Don Hertler Sr. - Hoover Legends
September 27, 2013
Longtime Hoover football coach Don Hertler Sr. dies
Football coaches don’t hug, at least not often. They don’t hold their
sons’ hands. They don’t cry.
In a room Wednesday at Aultman Hospital, Don Hertler Sr. and his son,
Don Hertler Jr., weren’t football coaches. They were a father and son
gaining closure and saying life’s farewell.
Late Wednesday night, Don Hertler Sr., the legendary Hoover High School coach who built North Canton’s football program, died. His son, Hoover’s current head coach, was by his side.
“He squeezed my hand (Wednesday) afternoon like he never squeezed it before,” Hertler Jr. said. “My dad wasn’t the kind to hold hands. We got a chance to talk. He wanted to know if (tonight’s) game was on TV. I knew he was shooting to watch that. ... It was a blessing to get closure as a family together.
“He went out the way he deserved to go out. He was a peaceful man who left us peacefully. We are fortunate to be surrounded by so many who get it. It’s not about winning and losing. It’s about the people.”
It was not uncommon during the years he coached at Hoover for Hertler to take in a player or a student who was going through a difficult period. It wasn’t uncommon for him to visit former players who needed advice, or just a wise ear to listen.
And his former players made sure to visit him — even when they were busy playing college football.
“I always made it a point to go see him when I was back in town,” said college football TV analyst Todd Blackledge, who starred at Hoover during the 1977-78 seasons before he was a Penn State All-American and NFL quarterback. “That never changed. He and Joe Paterno are on similar levels for me. They’re two guys who had a dynamic impact on my life.
“Before you talked to either of them, they both wanted to know how your family was. How’s your mom and dad? Wife? Kids? I always looked forward to the opportunity to see Coach Hertler. It meant a lot to me to say hi and just see him. I could feel the pride he had in me, and my life and what I’ve done with my career. He was a big part of that.”
Hertler never experienced a losing campaign in 21 seasons as Hoover’s head coach from 1960-80. His .787 winning percentage is the highest of any Stark County coach with at least 100 career wins.
Hoover joined the Federal League in 1968 and won seven league championships during the next 13 years under Hertler’s direction. That span included separate winning streaks of 21 and 20 games for the Vikings. Hertler’s teams went 10-0 in 1972 and 1975.
“As a young kid growing up in North Canton, the vision was clear,” said Jeff Logan, an all-state running back for the Vikings who played from 1971-73 and later starred at Ohio State. “You wanted to be a part of that orange and black thing that went on in that stadium. He had a lot to do with creating that excitement. ... Let’s not kid anybody, either. Part of that tradition was winning.
“You wanted to be successful and make sure the program that was handed off to the next set of guys was at least in as good a shape as you received it. That all goes back to Coach Hertler’s teaching.”
For the last 29 years as a high school football coach, Hertler Jr. always knew who he could rely upon to motivate his players if needed. An only son of a coach who built one of the area’s most successful suburban programs, Hertler Jr. had never asked his dad to speak to his team. Public perception is Hertler Jr. always had big shoes to fill when he became Hoover’s football coach 18 years ago. He didn’t want to go to the father-son well too often.
Until this summer.
He asked his dad to speak to his players during two-a-days for the first time.
“My gut feeling is it was important to him to do it,” Hertler Jr. said. “I wanted my guys to understand what this program is built on. I wanted them to understand football is important, but it’s not the only important thing. It’s more important to be successful people. We all stumble.”
Hertler started to tear up.
All Wednesday morning and afternoon he spent the day bedside with his father at Aultman Hospital. Don Hertler Sr. fell and broke his hip Tuesday at an independent living facility. Surgery to repair his hip took place Wednesday afternoon.
Wednesday morning was a time of closure for the father and son. They talked. They laughed.
They both knew the 85-year-old Hertler may not make it out of the hospital. Shortly before 11 Wednesday night, surrounded by his son and two surviving daughters, Don Hertler Sr. died.
