shoot a pretty jump shot.”
Fie, originally a native of Alta, also spent some time in Sioux Falls, S.D. before he moved to Spencer with his family during his high school years. His fairly successful years on the northwest Iowa hardwood earned him a spot on the Iowa State University Division I basketball squad. He cracked the Cyclones’ starting lineup as a sophomore and never rescinded the prized role, later earning first team All-Big Eight honors as well as a handful of honorable mention on the Big Eight All Conference teams. Fie was eventually voted captain of the 1959-60 Iowa State basketball team, a unit that captured the Big 8 Conference tournament title in December, a rare feat at the time.
Former ISU head coach Glen Anderson thought highly of Fie’s future coaching chops, sending tremendous praise his way mentioning how Fie was one of the top three basketball minds he came across during his seven-year coaching stint in Ames.
Fie was the ultimate glue guy and became the runaway MVP in ISU’s five-overtime thriller in February of 1960, which to this date, is still the longest game in Cyclone history. ISU defeated Colorado, 83-80 in Boulder, led by Fie’s 22 points, 20 of which came in the second half and overtimes. Fie was reported to have played nearly 65 minutes in the instant classic.
After completing his education at Iowa State, he took a brief assistant’s job at Cresco before nabbing a head coaching position with the Sibley Generals. He flipped that into following the legendary Frank Linduska as Jefferson’s basketball coach in 1962. Linduska was a hall of fame football coach who resigned to take on the role as Jefferson’s athletic director.
Fie quickly built success at the helm in Jefferson, stressing the basic fundamentals of basketball. Though it was short-lived (Fie resigned his coaching and teaching role to join AAI four years later), he made a significant impact on the local sporting landscape.
Fie’s final year was a bittersweet one in 1966. Many of the former players that winter believed they were part of one of the school’s best teams in history. It led to an instant classic, yet heart-breaking thriller in Fie’s last game that March. At that point, no Jefferson basketball team had ever reached a substate final, which would finally be achieved a year later as the 1966-67 Rams secured the school’s first-ever state tournament with many of Fie’s athletes from a year prior.
Chris Durlam was also a junior during Fie’s last year, playing a pivotal role for the 1967 squad the following year. He remembered his former coach as a man of fundamentals during a Herald interview in 2017. Though Bill Speer would eventually become the first coach to lead Jefferson to the state tournament the following winter, Durlam believes Fie should be credited with as the original constructor of the historic roster. No Jefferson team, Jefferson-Scranton nor Greene County, has qualified for the state tournament since. Fie played a pivotal role in laying the foundation, pushing his guys to their limit. Even today, many of Fie’s players speak highly of his brief yet long-lasting impact.
“It really was Larry’s team. He was there inspiring us and teaching us. His spirit and leadership got us there, not that Bill Speer wasn’t a great coach, too. We responded to Larry,” Durlam said. “Larry was all about pushing against an immovable force.”
Durlam felt, even though the 1967 squad qualified for the state tournament, the team in Fie’s final year was the more talented unit. Even if they did come a hair or two short in the substate final, there was something special about Fie’s last Jefferson squad.
“When I rode the bench my junior year, we really had a terrific team, probably better than the one that made it to state,” Durlam said. “There’s a lot of luck involved going to state, we graduated several really good players from that 1966 team.”
The Rams were tasked with a tough road in the 1966 postseason, forced to displace two, highly-rated and undefeated squads, including a 22-0 East Greene team in the district final in Adel.
The 1965-66 Jefferson squad was anchored by the starting five of Faaborg, former Jefferson all-time leading scorer Jeff Kundrat, Jack Lashier, Phil Phillips and Steve Eggimann, The starters, Fie was quoted saying, thought incredibly highly of the bench, which included Durlam, Dave Bucklin, Denny Lautner and Jack Beddall.
“Why, do you know that the starters call the second five as the second-best team it has played this year, with only Carroll getting the nod over them,” Fie said in the Jefferson Bee in 1966. “It’s a credit to their work and full acknowledgment of how tough they play the game.”
Then, came the decisive substate semifinal with Ames - one of the larger schools in the area - as they locked wits in Marshalltown. The Jefferson Rams battled in an all-time classic postseason contest, a moment everyone, at least on the Jefferson side, knew would be Fie’s last. The local basketball squad took large school Ames to overtime, eventually losing in a one-point overtime heartbreaker, 60-59.
“I’ve never been associated with a team of such fine kids and they should feel nothing but pride for the way they have played all season - giving their best effort all the way, whether in a game or getting ready for one,” Fie said in the Bee.
“What a way to go out of coaching - with a great bunch of kids like these who gave their best every inch of the way,” Fie added.
A few years after Fie resigned his basketball post, he became CEO and co-owner of AAI, a gymnastics and sporting equipment manufacturer founded in 1954 in Jefferson.
Larry’s wife, Jackie, is a member of the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. They are forever connected by the sport that gave each of them such fruitful careers. The duo married in 1971, paving the way for nearly 50 years of marriage. Jackie was an Olympian at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics but was most instrumental during her time with the International Gymnastics Federation. She proposed a tweak to the judging system, later becoming president of the Women’s Technical Committee of the International Gymnastics Federation in 1992. She was a judge in 10 summer Olympics.
Larry and Jackie met when Larry was on a sales call with AAI, and as they say, the rest is glorious history. Larry rose through the ranks rather quickly at AAI, and during his two-decade stint, helped American Athletic became the official supplier of the 1984 Olympics as well as the 1987 and 1994 Pan-American Games, the 1990 European Games and the 1991 World Championships. He was also the Jefferson Rotary president for a spell, served on the Jefferson city council and later became president of the Greene County Golf and Country Club.
Larry and Jackie’s daughter, Julie, has been vice president of basketball communications with the Phoenix Suns for nearly three decades. Jackie has four other siblings, Jeffrey Uphues, Christopher Uphues, Barney Fie and Angie Fie.
The Jefferson Rotary Club released a statement following Fie’s passing over the weekend, summarizing a man who lived a full and rewarding life.
“His smile, his laughter and his warmth raised our spirits,” the organization said. “Our community mourns his departure from this physical world.”