Pepin was one tough Cat
By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon
The Spencer Wildcats were the talk of Ashtabula County basketball circles in the 1957-58 and 1958-59 seasons.
Coached by fiery Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Famer Al Bailey, the Wildcats went 20-3 in 1957-58 and collected Western Reserve League and sectional championships.
The following year, Spencer topped that, winning its first 22 games before falling in the district semifinal to Northwestern, a team paced by Dean Chance, later a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins, California Angels and Cleveland Indians.
Spencer’s best player those years was Lyle Pepin, who will himself be inducted into the ACBF’s Hall of Fame at the banquet on March 25.
At 6-foot-2, Pepin played guard and sometimes forward on those teams.
“We played three guards and two forwards,” Pepin said. “Gale Alderman, Ed Kropf and I played guards with Ron Randa mixing in there as well. Pete Balint and John Weaver were our forwards.”
Others on those Spencer teams included Dick Pruden and Bill Peters.
“I was a guard-forward.” Pepin said. “I was 6-2 and Pete Balint and Johnny Weaver were about the same height.”
“Those kids were so ambitious,” Bailey once said. “They wanted to play and they wanted to win. The kids worked extra hard.”
Pepin credits Bailey, who went on to coach at college with Duquesne, his alma mater, and in the pros with the Virginia Squires of the old American Basketball Association, with the Wildcats’ success.
“He knew an awful lot about the game,” Pepin said of Bailey, who died in 1987 at age 57. “He had a fiery temper, but he knew a lot about basketball and a lot about life. I think he’s the reason we were as successful as we were, maybe 80 to 90 percent of the reason for our success. We had some talent, but he was able to draw it out of us.
“Bailey also coached track and football, but he wasn’t the head football coach. I don’t think he knew anything about track. He taught history. He was a disciplinarian, but I thought he was a pretty fair person.”
The Wildcats were not a high-scoring team, according to Pepin.
“We controlled the ball and played defense,” he said. “We were a really good defensive team. We were in the (Class) A bracket; we were really a small school.
“We probably scored in the 50s, but our opponents scored in the 20s. Defense was what Bailey stressed. If we had a fast break, we’d take it, but we basically shut them down on defense.”
Pepin doesn’t have his scoring totals, but figures it was in the high teens.
After graduating from Spencer, Pepin went on to play four years at Bowling Green, during some of the Falcons’ best years. He played with Nate Thurmond and Howard (“Butch”) Komives, both of whom played for many seasons in the NBA. Thurmond was a regular All-Pro who played his later seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Komives led the nation in collegiate scoring in 1063-64 with an eye-popping 35.6 points a game and played for 10 seasons in the NBA with several different teams.
“I played on the freshman team in 1959-1960 and on the varsity from 1960-63,” Pepin said.
Pepin’s best season was actually his sophomore year, 1960-61, when he started at guard and averaged 4.5 points a game. Coming off the bench in the following years, he saw little time on the court, though he did manage to score 41 points during the 1963-64 season.
“My junior and senior seasons, I was probably one of the first off the bench,” Pepin said. “Our coach, Harold Anderson, only played five guys. I got in during cleanup time. My senior year, I started three games when Komives got injured. My junior year, we were ranked as high as eighth in the nation. My senior year, we lost three games in a row over Christmas when Komives was hurt. We were probably better my senior year than my junior year.”
After graduating from Bowling Green, Pepin moved on to graduate school at Michigan State, where he earned his master’s degree in economics. From there he entered the U.S. Army for two years, dealing with military intelligence.
“Don’t ask me what I did there,” he jokes. “I’d have to kill you.”
When he got out of the service, Pepin went to work for the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, eventually becoming Corporate Secretary. When Centerior, the parent company of CEI merged into First Energy in 1998, Pepin retired.
“I did well enough to be able to retire when I was 57,” Pepin, who now lives in Madison, said. “I do a lot of different things now. This year, I was treasurer at my church. I play golf and enjoy the grandkids.”
Pepin married Carolyn (Petro) in 1963.
“She was a cheerleader at Spencer, a bright girl,” Pepin said. “She went to Kent State, then transferred to Bowling Green her sophomore year. In 1963 (while Pepin was doing graduate work), she became a teacher in East Lansing, Michigan.”
The Pepins have three children and three grandchildren. The oldest child, Michelle (45) lives in Arlington. Lyle, 43, resides in Chicago, while Erica, 40 lives in Westlake.