Feature: Old School Toughness of Terry Stehle


By: Kaleb Essink

There is a good chance that when you go to an average high school in America, that the toughest man in the building is the Varsity Football Coach.

In Hamilton, during a 14-year stretch beginning in 1986, Terry Stehle was not only the toughest person in Hamilton High School but one could argue that he was the toughest person in all of Hamilton. The Hall of Fame coach used toughness, dedication and passion to build the Hawkeye Football Program into a perennial playoff power by the time he left it.

Coach Stehle, who had prior coaching experience, began coaching the varsity as an assistant.  Rich Herbig, who coached the Hawkeyes from 1978-1985, had a unique relationship with Stehle.

“He brought a few things that were significant,” commented Herbig.

“The first thing was his enthusiasm.  Every day he wanted to coach and he was excited to see if we could be the best that we could be.”

The enthusiasm is a well known characteristic of Stehle, but a lesser known characteristic was his organization. The organization was something Herbig noticed and wanted to maximize this skill.

“At some point in my head coaching career, we decided that it’d be good if he organized the practices because I struggled with organization as a whole,” stated Herbig.

The two Hawkeye head coaches have more in common than football. They are also next door neighbors and have been for 40 years.

“We have two relationships,” Stehle said. “We have been close friends as neighbors for years, but we have two very different coaching styles.”

“Rich was more come as it may, and I was ‘this is how it needs to be done and it needs to be done right now’, but I definitely learned a lot on how to understand kids and learning how they react to different situations from Rich.”

The two remain close friends to this day.

“We have a lot more in common now than we did before,” said Herbig. “We both like to travel, we are both retired, and we both have grandchildren.”

Although Coach Stehle is now in the MHSFCA Hall of Fame, his first three years wouldn’t be an indicator. The Hawkeyes struggled, recording just 8 wins in 3 seasons including an 0-9 season in 1988.

Hamilton followed this with six consecutive winning seasons and the school’s first ever appearance in the MHSAA State Playoffs in 1994.  When asked what changed, Coach Stehle attributed it to two main reasons.

“We got better players is what first started it,” commented Stehle. “I don’t care what the scheme is, you can’t win football games without good players.”

Two of those players were class-of-’92 running backs Chad Alexander and Matt Lohman. Both players were called up to the varsity following the winless campaign. In his first varsity game, Lohman rushed for more than 300 yards against Coloma.

“The second thing is, that we were a running team,” Stehle said. “We would throw the ball a handful of times a night and of those, 2-3 would be touchdowns because all we did was run.”

The offense is the same scheme ran by four time state champion Zeeland West.

“People would complain from the bleachers that they didn’t know where the ball was and that was part of the charm.  Neither did the opponent,” joked Stehle.

Hamilton Wrestling Coach Gregg Stoel was an assistant coach at Grand Rapids South Christian at the time, and was one of the individuals who introduced Stehle to the offense.

“Gregg’s dad (Bob Stoel) and I went to the same church and every Sunday after church all three of us would go to Bob’s house for coffee and we would practice putting in the Wing-T,” said Stehle.

At halftime in 1988 against Middleville, the Hawkeyes decided they had seen enough and came out in the second half of that game running the new scheme.

Little did they know, the decision to run the Wing-T at halftime of a forgettable game in 1988 against their rival would propel the Hawkeyes for the next 19 seasons.

For years as the Hawkeye football program stumbled through mediocrity, the Middleville Trojans were the team by which everyone else was measured

If you go into the coffee shops and ask a Hamilton High graduate of the ‘70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, they will tell you that Hamilton’s biggest rival is the Middleville Trojans.

“We could never beat ‘em, I was the head coach for 15 years-I beat them one time,” admitted Stehle.

One of the biggest letdowns was in 1997. Both teams came into the game 4-0 and the expectation was for a thrilling last second victory for either team. The result was less than exciting. The Trojans rolled Hamilton 31-14 to remain unbeaten. Middleville would run the table and finish as 1997 OK-Blue Champions.

The loss in a way, may have saved the Hawkeyes season.

“That game in ‘97 probably caused us to make the playoffs.” Stehle claimed. “We rode the bus home for over an hour and nobody said a word. We came back on Monday, resolved that it wouldn’t happen again and it didn’t.”

The one victory Hamilton claimed in Stehle’s tenure was in 1994 and it wasn’t pretty. Hamilton walloped the Trojans, 63-14.

Stehle pinpointed a weakness that Hamilton star Mitch Lohman and the Hawkeyes exposed.

“They weren’t very good to the outside and Coach Stehle looked to expose that”, commented Lohman, “I think I had 4 or 5 touchdowns that game and they were all to the outside.  That was the exact opposite of what we usually did but it worked that game.”

