(Editor’s note: In the fall of 1999 I was curious. Having covered the Port St. Joe High School basketball team as the Tiger Sharks won three state titles, and fell one possession short of another, I wanted to find out how this was accomplished. Coach Vern Eppinette, who I first met at a coaching clinic during which I was captivated, allowed me, after some coaxing, to visit during one week before the season began. Following is the story that emerged.)
PORT ST. JOE -- In the long shadow of a now silent mill a basketball foundry will soon begin to stir.
Stoked by a work ethic that defines this blue-collar community, it has stamped out championships just as a mill once turned out liner board – and forged an identity as recognizable as the stygian cloud that blankets titletown.
That synthesis is outlined by the sometimes garish yellow-and-purple uniforms as well as the always meticulously tailored suits the coach dons on game nights.
It is punctuated by the rawhide loyalty of fans, a string of sportsmanship awards and the line of five gleaming state basketball championship trophies won in the past six years, including four in a row.
It would have been hard to predict it would turn out this way in 1990 when Vernon Eppinette arrived to lead the Port St. Joe High School boys’ basketball program to undreamed of heights.
He is a Mozart man in a George Jones town; a Yankee come to work and live in a Southern-fried hamlet.
In an area once dominated by gritty mill workers, Eppinette appears frail and vulnerable, his pastry-white skin contrasting with the leathery faces and necks around him.
But after 227 wins and 62 losses (503-203 in 26 years), the bachelor describes himself as “married to the school system,” and likely to retire in Gulf County.
So as the local economy scrapes bottom and the landscape converts from mill to marinas, Eppinette, the 1998 Florida Coach of the Year and pending Florida Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame inductee, is more at home than ever.
“What would it show the kids,” he said. “if I left as soon as times got tough.”
Eppinette said that Gulf County’s downturn has taught school children that, “you can’t rely on one thing.” It also serves to reinforce his team-over-the-individual coaching philosophy.
There are no favorites.
During his one season at Mount Dora, the year before he came to Port St. Joe, Eppinette’s upperclassmen enlightened him on “senior privilege” allowing upperclassmen not to practice. They just had to be on time for the game to get their minutes.
Eppinette provided a different equation: seniors come early to practice and stay late. Mount Dora reached the playoffs with an all-sophomore lineup.
“He is always talking team,” said former all-state player Desmond Baxter, now a guard at the University of New Orleans. “It’s all about team. We all needed each other.”
Practice was where each player, whether senior or sophomore, reserve or starter, earned playing time for the coming game.
Those practices are nearly devoid of scrimmaging. Drills focus on honing the skills of winning basketball: rebounding, defense, shooting, ball-handling and footwork.
Sharks’ pregame warmups often resemble a dance troupe as players work out their individual steps, holding a ball while moving in s-s-l-l-o-o-o-o-w-w-w motion. Shooting drills sometimes include an oversized ball, nearly too large to fit through a cylinder.
The speed for learning is slow; for demonstrating what has been learned, full-out.
When scrimmages are allowed they are often three-on-five, varsity against junior varsity. Sometimes they are five-versus-seven.
“Everything is an overload, making practice harder than anything we’ll see in a game,” Eppinette said. “Playing hard is a given. You have to love the game to play for us.”
The results are obvious in the school’s trophy case, even moreso to the Shark opponents. As players come and go, highly talented and not so much, Port St. Joe fields teams that are numbingly similar.
They go deep down the bench and play hard for all 32 minutes and 94 feet of floor. They come after opponents in swarms.
“It has always amazed me how many kids he plays, and playing time never seems to be a problem,” said Rutherford coach Clyde Mills, who faces Eppinette’s Sharks twice a season and during summer-league play.
“He has all the qualities it takes to be a successful basketball coach in high school and that includes getting the most out of his players.”
Coaching was not a profession Eppinette’s parents would have chosen. His mother, a high jumper of some repute in her native France in the 1940s, wanted him to become a doctor. His father hoped he’d study the law.
Born in Arkansas and raised in Illinois, Eppinette and his siblings were provided every educational opportunity and taught always to strive to better tomorrow than they were today.
