Through injury, Kampf finds his calling
Breaking arm at yount age showed Mustang his impact on sports was through writing
By Chris Larick
For the Star Beacon
It's no joke to say that John Kampf fell into his writing abilities.
As a result of breaking his left arm three times after falls, Kampf's physical activities were limited.
"That's how I got into writing," said Kampf, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation's Hall of Fame on Apr. 12 at the Conneaut Human Resources Center as a contributor. "I couldn't take part in physical education classes.
"My mom was an English teacher (at Grand Valley High School) and had us write journals."
In addition to personal information, Kampf, who loved basketball, wrote accounts of Super Bowls and the 1977 NBA playoff finals between the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Dr. J (Julius Erving) and the Portland TrailBlazers, who featured Bill Walton, in his early writing efforts.
JOHN KAMPF speaks as part of a high school wrestling radio show with Ray Milavec (center) and Guy Trinetti. Kampf participated in sports during his time at Grand Valley, but after breaking his arm at a young age he discovered his talent and passion for writing
JOHN KAMPF with his sisters: (front row from left) Seanna Butler, Erin Melillo and Paula Kampf, (back) Lauren Matthews and John.
Not that Kampf gave up sports altogether. But it was a struggle, partly because of the broken arms, caused by falling out of a hayloft, tripping on a tree root while playing football with cousins Bill and David Nye and diving for a ball in a volleyball match against Gary Frankln. Perhaps more damaging was the surgery on a brain tumor he had in the first grade.
"That hurt my motor skills on my left side," he said. "It cut my motor skills in half."
Nevertheless, he became a passable athlete, playing Little League baseball on the Rome White Sox with Gary Fernandez, Paul Magda, Cliff Vasko, Jeff Takacs, Franklin and others.
"We were pretty good," he said. "We won our Little League championship against Orwell, who had Jimmy (Henson) and Mick Shoaf. I also played youth basketball in Orwell with Jimmy Henson and Carl McElroy.
Eventually Kampf played on the very good Grand Valley teams of 1984-1987, coached by Tom Henson and assistants Mick Zigmund and Tony Hassett.
He didn't get to start, though, since he played the same position as Jimmy Henson, his best friend, but he still loved the experience.
"Those were good times, playing ball with my buddies," he said. "We won 50 games in three years and put (coach) Tom (Henson) over 100 (victories for his career). I later played softball with Tom (Henson) and Mick (Zigmund). They were more than coaches to me."
But, more and more, Kampf was drawn to writing as an outlet for his talents. He wrote for the Mustang Roundup, a "flimsy thing," according to Kampf, which chronicled Grand Valley football and basketball games.
He considers his eventual career in sports writing as a combinaton of his parents' talents and interests, "Dad's love for sports and Mom's love for writing," as he puts it.
John Kampf Sr. owned and ran a dairy farm at the time and, naturally, John Jr. was expected to help out with those chores. But John often got a pass on those to play sports. It might not have seemed that way at the time, but eventually that paid off.
It certainly didn't seem that a writing career was in his future when John Jr., after his graduation from Grand Valley in 1987, headed to Ohio State with a major in dairy science and research. He had already proven his knowledge of the field when his Orwell team won the state championship in the Dairy Bowl, the dairy farmer's equivalent of Academic Challenge. The Orwell group went on to finish second in the nation.
But a dairy science major naturally had to take many science courses.
"I got annihilated in all those science courses," he said.
So he changed his major to journalism.
"The longest walk in my life was the walk from my house to the barn to tell my dad (who had counted on John taking over the dairy farm for him) I had changed majors," Kampf said. "But his love for sports was still there. We always went to sports events together. He's a huge part of what I am. When people say, 'You're like your dad,' I consider that a huge compliment. We've done things together (since I became a sports writer) like go to Spring Training. It's a huge joy to have my dad with me."
At Ohio State, Kampf joined the staff of the school newspaper (the Lantern) and was assigned the women's basketball beat. At the time, Nancy Darsch was the coach of an Ohio State women's team that was even better than the men's team, or, for that matter, the football team.
"They won, like 88 Big Ten (games) in a row," Kampf said. "They won 10 championships in a row. That was a lot of fun to cover. Basketball was better than football at Ohio Sate at that time. Jimmy Jackson was on the men's team."
Kampf particularly liked the fact that Mick Shoaf, whom he graduated from Grand Valley with, was there too, starting on the offensive line for the Buckeyes.
"I worked for the Lantern off and on for two years," he said. "The last quarter I was sports editor. The Lantern is still the biggest newspaper I ever worked for. It's circulation is maybe 80,000, with all the branches. I wrote columns and covered all sports. I had a lot of good times there."