“He said (Wednesday morning) ‘I’ve got another year in me. I’ve lived a great life,’” Hertler Jr. said. “The broken hip was too much to overcome. ... We were all around him. I didn’t think it would happen that fast.
“He was a special father, more than a coach to all of us. The greatest gift he gave me was he let me be me. I would never live up to him, and I never tried. Some of us take longer to mature than others. He was a caring person. That’s his legacy to me.
“Football was, and remains, important to our family. The things he did behind the scenes with people, I’ve tried to take that model as a mentor from him.”
During his high school career, Hertler Jr. got to play for his father. Much was expected of him. When he went off to Ashland College to play football, their relationship grew tighter.
“We had Wednesday dinners consistently for 30 years,” Hertler Jr. said.
When he moved to an independent living facility, the Hoover coach would take dinner and they would spend time talking.
Often it was about football. The current team. The next opponent. The game plan. Hertler Sr. only missed three games during his son’s 29-year coaching career.
Despite his own success, Hertler Sr. was humble. He never boasted about
being elected to the Stark County High School Football Hall of Fame, or the
Ohio High School Football Coaches’ Hall of Fame. He was honored two years
ago when the new field at North Canton Memorial Stadium was dedicated to
him and named Don Hertler Sr. Field.
There was one hall of fame, however, Hertler Sr. was especially proud to make.
Two years ago he was inducted into his high school hall of fame at Bridgeport
High School. Phil and Joe Niekro are both in it. So is John Havlicek, and
Olympian Bobby Douglas.
A graduate of Bridgeport and born May 9, 1928, Hertler married his high school
sweetheart, Nancy. She passed away in 1997. He was preceded in death by a
daughter Melinda, who died in 2007 and his second wife Shirley. He is survived
by Don Jr., (fiancé Heather Maxwell), Susie Van Vranken (Tom),
Becky Volkmann (Stephen). A private funeral will be held Sunday. A celebration
of life ceremony will take place Thanksgiving weekend with details to follow.
Hoover’s football team will wear a decal on the back of their helmets that reads
“DHSr.” for the rest of the season. The Vikings play Perry tonight at
Don Hertler Sr. Field.
“I knew he was living through our football team at this point,” Hertler Jr. said.
“It kept him living. He was getting tired. I’m so thankful God took him in a
The last game his father attended was last week’s loss to McKinley. The
Vikings nearly pulled off an upset, but lost 35-28.
“The kids gave an incredible effort,” Hertler Jr. said. “He saw that. ... We have
built a program here that isn’t about winning and losing. It’s about people and
relationships. North Canton expects their kids to be successful in whatever
they’re involved in. We’ve had some fumbles, but in the big picture, it is an
“That’s what he started. The lessons I’ve learned from him were never in his words,
but always in his actions. I never heard him swear in my life. He always made
sure I never had to try to live up to being Don Hertler’s son. He let me be me,
be my own man and take my own journey.”
The journey with his father alongside him came to an end Wednesday night. Two stubborn football coaches laughing, holding hands and showing their love for one another. (1)
Hertler Built Tradition
Who is responsible for making North Canton Hoover and high school football synonymous?
Don Hertler Sr. will tell you he had a lot of help. Those who helped will point to Hertler, who established the tradition of strong football at North Canton that has continued more than 20 years after his retirement.
Hertler coached great teams, but also constructed the foundation of future success. That is why he has been elected to the Stark County High School Football Hall of Fame.
"That tradition was built over a period of years," Hertler said. "We came out on top in some games we had no business winning, because of that tradition. Our players won because they believed they were supposed to win."
North Canton won seven Federal League championships from 1960 to 1980 under Hertler (1968-72-73-75-76-79-80). Five of those seven titles were outright championships.
"His teams always seemed to have great players, but those players also had great coaching," said Mark Lukens, a Vikings defensive star in 1972 who went on to play at Kent State. "He let (assistant) Roger Viscounte run the defense, and he ran the offense. Those guys, and the other coaches, had been together a long time, and they knew what they were doing. It was like a well-oiled machine. But I think there was never a doubt as to who ran the show."
