There is a tradition in the Mercer Island High School boys basketball program where varsity athletes are required to wear a maroon blazer on game day. The blazers are not only a symbol of the program’s proud tradition, but also the pride that each player has in playing for a high school coaching legend. The tradition also dictates that every year during the final awards banquet each graduating player stands, places his blazer on the stage and takes leave as a changing of the guard.
Ed Pepple, the legend who has guided those boys during the past 42 years at Mercer Island High School, officially laid his red blazer on the stage March 20.
“It will be hard [losing Pepple],” said Mercer Island High School Assistant Principal Craig Olson. “You can’t replace him. He knows what high school athletics are supposed to be about and he created a model for success.”
That success includes numbers that will never be duplicated, including four state titles and 880 victories at Mercer Island High School. But Pepple earns more gratification from the success of his players.
“I hope my career is not equated by the number of games won,” said Pepple. “The bottom line is that I didn’t win the games. They did.”
And his team has won a lot. Pepple coached for 49 years overall, amassing 952 wins, the most in Washington state history by over 300. He coached the All-American game, has been league and state coach of the year numerous times, averaged two players advancing into the college ranks for every season that he paced the sidelines and is a member of three separate Halls of Fame.
“He is everything a high school coach should be,” said MIHS Principal John Harrison.
The National Basketball Hall of Fame has a display depicting the Islanders’ success under Pepple. A display for the Island icon might follow.
But the road to becoming a legend has not been easy. Tough losses, a dire family issue, the passing of a beloved former player and one gigantic state finals loss have molded Pepple’s career along with all the former faces that have worn the maroon blazers.
Pepple began his coaching career at Fife High School in 1958.
“They hadn’t been to state since 1931 and were something like 1-19 the previous season,” said Pepple. “We didn’t have much talent on that team, and I was bright eyed and bushy tailed, fresh out of the Marines.”
The coach marked that year as one of his toughest seasons. Not only was the team undersized and plagued with injuries, but Pepple and his wife, Shirley, had a new baby with health issues.
“I had to leave a game at halftime and get a police escort from Yelm to Tacoma’s Children’s Hospital because they weren’t sure she was going to make it,” said Pepple.
Despite this adversity, the team picked up five wins from the previous season’s record and was eventually guided to a fourth-place finish at state three years later.
Pepple would spend three seasons at Meadowdale High School and the 1967 season at Mark Morris High School. That season, Mark Morris also picked up five wins from a disastrous previous year and beat the No. 5 ranked team in the state.
Later that year, the Pepples bought a house and set up shop in Longview, Wash. before getting a call from then Mercer Island High School Athletic Director Tag Christianson about the boys basketball head coaching position being vacated by Bob Corcoran. A second phone call and three days later, Pepple was interviewed on a park bench at the Seattle Center while his English class was attending a play.
During Pepple’s first year on Mercer Island, he set up the Little Dribblers program with the idea of taking the parents out of the equation when it came to introductory basketball.
“The kids didn’t have anywhere to play, and I wanted them to have role models to learn from,” said Pepple, who asked Mercer Island High School players to be the coaches. “The first year, we only had seven players.”
Pepple had other issues as a novice Island coach.
“My first dinner party, I got into it with the football coach,” said Pepple.
The high school football team had just lost a heartbreaker, and the football coaches blamed it on ‘Mercer Island-itis.’ The term was rampantly used at the high school to describe its struggling sports programs.
“I blamed it on the coaching,” said Pepple, who hated the term and felt that it was a scapegoat. “Kids will try to meet your expectations; you have to set the bar high.”
Pepple aimed to change the culture of MIHS sports, starting with respect. It was expected that the players keep their hair cut short and wear a maroon blazer.
“I wanted to change the image,” said Pepple. “Ron Cohn brought out his original [recently], and it looked brutal.”
Cohn was an assistant for Pepple this past season and played on his first team on the Island. Pepple said that in 42 years of the tradition, only three or four players tried to “cheat” out of participating.
“In 1972, our captain came to me and asked to do away with [the blazers],” said Pepple. “So we voted as a team, and it came out 11-1 to keep them. It has become a source of pride.”
Pepple’s expectations turned into actions during his first season, as his basketball team finished 21-2 and won the division title. The coach had a little bit of help from a star player, Steve Hawes. The center would become the biggest record setter in the program’s history, and its first NBA player.
Four years later in 1972, the Islanders placed third in state, losing to Hazen during the semifinals, 64-61. It was the team’s only loss out of 25 games played that season.
The team placed fourth at state in 1974, third in 1976 and 1977, and eighth in 1978.
But the biggest disappointment for Pepple came in 1981. His team took second in league and entered the state tournament as the underdog. Shocking many teams, the Islanders won eight loser-out contests from the end of the season through to the state final.
The state final was against heavily favored Shadle Park High School, which had future NFL quarterback Mark Rippen.
The Islanders gained a one-point lead with just seconds remaining as Kyle Pepple, Ed’s son, hit a free throw. Shadle Park hit a tip back shot that was counted by the scoring table despite the clock hitting double zeroes before the ball was tipped. With the referees in the locker room and unwilling to make a call, the title was given to Shadle Park. Mercer Island protested the decision, but was denied.
“I was proud of our entire community for how they handled it,” said Pepple. “It could have gotten out of hand.”
Since then, the game has become legend and rumors have persisted.
“There have been rumors that we made a trophy and that I count that as a win on my resume,” said Pepple. “But none of them are true.”
The sting of that game would dog Mercer Island for four years, taking second at state in 1982 and in 1984.
“People were starting to say that we couldn’t win the big one,” said Pepple.
In 1985, all that would change. Led by future Duke star and All-American Quin Snyder, the Islanders dominated. The team finished 28-1, running rough-shot through the state tournament to the school’s first basketball title.
The Islanders won the state title again in 1993 with a record of 23-6, the same season that Pepple won his 600th game. To put that into perspective, the next closest coach in Washington state to Pepple now has 651 victories.
But that same year, a former player from the 1981 team, Chris Kampe, died from cancer. Kampe’s jersey became the first and only jersey to be retired by Mercer Island. The plaque that hangs in the gym was re-dedicated this past season.
But the good times would return, as four years later the Islanders won their third state title and finished with a 28-2 record, and won the championship again in 1999.
Mercer Island had a good run between 2001-2003, placing third at state twice and second to Rainier Beach. In 2006, the Islanders had their worst year recordwise in Pepple’s 42 years at the high school, finishing 11-13 overall. But the majority of those players returned in 2008 to lift Pepple back to the state playoffs one last time.
But for all the state titles, 2009 was one of the coach’s favorite seasons.
“[This last season] was one of the most gratifying years I’ve had,” said Pepple. “No one expected much, and the key was the seniors.”