Longtime Mercer Island coach Ed Pepple, who has the most victories in state high-school basketball history, announced his retirement Friday. Pepple won 952 games in 49 years as a boys head coach.
Call it the end of an era.
Ed Pepple, the winningest coach in state high-school basketball history, announced his retirement Friday after 42 years of coaching at Mercer Island.
Pepple, 76, who earned 952 victories in 49 years of coaching overall, said he knew all season that it would be his last.
“It’s been a great run,” said Pepple, whose Islanders teams won four state titles and produced players such as former NBA center Steve Hawes and ex-Duke star Quin Snyder. “Obviously you’d be crazy to stay at a job for 42 years and not enjoy it. I’ve been blessed to do something that I love. I have a lot of great memories and it’s been a magnificent and rewarding experience for me.”
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Pepple said leaving those student athletes was the hardest part of making the decision. He told his players of his plans after the team’s awards program Thursday night and the retirement took effect at 1 p.m. Friday.
“I’ve been blessed with so many great kids and players, I couldn’t even begin to thank them all,” Pepple said.
Rainier Beach boys basketball coach Mike Bethea, whose team played Pepple in the 2002 Class 3A title game, was shocked to hear the news.
“He’s the legend as far as high-school boys basketball goes,” Bethea said. “He set the standard. Every program out there has a little Ed Pepple in it.”
The surprise wasn’t limited to those outside the Islanders program.
“One of my assistant coaches said, ‘You just cost me $1,000. I thought you’d coach for another 10 years,’ ” Pepple said with a laugh.
Pepple’s overall career record was 952-306 (.757 winning percentage). To put that in perspective, that is more than 300 wins ahead of the next-closest on Washington’s all-time list, Centralia’s Ron Brown (651) and Eisenhower of Yakima’s Pat Fitterer (647), both still coaching.
Pepple first told his family about his retirement plans a couple weeks before the season ended, saying he made the decision to retire before the season started but waited to avoid making “a rash decision.” He was particularly interested in spending his final season with this team, which after graduating 11 seniors was not considered to be a state contender.
“Sometimes the best coaching jobs aren’t the ones that translate to most wins or the highest finish,” said Pepple, who called the 2008-09 campaign of the most enjoyable seasons of his career.
Of Pepple’s four state championships, three were at the Class 4A level (1985, 1993, 1997) and one was a 3A title in 1999. Many contend it should be five championships, but a disputed result in the 1981 4A title game against Shadle Park gave the trophy to the Highlanders in probably the most controversial game in state history.
His 1985 team, which featured Snyder and Brian Schwabe, is regarded as one of the state’s greatest teams.
Bellevue coach Chris O’Connor, whose team has shared a rivalry with the Islanders for the last couple years, said Pepple will be hard to replace in the basketball community.
“It’s hard to imagine that anyone else will be able to duplicate what he’s done,” O’Connor said. “I really think he was the pioneer for putting Washington basketball on the map.”
Eisenhower coach Pat Fitterer, who is third on the state’s all-time list for wins, thinks Pepple should be in the National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
“He’s definitely been a forefather for basketball here for years and years,” Fitterer said. “And he’s done a lot more than just win games.”
Mike Colbrese, the executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), called Pepple the “dean of coaches.”
“And I’ve always respected Ed’s perspective on education and how it intersects with schools’ sports programs,” Colbrese said.
While the game has changed over the years, many of Pepple’s traditions — in part influenced by his time in the Marine Corps — have remained the same. Islanders players dating back to 1968 have been known for their short haircuts and maroon blazers.
For now Pepple says he intends to spend more time with his family, especially his grandchildren, and maybe go skiing. He is also involved in a start-up company that hopes to help the environment.
“It’s time to ride off into the sunset,” Pepple said.