"It takes great players, great assistant coaches and a great community to be successful," Hertler said. "It doesn't matter if you're in North Canton, Massillon or Navarre. You need to be surrounded by people who care."
There were three unbeaten campaigns along the way as Hertler's teams compiled a 163-43-3 record and .788 winning percentage.
During his 21 years, Hertler's teams never experienced a losing season. In fact, only three times did his team lose four games in a season (1962-77-78). There was a 21-game win streak spread over three years (1971-72-73) and a 20-game streak (1974-75-76). His final game as head coach was a 24-6 victory over Jackson to end the 1980 season and earn the Vikings a tie for the Federal League championship.
As a testament to the foundation he built, North Canton has qualified for the state playoffs 12 times since Hertler retired following the 1980 season. His son, Don Hertler Jr., now is the Vikings' head coach.
The elder Hertler won, in some part, because he was willing to change along the way.
His first few teams mirrored most of that era two tight ends, a tight wingback that went in motion and lots and lots of running. In 1965, North Canton switched to the pro set. The advent of the pro-style offense established a legacy of fine quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers at North Canton.
"We were the first in the area to do it," Hertler said. "It was five years before other people started splitting receivers out. It worked for us because we didn't have big personnel, but we always seemed to have good skill people."
"Preparing for Don's teams was different than most of the teams you prepared for," former Perry coach Tom Winkhart said. "We would also run the pro set at times, but he was really committed to it, which was unique at that time. He always had really fine athletes at the skill positions.
"They also ran a 5-3 defense, and it would be the only time all year you would see that. He would stunt into a seven-diamond, a 6-2, a gap-8 they never played it straight. They never just stood still and played basic Oklahoma 5-2 like everyone else. It really took a lot of preparation."
The approach to game preparation at North Canton was generally low-key.
"We did very little hitting during the week, and our practices weren't really that long," Lukens said.
That approach was in keeping with Hertler's low-key personality, however.
"He wasn't in my face," said Bob Esmont, a running back on Hertler's first two Hoover teams. "When I was a junior, I made some really big mistakes on the field. I mean, really big. And he just talked to me. He would yell only once in a while. And, when we won, he would be happy but not exuberant."
Hertler had few quirks, but former players do tell of his fondness for finding four-leaf clovers in the grass.
"He was never real close to his players," Lukens said, "but his players did look at him as a leader and, in some cases, a father figure. He was extremely well prepared, and the players always knew that and appreciated it.
"Of course we loved him. We were winning. That part of high school football never changes."
That respect was mutual.
"I was fortunate to have a lot of great players not ability-wise, but exceptional people," Hertler said. "We were seldom very big. Our success was based on players who were intelligent, quick and played hard."
Two players Hertler credited with helping build that tradition of success was quarterback Dick Snyder and running back Jeff Logan. Both also are members of the second Stark County Hall of Fame class. Snyder starred for the Vikings during Hertler's first two seasons at the helm, Logan in the early 1970s.
"Snyder was probably the best athlete I ever coached, and Logan was probably the best football player I ever coached," Hertler said. "They were two players who gave our program jump-starts into entire eras."
"I have nothing but admiration for him and good things to say about him," Snyder said of Hertler. "He would chew guys out, but he was not somebody who would come up, smack your head and yank your face mask. Based on some of the coaches I had after him, I'd say coach Hertler was very rational."
Hertler's teams were known for their skill-position players. Hertler was known for his people skills.
"He treated us all pretty much the same way," said Esmont, who went on to coach at Ontario High School near Mansfield. "He didn't pal around with anybody. You always felt you could talk to him honestly, and he would deal with you fairly."
"You try to treat every kid fairly," Hertler said. "You can't treat them all the same. You can't give them all equal playing time. But you can be fair to them all." (2)
(1) Todd Porter, Canton Repository, September 27, 2013
(2) Andy Call, Canton Repository