KERRY HUBARTT COLUMN: A tribute to former Woodlan football coach Leland Etzler

Kerry Hubartt

When I started my journalism career as a sportswriter for The News-Sentinel in June 1971, Leland Etzler had already been the head football coach at Woodlan High School for six seasons. He was 31.

After getting acclimated to my new job that summer, my first big beat was covering football in the Allen County Athletic Conference that fall. I first met Coach Etzler when I drove to Woodburn to visit the high school late that summer when his team was getting ready for the upcoming season. I already knew Woodlan had a great history (I was a Leo graduate and plenty familiar with ACAC sports). I visited the school to pick up a schedule and roster and to interview the coach to get his comments about the Warriors’ prospects for the year.

Etzler went into that season with 46 victories, four losses and four ties since he became the Woodlan coach in 1965. (Woodlan’s first high school football season was 1962, but not till 11 games later in 1964 did it win for the first time.)

The team was practicing that August afternoon, but when this rookie sportswriter dropped in, Etzler made time to talk to me and actually get to know me. He became one of my favorite coaches from that day forward because of how he cared about what I was doing, not just because I was going to write about him and his team.

Etzler died on Sept. 2. He was 78. By then he had been retired from coaching Woodlan football for 14 years.

I wrote a lot of game stories and columns through my sportswriting years at The News-Sentinel, and Etzler and his Woodlan football teams were always a dominant topic. So I pulled a column out of my scrapbook the other day so I could show readers something about the man I interviewed at the dawn of my career in newspapers.

This column during my first season published on football Friday, Oct. 1, 1971, when Etzler’s Warriors were already 4-0. It began:

“The Woodlan Warriors are the winningest football team in the history of Allen County and the Allen County Athletic Conference. In fact, the winningest coach in local football history happens to be Woodlan’s mentor, Leland Etzler. …

“Etzler’s own record with the Woodlan football team is 50 wins, four losses and four ties. He took over the reins of that wild-horse team in 1965, just after it completed its first winning year with a 6-1-1 slate, and Etzler jumped right in on the winning streak that got as far as 20 triumphs before a single, chain-breaking loss in 1966.”

For the record, as my long-time News-Sentinel colleague Reggie Hayes recounted in a moving tribute to Etzler for the Sept. 5 Journal Gazette, Etzler’s 287 victories in his 40 years as Woodlan’s coach maintained his record as the winningest coach in Allen County history and ranked 13th in Indiana history.

“His teams won 11 ACAC titles and reached the Class A state title game in 1981,” Reggie wrote.

Etzler was inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame in 2001. And the football field where I covered many Woodlan games through the years was eventually named after him.

I also found a column written in August 1990 by another long-time sportswriting colleague of mine, Steve Warden, as he was previewing the start of another season 19 years after my first one.

“Leland Etzler’s blue cap shades his head from the sun as he surveys his 26th team at Woodlan High School,” Warden wrote. “And for the 26th time, Etzler offers his favorite line on the team’s potential: ‘We’re small, but we’re slow.’

“But don’t knock Etzler’s habits or those of his Warriors. Woodlan’s a tiny school with a huge tradition. Opposing coaches tell their teams to pack a dinner whenever they play Woodlan, ’cause it’s going to be a long night.”

For Steve, Reggie, me and many other sportswriters through the years, Leland Etzler was good copy — and far more important than that, he was a great high school coach and a good, good man.

Kerry Hubartt is a former editor of The News-Sentinel.