Basketball's in his blood ACBF Hall of Famer Gene Gephart has spent half a century being involved in Ashtabula County hoops
By KARL PEARSON Staff Writer
Like a Hallmark card, Gene Gephart is the gift to Ashtabula County basketball that keeps on giving. Excluding seven years to pursue his college education and serve two years in the United States Army, Gephart has been a part of Ashtabula County basketball in some capacity for 50 years. His legacy is undeniable. As a player, in his very first season of varsity competition in 1946-47, he played an integral part in making the Ashtabula Panthers the first county team ever to reach the Final Four of the Ohio boys basketball championships. As it turns out, that team was the last county big-school team to reach the state tournament and one of only two teams ever to attain that level. As a coach, he learned from arguably the two best coaches the county ever produced, working for two years as Andy Garcia's assistant at Conneaut and three years more once he returned to Ashtabula under his old high school coach, Bob Ball. Chosen to succeed Ball after his 28-year run, Gephart maintained the standard of excellence that had been established. In the 10 years he ran the Panther program from 1961-1971, his teams compiled a 146-62 record for a .702 winning percentage. But Gephart's involvement with high school basketball didn't stop with his move into high-school administration. After his retirement from coaching, he joined the radio broadcast team of the former WREO in its presentation of high school basketball for the 1971-72 season. He started out with Jim Cordell and Pat Sheldon and has stayed with it through the station's change to WFUN, the retirement of Cordell from the group and the addition of Jon Hall Jr. as its play-by-play announcer. Through it all, Gephart has provided expert analysis for both sports. And there are no signs he plans to give up the basketball portion of the job despite problems for many years with his sight. Thus, it is no surprise Gephart has been chosen a member of the first class of Hall of Fame members for the newly-formed Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation. He will be inducted Sunday at 6 p.m. at the ACBF's first awards banquet at the Conneaut Human Resources Center. It will be a bit of an early birthday present, just two days before celebrating his 72nd. Informed of his selection, though, Gephart seemed somewhat surprised to be selected. "I feel very fortunate and a little bit humbled," he said. "The game has been a source of great enjoyment to me and has allowed me to develop so many longtime friends." The establishment of an organization to honor county basketball players and coaches excites Gephart. "I think it's an excellent idea," he said. "For anything that recognizes the efforts that goes into basketball, it's something that's great and has been long overdue." 1/25/2018 TheACBF.com - Hall of Fame Archives 2/4 Beginnings It may seem like Gephart has lived in Ashtabula County forever, but he was born in Circleville in 1931. But his parents, E.I. and Opal Gephart, who were both teachers, moved the family to Ashtabula in 1935. "I grew up over on the east side," he recalled. "We lived on Valleyview Drive. Bill Schmidt (the retired St. John baseball coach) lives in that house now." Apparently, the elder Gephart had an appreciation for basketball because he made sure his son was set up to hone his skills. "My dad had a basket set up down in the basement," he said. He improved his skills further through his elementary schools days on into the eighth grade at State Road Elementary School. "I played a lot on the outdoor tennis courts there," Gephart said. "I played a lot on my own." Every chance he got, Gephart could be found working on his shooting and ballhandling. He especially relished game nights for the Ashtabula team because he would shoot around in the West Junior High gymnasium, where the Panthers of that day played. "I got the chance to go out and shoot before the games and at halftime," he said. High school ball In ninth grade, Gephart played for Don Gatchell. When his sophomore year rolled around, it might have been expected that he would have been required to serve an apprenticeship, especially in the powerful program Bob Ball had already molded. In fact, the Panthers of Gephart's freshman year had been what many still consider one of Ball's finest teams. But, as Gephart states with some pride, "I never played a JV game. My sophomore year, I was the first substitute on the outside." No doubt that was because Ball, ever the defensive-minded coach, realized Gephart could inject some much-needed offense into the 1946-47 Panthers. It would turn out to be a stroke of genius from the genius. "I could shoot," he said. "I was a good outside shooter. Plus, I could play defense. And I was the fastest guy in school even then." The sophomore definitely made significant contributions in that special season. The biggest probably came in the regional championship game, where he scored 10 points against Cuyahoga Falls to help the Panthers earn their ticket to the state tournament. Ashtabula's bubble was burst by Middletown in the state semifinals, but it had to be a great experience for young Gephart, who would be expected to take over a key leadership role for the Panthers in 1947-48 with all five starters from the 1946- 47 team graduating. Lead he did. With the help of center Delbert DeVaughn, they powered the Panthers to another Lake Shore League title. Both earned first-team all-league honors. The