Dillinger’s legacy goes beyond wins and losses
In nearly 40 years of coaching high school athletics, North Polk’s Rick Dillinger managed to put together quite the career resume.
From beginning his career by starting the softball program at Danville (IA) in 1976, through his final game as North Polk’s head softball coach last July, Dillinger amassed a 1,033-508 career record. His teams won 14 conference championships, made 11 state tournament appearances and claimed state championships in 2000, 2006 and 2008.
Dillinger was named State Softball Coach of the Year in 1987 and 2002 and Class 2A Coach of the Year in both 2006 and 2008. In 2004 he was named National Softball Coach of the Year by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association.
Dillinger was inducted into the Softball Hall of Fame by the Iowa Girls Coaches Association in 2001 and National Hall of Fame by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association in 2011.
In girls’ basketball Dillinger went 406-397 from 1976 through 2013 with three conference titles and two state tournament appearances in 1995 and 2008. In 2008 Dillinger was named Coach of the Year by the Iowa Basketball Association and in 2010, he was inducted into the IGCA Basketball Hall of Fame.
But for Dillinger it was never about championships and accolades.
"He didn’t coach softball, he taught kids about what life experiences are all about," former long-time North Polk assistant softball coach Linda Snygg said. "He’d talk to the kids about everything and give them some good things and some bad. We were like a family and he was teaching the kids what life was going to be like."
Snygg’s daughter, Sammy Gilg, was a five-time all-state performer in softball, from 2005-09, at North Polk. She was also part of the 2008 girls’ basketball team that qualified for state.
Gilg posted a phenomenal 191-25 career pitching record in softball. She led North Polk to four state tournament appearances and two state titles and is the state of Iowa’s all-time strikeout queen with 2,206.
"I couldn’t picture having a better coach for her," Snygg said. "He got everything out of her he could and taught her so much about life. There are the great times like when we won state championships. And then the bad times like when Sammy hurt her arm her senior year and you just get through those."
Gilg went on to play Division 1 softball for four years at Creighton, where she majored in exercise science. She is currently going to medical school at Iowa.
"I’ve known coach my whole life," Gilg said. "I grew up around softball and he taught me so much. He not only taught me how to pitch and hit, but I learned numerous life lessons from him that have been very valuable to me. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play collegiate softball without his help and wouldn’t be where I’m at in my life either. Coach has always been one to push people to their full potential and it was always in our best interest, even if we didn’t agree with him at the time."
When his players weren’t performing up to their full potential, Gilg noted that Dillinger always made sure they got the message loud and clear.
"Whenever we missed a ground ball through our legs or had a bad throw during practice, he always made us run to the outfield fence," Gilg said. "We eventually started calling the dance Lady Comet, so whenever we missed a grounder, he would just say go see what Lady Comet has to say about that."
In 2000 Dillinger won his first state title with an underdog team. Thanks to a historic pitching performance from Renee (Thompson) Lamfers that included two no-hitters and a perfect game at state, North Polk stunned the rest of the 1A field to bring home the championship.
"Coach always believed in us, even when the odds were stacked against us," Lamfers said. "I remember after we’d won the state championship, he told us he knew all along we were going to be that good. We laughed at him when he said it, but it was true. He pushed us and prepared us all season long because he really did believe we could do it, even when no one else thought we had a chance at a state title."
"He never gave up, even when he was incredibly frustrated with us," Lamfers added. "He’d just flip his hat backwards, cross his arms and give you that look. It was a look that meant he believed in you and knew you could do better. I saw that look my fair share of times and I doubt I ever truly appreciated it at the time. But I’ll miss seeing that in the dugout from now on."
Renee Luers-Gillispie was part of the original Danville softball program under Dillinger. She went on to play two years at Kirkwood Community College and then get a full ride to a NCAA Division 1 program at West Texas State, where she graduated from in 1984.
Luers-Gillispie is currently the head softball coach at the University of Central Florida, where she has a 431-309-1 record over 12 years.
"I have five brothers and sisters and none of them went directly to college," Luers-Gillispie said. "Rick could do that. I don’t know where I’d be if he hadn’t taken that little farm girl and showed her there’s a better life out there."
Luers-Gillispie has installed the values she learned from Dillinger into her program at UCF.
"He taught us integrity – knowing that your word is your bond," Luers-Gillispie said. "And definitely discipline. There was a day (before a game) he thought we were too pretty, worrying about our hair and makeup. So he had us go in the cornfield and mess our hair up. It turned out to be one of the best games we played."
Dillinger takes great pride in all of the success his former athletes have achieved since they moved on from his tutelage.
"You have to teach kids to have goals in life," Dillinger said. "I never think you’ll reach those goals if you don’t set them high and strive to become a better person."
Now the Comet coach says it is time for a change. He leaves behind a career filled with fond memories.
"The overnight trips - this year we took them to the colonial area where the Amish were (at Solon), and at Battle Creek we had s’mores at a campfire – and we’d also go to the old state capitol when we went to Iowa City," Dillinger said. "Even just watching the kids playing on the playground between games at tournaments was fun. And doing well at the state tournament is always fun. But the big thing is watching kids improve from eighth grade to their senior year."
"I’m going to miss the game atmosphere and the kids," Dillinger added. "I’ll miss the great relationships I’ve had with other coaches and umpires, and I appreciate all the time my assistants and I worked together. I was quite blessed to work with many wonderful people."
But it may not be the end of the road for the legendary coach just yet.
"I’m never going to say I’m not going to coach again," Dillinger said.
Especially if Luers-Gillispie has anything to say about it.
"If he’s seriously thinking about retiring, I might have to get a job up there and make him work for me," Luers-Gillispie joked. "I think he still has a few state tournament runs left in him."