“My parents taught us that money wasn’t the center of things, it was who you were, what you did and the benefit other people derived from being around you,” Eppinette said.
One sister lives in Paris as head of AT&T’s European operations. Another is an educator. His brother has a “hush-hush” job in the “highest levels of law enforcement.”
The bedrock values his parents provided are reflected in a story Eppinette tells of their final months a little more than a decade ago.
His mother, ill from cancer, was shuttling back and forth to a specialist in Houston. On one trip, the specialist suggested he ought to take a look at Eppinette’s father. His father would die of cancer before his mother.
The funeral was scheduled for the same day as a district final. Eppinette told his mother he’d be there. She would have none of it.
“She said, ‘No way, your Dad would roll over in his grave. Do our job.’”
Eppinette coached the game Saturday night. The funeral was postponed and he attended it on Sunday.
Eppinette knew he wanted to be a coach as early as the fifth grade. The catalyst was his exposure to Glen Cottington, all-seasons-all-sports coach at his elementary school.
Eppinette was particularly taken with distilling the game of basketball to its basic elements.
That mental acumen partially explains his proficiency as a classical pianist, which friends say was at one time concert-level, though the coach said those would have to be old friends since he hadn’t played in quite some time.
Attention to nuance also helps explain the painstaking grading of films that Eppinettes requires of coaches and players.
In his grading system, a 50 percent shooting average, a solid game of say 8 of 16, is a wash. The eight made baskets are balanced by the eight misses.
The player has earned zero points.
At the other end of the scale is the player who takes a charge, earning four points.
“You got us the ball, drew a foul on the other team and negated a basket,” Eppinette explained. “It’s how many things you did to help the team and how many things you did to help the other team. Basketball… comes down to five people playing as one.”
And to playing the game where the opponent isn’t the other team, but the ideal of how basketball is played when executed properly.
It’s why he prefers the women’s professional game over the current version of the NBA. Eppinette loves ESPN Classic and watching teams such as the 1972 New York Knicks, whom he believes could win a championship today because “they played together as a team.”
His favorite player is former University of San Francisco and Boston Celtics great Bill Russell. From his junior year in college through his professional career, Eppinette noted, Russell’s teams were 28-0 in the NCAA Final Four and the final games of NBA playoff series.
In those games, Eppinette added, Russell averaged 31 points and 19 rebounds.
After college, Eppinette went in search of a coaching position. The man who gave him the opportunity was Dave Lofgren, the principal at Clermont High School in Lake County.
Lofgren retired from Clermont 15 years ago. The school no longer exists, having been replaced by South Lake High several years ago.
“He was the most thorough coach,” Lofgren said. “He knew the game, knew the history, the great players and teams.
“Some of the veteran coaches were probably skeptical, like they are sometimes, but they soon found out how well-versed he was in all sports.”
Eppinette coached track as well as basketball. His track teams were also successful and both programs flourished. He won 15 district titles in 16 years in track and reached the postseason consistently in basketball.
His teams assumed characteristics that would follow him to Port St. Joe.
“The other teams would always feel good about the track meets until the Clermont team got off the bus,” Lofgren said. “And got off the bus. And got off the bus. He had more kids for that track team than I’ve seen in my entire life.”
The rapport with kids and Eppinette’s ability to communicate with his students and players was learned from Clermont’s football coach, Gene Foster. Foster taught Eppinette that dealing with kids is a two-way street.
He learned that rather than rail at kids it was better to teach them how to do things better. He learned the importance of teaching fundamentals through repetition; that you can’t take hard work for granted, and the need for praise.
“It has to be honest praise,” Eppinette said.
Eppinette soon learned to listen before speaking not just to what was said but what wasn’t said. And that poor performance was unacceptable.
“Teaching them is not teaching them what they don’t know, but teaching them how to behave differently than they know how to behave,” Eppinette said. “You get what you expect and you just don’t accept anything but the best. Young people are looking for discipline.”
Baxter said, “I looked up to him like a father. He was always there when I needed some advice, whether it was something on the court of off the court.”