Before he had even taken a writing course at Ohio State, Kampf landed his first writing job, as a summer intern with the Jefferson Gazette, published by John Lampson.
"They had no reason to hire me," he said. "But I knew agriculture in Ashtabula County. I did fair stories and 4-H stories. It was a blast for me; I knew everybody.
"After I graduated, they offered me a job, to come back and do sports. I graduated on a Friday morning and came back and covered a (high school) football game that night."
He worked at the Gazette from 1991 to 1997.
"I did a little bit of everything there," he said. "We'd cover Jefferson games or Grand Valley stuff. The Gazette owned the Geneva and Madison Tribune. There was a whole chain of (publications). Each town had its own paper."
In 1997 he moved to the Star Beacon, where he worked with Karl Pearson, Tom Harris and this reporter.
"I really enjoyed my time there," he said.
On July 31, 2002, Kampf was hired by the News Herald, which had opened a bureau in Ashtabula and wanted him to cover the sports in the county.
After a couple of years, he was moved to the business office in Willoughby. His first beats were swimming, tennis and golf. Eventually he became the primary "prep" (high school) writer, covering football in the fall, wrestling in the winter and softball in the spring.
But the plum job he acquired was the Ohio State football job.
"2008 was the first year I did that," he said. "It was a great gig. I got to go to all of the BCS Bowl games except the Orange Bowl."
Basically, the job means traveling to Columbus for the Monday press conferences and the Saturday games.
"Night games are my friend," he said in reference to the difficulty of covering Friday night football games, then getting up and driving to Columbus for the Ohio State games, some of which start at noon.
"I'd run into Tom Penna and Rick Pugliese (Ashtabula friends of Urban Meyer) at some of the games," he said.
Road games were even a greater test of endurance, though the News Herald cut down on its coverage of those contests in recent years.
Honors Kampf has won include Ohio Prep Sports Writer of the Year in 2006 and 2009, and second-place in that category in 2008.
"I want to thank the teachers and coaches at Grand Valley, who were extremely influential on me," he said, "my mom, from whom I got my love of writing and really got me into this, my dad, who passed on his love of sports to me and my four sisters. We had a great time growing up together. Jimmy (Henson) has always been a brother to me.
"I'm humbled. I don't think I'm a Hall of Famer; it was just fun to be a part of. If I hadn't had the surgery and broken my arm three times, I might never have written."
Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.
"McClusky taught me about seeing the floor and organizing practices," Isco said. "I took a lot of his offense like the five-man weave, which most people call the motion offense now. Later on, I found out Knight used it.
"My defense is kind of from all three of those guys. They believed in good man-to-man defense if you could. I wasn't crazy about a zone, but sometimes you had to use it. But you have to go with man defense first. It's easier to go from man to zone defense than the other way."
The coaching wheel
Isco didn't play at Kent State, but he hooked up with the basketball team as a manager, serving in that capacity his freshman, junior and senior years. Those were teaching experiences of a different type.
"I learned the things you don't want to do," he said. "I learned you can't go into practice, or anything, without a plan. I also learned you can't just yell at people. You have to show them how. Many times, you have to repeat things over short periods of time."
Another bonus from his days at Kent State, which ultimately got him to Ashtabula, was meeting his wife, the former Susan Giordan. They've been married 36 years and have five children — Angela Orr, who lives in North Canton with her husband, Steve, Andrea, who resides in Los Angeles, Bill, who lives in Kingsville with his wife, Maryann, Raymond, who lives in Orlando, Fla. with his wife, Suzanna, and Suzanne, who lives in Cleveland. The Iscos have five grandchildren — three from the Orrs and two from the Kingsville Iscos — and another on the way from the Orlando connection.
Isco counts his blessings.
"I'm so lucky to have a good wife," he said. "If you're going to stay in coaching, you need a good wife who understands. Susan raised our kids."
After graduation from Kent State, the Iscos initially headed back to Ashtabula County as he earned a teaching job in Pymatuning Valley Local Schools. He served the 1968-69 school year as Al McClung's seventh-grade boys coach in New Lyme, was his JV coach at PV the next year and served in the same capacity for Bob Hitchcock in 1970-71, as well as being an assistant football coach for Thad Kisnowski.
His first opportunity to be a head coach came at Jackson Center. The three years there were quite a change for two young adults with a young family from Northeast Ohio.
"That was a real education," he said. "It was hard on Susan. It was a nice town of about 500 people who were all related to each other. And you couldn't get a good piece of Italian bread there to save your life.
"I had a lot of ideas I had to change. I learned a lot more things you don't do, like trying to make sure you don't make the same mistake twice."
Back home again
The lure of home brought the Iscos back to Ashtabula for the 1974-75 school year.