Panthers lost to Cleveland Heights in the sectional finals at Euclid Shore High School. Gephart's senior year was quite special in a variety of ways. The 5-foot-6 senior was quarterback of Coach George "Chic" Guarnieri's undefeated (9-0) football team and earned second-team All-Ohio honors. He was also one of the key factors on an undefeated Ashtabula track team, winning the LSL 440-yard dash for a second straight year and finishing fourth in the 220-yard dash after winning that event as a junior. "I ran 10 flat in the 100, 22.3 in the 220 and 52 flat in the 440," Gephart said. "Back in those days, they only took three in each event from district to the state meet and I finished in fourth, one spot short of going to state, in the 440 and long jump." Basketball in Gephart's senior year was also productive, except for one thing. "We were 12-0 in the league," the captain of the Ashtabula County team that year said. "We were 16-3 overall. But we were upset in the first tournament game by Harvey." College athletics Surprisingly, Gephart didn't get much attention from colleges. The only one that showed real interest in him was DePauw University, a small school in Greencastle, Ind. "That was the only school that gave me strong consideration," he said. "I had an appointment to West Point, but that was back in the days of (Heisman Trophy winners) Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard. "I thought about going to Ohio Wesleyan a little because my dad graduated from there. But Dave Mills, a family friend, had gone to DePauw and recommended it. They were both Methodist colleges, and I wanted to go to a good academic school, plus they were Division III, so it seemed like a good idea." And it turned out to be a good fit for Gephart, except his basketball career ended rather rapidly. "I played football for three years," he said. "I shared quarterback my junior and senior years and safety, too. "DePauw had a great basketball program," Gephart explained. "By then I was 5-9 and 150 pounds. I earned my basketball letter as a third guard my sophomore year, but I didn't play my junior and senior years." He also continued to compete in track, running the sprints and relays for the Tigers in his freshman and junior years. But Gephart decided to pour himself into his academics. He graduated from DePauw in 1953 with a double major in health and physical education and English. He kept going, obtaining a masters degree in phys ed from the University of Illinois in 1954. Before he could begin his career, however, the Army called. That turned out to be an enjoyable time, too. "I was able to play all three sports in the service," Gephart said. "I had a lot of fun while I was in Frankfurt, Germany." Back to Ashtabula County After his discharge from the Army in August, 1956, Gephart went job hunting. Circumstances took him to Conneaut and under the tutelage of coaching legends Elmer Peaspanen in football and Andy Garcia in basketball. He was also the head track coach both years. 1/25/2018 TheACBF.com - Hall of Fame Archives 3/4 "My first job was in Conneaut because my dad was the superintendent in Ashtabula and I wasn't comfortable trying to get a job there," he said. Learning from masters like Garcia, for whom he was the JV coach for the Trojans, and Peaspanen, for whom he was the backfield coach, was a valuable experience. "I learned a great deal from both of them," he said. But the call of his alma mater, and a changing job situation for his father, brought Gephart back to Ashtabula for the 1958- 59 school year. "My dad had given up the superintendent's job," he said. "And Tony Chiacchiero had taken over the football job. I was his offensive coordinator for 10 years." But getting the chance to work with his old high school basketball coach was as much of an attraction. His three years as the Panthers' JV coach for Ball were an additional learning experience. And, by then, the Panthers were out of the band box at West and into the sparkling facility that would become Ball Gymnasium in 1961, the year Ball moved into the athletic director's role. "That was a great experience, too," he said. "Mr. Ball was always very supportive. His cooperation really was so important to me." Gephart held up his end, maintaining the Ashtabula program's winning tradition with an 11-9 record his first year. "All of my starters were 5-11," he recalled. "That team was a real group of overachievers." In the back of his mind, Gephart knew he had some real talent coming. It paid off in his second year of 1962-63 with a 15-7 record. "My last year as JV coach we were undefeated, so I sort of knew what to expect," he said. But, pushed to pick his best team, Gephart chooses the 1967-68 team that went 20-2 and lost to Cleveland East in the district semifinals at Eastlake North, the new site of the sectional-district tournament. "We had eight seniors on that team," he said. "We had Andy Nappi at point guard, Phil Faine at the other guard, Bill Kaydo and Jerry Lyons, who was (Panther football standout) Wash Lyons' brother and Al Benton at center. Larry Alberts played at forward, too." His 1966-67 team that finished 17-4 would be a close second. Those Panthers reached the district championship game before losing to Glenville. They beat St. Joseph's in the semifinal. That was the farthest any Gephart-coached team reached in tournament play. He also shows a fondness for the 1968-69 team led by Dan Craft at point guard and Jim Hood at center, two players who would later be coaches for Ashtabula and Lakeside. "I thought we got