Putting up 63 didn’t seem to satisfy Hamilton football alumni.

“We were beating them bad and I was trying to keep the score down so I didn’t cause hard feelings for down the road,” Stehle admitted. “I had old players coming behind the bench and hollering ‘More, more!’ They wanted me to tack on as many as I could because we had been on the other end of it for 20 years.”

The 1994 season brought more memories than a victory over their rivals. Coach Stehle himself was mic’d up by television for a non-conference dual with Coopersville.

With a little over three minutes left in the football game Hamilton trailed 20-7.

“I don’t remember one player or one coach that didn’t think we could win that football game.” stated Lohman, “They bobbled a punt and I guess you could say the football gods were in our favor.”

Miraculously, the Hawkeyes would find themselves victorious, winning 21-20.

The most notable memory, however was the school’s first ever trip to the MHSAA State Playoffs. It had taken 31 years but the Hawkeyes were finally in “the Big Dance”.

Ironically, Hamilton would do battle with Grand Rapids South Christian, the school from which Hamilton had modeled their offense.

Instead of a blissful fall day to watch a high school football game, it was raining sideways. The rain came down in sheets all day.

Nevertheless, 4,800 fans for the Hawkeyes and Sailors braved the conditions and found a seat at Hawkeye Stadium.

“I walked out and shook hands with Gregg Stoel and said ‘so this is what it feels like to be in the playoffs’,” Stehle remembered with a smirk.

The game itself was a defensive war. Hamilton won the game, 12-8, with Mitch Lohman rushing for the game winning touchdown. Hamilton would lose to eventual state champion Belding in the next round, but a message had been sent to all of West Michigan – Hamilton is for real and Hamilton is here to stay.

Stehle decided he’d had enough in 2000 and hung up his whistle for the final time.

The coaches themselves can recall the day the Stehle era came to an end.

“He sat all of us coaches down for a meeting and said ‘I am no longer the head football coach, and I would like for someone in this room to fill that opening’,” said Stehle assistant coach Mark Behnke. “You could hear a pin drop in that room—I’ll never forget it.”

One of his long time assistants, Chris Myers, did fill that opening, a position he still holds to this day.

“It was the pits,” commented fellow teacher Mary Aufderheide. “I didn’t know it was happening until after it did, but you could tell it was the end of something, the end of something special.”

Stehle thought he was done walking the Hamilton sidelines until he got a call before the season opener in 2001.

“It’s my first game out, and I get a call, ‘We’ve got a guy that can’t run the chains tonight, can you do it?’” said Stehle. “Here I am, it’s my first game out of coaching, I know every coach on both sidelines, and I’ve got to run the chains?”

Reluctantly, Stehle decided it’d be best if he did the job. The first game, Stehle had to face the home sideline and the homestands. Hamilton won the game in Myers debut, beating South Haven 35-14.

Running the chains that night gave Stehle a new appreciation for the job he had done for all those years.

“I said to my wife when I got home, ‘wow what did I give up?’ but it was time,” conceded Stehle. “You work so hard to build a program up, all these hours, that by the end of it, you’re tired. You’re too tired to enjoy what you have accomplished.”

Although Stehle retired from coaching he would remain a teacher at the high school for years to come.

Stehle taught physical education as well as weight lifting.  Long-time Hamilton volleyball coach and current health teacher Mary Aufderheide was asked what it was like to teach with Mr. Stehle.

“A trip…never boring.” said Aufderheide, who coached Stehle’s daughter’s in volleyball.

At that time, the boys and girls gym classes were separated so the teachers had to rely heavily on each other throughout the school year. When asked if Stehle had the same energy in the classroom that he did on the sideline, Aufderheide gave the simple response of “Heck yes.”

The toughness and organization Stehle used in the classroom were also what he used on the sidelines

“For me it was like playing X-Box. Every time they would do something different it was like I had the controller in my hand, ready to make a move that the opponent couldn’t stop,” Stehle said. “The game’s over, we had just gotten a victory, and I’m walking back to the locker room already thinking about the next one.”

The majority of the time the Hawkeyes did get the next one. The program was left in great condition for Chris Myers in 2001, and Hamilton would enter its most successful era ever winning 41 out of 55 football games and making the playoffs every year from 2001-2005.

But the man who came before was the one who made it possible. From just eight wins in three years to a perennial playoff power, Terry Stehle elevated the Hamilton football program to a place people in the town could only have dreamed about in 1986.

Above: Coach Terry Stehle leads the Hawkeyes onto the field in Holland in 1998. (Photo courtesy of The Portrait-Hamilton High School Yearbook 1998)