"Susan was homesick," he said. "She'd come up here and spend the summers. She told me there was a job opening down at Harbor and she told me to go apply. I think Ange Candela was the superintendent then."
But there was no basketball coaching job at Harbor.
"I was the assistant football coach at Columbus Junior High for Tony Chiacchiero," Isco said. "I ended up coaching track with Ron Chutas and Dean McQuaide when Darrell Sargent was around."
The lure of basketball coaching called for desperate measures.
"I just had to be around the game," Isco said. "I stuck my nose in around Kent-Ashtabula and ended up coaching for two years with Bob Peura."
Finally, the freshmen basketball job at Harbor came open for the 1976-77 school year. Isco spent five years in that post, first for Ed Armstrong, then Higgins.
"That was great," he said. "When you coach freshmen, you're on your own. It was a chance to work on my new philosophies. Ed and John let me teach the motion offense."
A connection with the players that would make him at success at the varsity level, guys like Andy Juhola, Tony Lignetta, Chris Jones, Al Altonen, Joe Sadler, Scott Johnson, John Light, John Ringer and Chris Lunghofer, was developed.
"That was a good group," he said. "They were very close."
After the 1981-82, Higgins took the head coaching job at Madison. Isco stepped up to head coach.
"I was elated," he said. "I knew that group, and I wanted to make sure they achieved excellence.
"There was no pressure with that team. Putting in the motion offense was easy with those guys because they'd played it. The fact they were an intelligent group made it even easier. All I wanted to do was help them reach their potential."
Which they did in the 1983-84 season, reaching the Class AA regional championship game at Canton Fieldhouse before falling to an Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary team that featured future Cleveland Cavalier Jerome Lane and future NFL player Frank Stams. No Ashtabula County boys team has been that far since.
"That was a hard loss to take. It still is," Isco said. "But Tony Lignetta kind of put it all in perspective when we were having dinner after that game. He said, ‘You know, we could play that team 20 times and they'd beat us 20 times.'
"If I had to do it over, I'd probably slow the ball down more, but we only had one day of practice to put it in, which wasn't enough. That (season) was probably the highlight of my coaching career."
Strangely, those Mariners did not win an NEC championship. Two later Harbor squads did.
"Now that was pressure," Isco said. "I can't tell you the sense of relief when we won the NEC the first time."
His Harbor days still resonate with Isco.
"I feel good about my time there," he stated. "I have a lot of fond memories of Harbor, of all the great kids and great assistants I worked with. I loved coaching there."
When he arrived at Ashtabula for the 1994-95 season, he found a group of players eager to enjoy the type of success his Harbor teams had and return to the glory days of the Panther program.
"The kids at Ashtabula wanted to play just as hard as anywhere else," he said. "I just had to get them to play as a team, rather than individuals."
It took two years for everyone "to get comfortable.
"After that, I felt we were starting to gel," he said. "We had a great group of kids like Carlos Cancel, Alan Dunbar and Joey Boggs. We got off to an 8-1 start, and then we found out we had an ineligible player, someone that was way down our bench. We forfeited three games, which dropped us to 5-4. We never got it back after that."
His fourth season was also solid but, in his 30th year of teaching, Isco decided it was time to leave.
"We had a good year," he said. "I remember we played a fantastic game at Edgewood. I got a little burned out that year. But I think I left the program (to his former Harbor player and Ashtabula assistant Tim Tallbacka) in good shape."
His expectations were no different when he took over the Lakeside girls job.
"I never thought of the girls as anything other than athletes," he said. "I think that it helped that I had three girls at home.
"My expectations weren't different. There are hard workers and not-so-hard workers among girls, the same as boys. The girls at Lakeside did the same workouts and worked just as hard as any of my boys teams. I really enjoyed myself."
Those who think Isco is done on the area basketball scene might be surprised. After all, coaching is his passion.
"I'm not closing the door on coaching again," he stated. "It would have to be the right timing and the right circumstances, but I think I'm still physically and emotionally capable of doing it. I haven't forgotten my name yet.
"I still have goals. It hurts that I haven't reached those goals. I still hope I get the chance."
Isco realizes he's received a whole lot from the game, even if he never coaches again.
"I worked with a lot of fine young kids over the years," he said. "If I've been able to help them grow in any way, to be honest, that's far more important than any win."
Besides, there's one other achievement in which he ultimately takes pride.
"I'm most proud of my family," he stated emphatically, the emotions showing again. "Getting the chance to coach my kids has been one of the best parts."
For now, Isco just enjoys being around the game, even if it's on the fringes, because he loves it.
"I like to go to a game and say hello to (Tallbacka) or (Conneaut's Kent) Houston or (Jefferson's Steve) Locy," Isco said. "I think I had a good relationship with other coaches, and even officials. We're all in it for the same reasons."