Late last week I received the unfortunate news that former Holy Angels and Lehman basketball coach Jerry DeLong had passed away at age 80. I immediately decided to write about him today in this weekly forum. This would give me time to engage the proper resources to do it right.
I immediately contacted former star player John Freytag and coaching colleague Ken Schlater. Both quickly embraced the mission but delayed a full response until pondering exactly how they would reply to my basic question of them, “What would you like our readers to know about Jerry DeLong?” It was obvious Jerry was important to both of them.
Ken graduated from Holy Angels in 1966 and returned to Sidney to coach and teach at Lehman Catholic during its first three years after the consolidation with Piqua Catholic. After that he joined his family’s electrical business but still scouted for Jerry.
John was the top player for the final Holy Angels squad (1969-70) and the first Lehman team (1970-71), which both made the regional finals but lost to the eventual state champ. He was highly recruited and played at Miami University in Oxford.
Schlater began by calling Jerry “a great coach and a better person” which was echoed by Freytag. Ken identified excellence in DeLong’s game preparation but also lauded his in-game adjustments some of which might initially appear unorthodox. “If the offense wasn’t flowing, he’d move John Freytag from center to point guard (to start the offense) which worked very well.”
“He knew his players and how to get the best out of each individual and put that into a team,” Schlater concluded.
DeLong (Holy Angels 1958) was hired by his alma mater for the 1968-69 school year, as Freytag and his classmates entered their sophomore year. The outgoing coach had unpleasant parting comments for the group so any change was welcomed.
In those days both public and Catholic players joined the off-season pickup games at Parkwood Junior High (Northwood). The new coach and Army veteran also played regularly and became “Jerry” to the other guys including Freytag. Then school started where a “Hi Jerry” hallway greeting resulted in 25 immediate pushups for the talented sophomore right there in the hallway. The line was drawn and the mistake was not repeated.
Freytag recalls that all seniors comprised the starting lineup at the outset of the first campaign but that gradually changed. He started game three and soon had company. After a 2-8 beginning, the starting lineup had become three sophomores and two juniors. There was a six game winning streak down the stretch and the foundation was in place for the successes of the next two seasons which included the transition from Holy Angels to Lehman.
According to his star player, Jerry DeLong was an intense “defense first” coach who could become quite animated in a game night locker room. Laps and sprints at practice would follow when opponents reached a graduated scale of 55 points and beyond. “One game we gave up 85 and the next practice was entirely running,” Freytag recalled.
Practice didn’t end until the team made ten straight free throws with the final two simulating game night crowd noise. Potential complaints were short circuited by the air duct between the locker room and coach’s office. “We initially thought he was clairvoyant but finally figured it out,” John chuckled and admitted this week.
There was a softer side to all of this. The longtime architect has many fond memories of the team going to early mass on Sunday mornings, then heading to the gym for a quick “fun but intense” (my words) game that included coaches. Pizza and card parties at the coach’s home remain cherished remembrances half a century later. “Jerry was my mentor and idol through high school,” pretty much says it all for a player remembering a coach..
DeLong’s signature win came late in the initial Lehman season when some 6000 fans jammed Troy’s Hobart Arena to see his team gradually pull away for a 19 point win over Fort Loramie. Both had been rated number one in the state in separate polls entering the mega-matchup. “Coach had us loose, confident, and ready to play,” Freytag opined.
I became a local radio broadcaster in 1975 and enjoyed working with Jerry in his later Lehman years when the talent wasn’t as great but the results were still solid. I was impressed with his coaching along with what I heard about his teaching of history and government. Holy Angels, Lehman, and the Joint Vocational School in Piqua were all touched by his academic side. I’ve always held great respect for successful coaches like Jerry DeLong who also get it done in the classroom.
My number one memory of Jerry is the only time I saw him play. He was a top performer at Holy Angels and also played at the University of Toledo. In January 1970 the Cleveland Browns basketball team played a benefit game at Sidney High against some Sidney coaches who reached across town to bring in a “ringer” who put on quite a show in eclipsing 30 points. Many of Jerry’s field goals would have been three pointers two decades later. What a shooter both from the floor and at the line!
Coach DeLong was a faithful reader of my newspaper work. His regular endorsement was always appreciated and oh so meaningful. This Lehman Hall of Famer and “Mayor of Tawawa Park” was one of the good guys.
Sports Extra appears each Friday. Dave’s columns have received statewide recognition in Division II of the Ohio Associated Press Media Editor’s annual competitions.