the most out of that team that we could," Gephart said. There is no shrinking by Gephart about his two best players. "I'd say Bill Kaydo from 1968 and Jim Hood from 1971," he said. "Both of them started for three years for me." By the late 1960s, Gephart was looking at other challenges than coaching. "I became the assistant principal in 1967-68," he said. "The 1968-69 season was my last in football. The 1970-71 season was my last with basketball. "I've always enjoyed new challenges," Gephart said. "I've been that way my entire life. Dr. Roger Beitler, who was the superintendent then, knew I had my principal's certificate from Kent State. I was pleased that my boss had so much confidence in me. I know I made the right decision to leave coaching." By 1974-75, he had moved up to the principal's post at Ashtabula, serving in that capacity for 11 years. Then, at the request of superintendent Dr. Bernard Weiss, he moved to Harbor and stayed from 1985-89. That wasn't as wrenching a decision as one might imagine. "I knew what I was getting into by making the switch," Gephart said. "I absolutely enjoyed my time at Harbor." All of which only solidified his support of the consolidation of Ashtabula and Harbor that led to the formation of Lakeside in 2001. "I've been all for consolidation ever since it first came up," he said. Health issues forced Gephart to leave education sooner than he would have liked. "My detached retina forced me to retire," he said. "If it hadn't been for that, I probably would have worked at least another five years. My only regret is I didn't work for 40 years." Observations The move to administration also allowed him to embark on another challenge by joining the radio broadcasting team. "I thought it was a good way to stay connected to sports," he said. "As an English teacher, I always enjoyed speaking, so I thought broadcasting would be interesting to try." He started on just football broadcasts during his last year of basketball coaching in 1970. He added basketball duties in 1971-72. From his seat courtside, Gephart has had a unique perspective on the great individuals and teams of Ashtabula County basketball. He doesn't hesitate to dive in on both issues. "I'd say the Conneaut team of Tony Lyons, Mike Pape and Dan Coxon was as good as any I've seen," he offered. "They were able to compete against Benedictine and St. Joe's. "I'd also include my 1967-68 team and Bob Walters' 1977-78 team with Tom Hill, Deora Marsh and David Benton that lost to Clark Kellogg's St. Joe team." The ladies aren't forgotten, either. "Jefferson has had so many great teams and has been so consistent," Gephart said. Bob Walters resonates with Gephart as a player, too. Walters graduated in 1959 while Gephart was still Ball's JV coach. "Bob Walters was the greatest player I've seen," Gephart said. "He had no weaknesses. He was a great shooter, an excellent rebounder, a great ballhandler and a great leaper. "I think (Harbor graduate) Andy Juhola was a great player and got his team to a regional final. (Conneaut's) Matt Zappitelli was as good a shooter as I've seen." 1/25/2018 TheACBF.com - Hall of Fame Archives 4/4 An appreciation has also been developed for several girls players. "I think (Jefferson's) Kelly Kapferer was quite a player," Gephart said. "I also liked (Conneaut's) Jessica Olmstead and the last two girls from Geneva, Rhea DeJesus and Jordan Cuddy." Of course, being an old coach himself, Gephart appreciates the art of coaching, both those he has worked with and those he has observed. "I always admired (UCLA's) John Wooden because he always was so calm and was highly intelligent," he said. "Of course, I think so much of Mr. Ball because of the way he taught defense and handled his players. And he was like a second father to me. "I always appreciated Andy Garcia, too," Gephart said. "He's one of only a couple coaches who had an advantage on me in our head-to-head matchups." There are several of the new breed of coaches he appreciates, too. "I have great respect for (Geneva's) Brad Ellis. I think he gets the most out of his players," Gephart said. "I also think (Jefferson girls coach) Rod Holmes is a fine coach. I think his record (314 wins to this point) shows that." Having been one himself, Gephart also developed a deep appreciation for the unsung coaching heroes - assistant coaches. "Frank Farello was my first assistant in 1961-62," he said. "From 1962-64, Fred Yanero was my assistant. I've lost track of him, but I heard he went on to win a state title in Maryland. "Bill Oppenheimer was my assistant from 1964-69. Then, Bob Walters was with me from 1969-71 before he succeeded me as head coach. I was a blessed guy to work with guys who knew so much about basketball." Along with those behind-the-scenes workers, Gephart has come to appreciate his children and grandchildren, who may not have seen him as often they might because of the time he spent with other people's children. His daughter, Jane Miller, graduated from Ashtabula in 1980. Her daughter, Andrea Pape was a member of the first graduating class from Lakeside in 2001, while her son, Philip Pape, is a Dragon junior. In tribute to two of his coaching heroes, Gephart named his son Robert (for Ball) and Andrew (Garcia). He is a 1984 Ashtabula graduate. His son, Bob, is a sophomore at Lakeside, while his daughter, Jessica, is seventh grader at Columbus Junior High. "I'm grateful for all the sacrifices they've made with and for me," he said. Sharing their father and grandfather has been their gift to Ashtabula County basketball.