Eppinette takes more pride in the six straight sportsmanship awards Port St. Joe has won than the five basketball titles his teams have snared in the same span.
One of his favorite stories concerns a road trip and a team meal at a restaurant.
Suddenly he heard a psstt nearby, from an older man who identified himself as a basketball coach of 35 years in Connecticut. The man asked Eppinette if the young men at the adjacent table were his players.
He explained that he just wanted to tell Eppinette that they were the best-behaved, most well-mannered kids he’d ever seen.
“That was better than any state championship,” Eppinette said.
Eppinette might still be at Clermont if not for the death of his parents. Three months after his father passed away his mother succumbed to cancer and Eppinette felt he’d done enough in coaching.
He remained Clermont’s athletic director, but when the new basketball coach had to be out of town due to family reasons for the start of the next season, Eppinette was asked to substitute.
“As soon as I got back in the gym I knew I had made a mistake,” Eppinette said.
He would not undermine the current coach, however.
“He’s one of the quality people you meet in education,” said Lofgren.
Eppinette moved to Mount Dora for a year and then on to Port St. Joe.
A typical year begins in June with summer league and a maximum of two tournaments. Players get July and August off – “They need to be kids” – and in September there is a meeting for those not competing in football or cross country.
One year that meeting consisted of two parties, Eppinette and one player. Last year there were five players.
“I want them to play other sports because they are in a situation where I know they are getting good instruction and the more times an athlete is in a situation where there is pressure, the better he’d handle it,” Eppinette said.
“I want them to be involved. I tell kids to get involved with as much as you can. You only have one shot.”
Practice and the season start in November. A 28-game regular-season schedule is used to prepare the team for the postseason. The system, the framework for success, is assembled a step at a time.
The goal, the coach said, is to peak sometime in January and “from there think about what we need to do to get ready for the tournament.”
“As long as he saw you were getting better every game,” Baxter said. “He’s very disciplined and doesn’t let you get away with nothing. He tries to teach you the mental aspects of the game. If you can out-think your opponent, you would win.
“He teaches the small things, putting your body on the legs of the opponents, boxing out on a rebound, keeping your eye out for weak-side defense. The little things that help you win. A lot of the fundamentals he taught me, coaches are teaching me now and it’s just a refresher. It’s stuff I’ve already learned.”
The results of indisputable: seasons of 19-7, 13-17, 21-9, 27-7, 31-3, 30-4, 31-3, 24-9 and 31-3 at Port St. Joe, all that championship hardware glistening in the school lobby.
Eppinette said he doesn’t get elated over wins, just as he tries not to sink too low over losses.
He’s earned three technical fouls in 26 years of coaching, two coming in one game. He has not incurred a referee’s whistle in the past 18 years, he said. Why waste the emotion and energy?
The goal is simply to always improve; be better every game.
Eppinette tells the story of a Russian athlete he escorted during a track coaching clinic back when the Cold War was still being waged.
The problem with American athletes, the foreigner told Eppinette, is that they want to take up a sport Monday, be proficient Tuesday and then win the championship on Wednesday.
“You have to have an overview of the long haul,” Eppinette said. “It’s not the joy you get when you win the state championship. The hard work that goes into it is what you look back on and derive satisfaction from and you don’t have to win a championship to feel that.”
With each new season, Eppinette sees new players, new challenges and something new to achieve. His team is not the defending state champion: each season brings a new state championship.
Eppinette, 50, figures he’ll be at Port St. Joe, “As long as I have the parents’ support and kids want to learn.”
Colleges have tried to lure him to the next level, he said, but the specter of recruiting was a negative that couldn’t balance the positives of greater exposure and financial rewards.
“It’s so political and not always above board, I couldn’t handle that,” Eppinette said.
So it’s likely Eppinette will retire in the shadow of the now silent mill.
“We have a community of people willing to work hard,” he said. “The school, the academics and the athletics are the center of who we are as a community.
“The recent string of success, it’s almost like a fairy tale. There is pressure there, the expectations are high… Mathematically you know it will come to an end. At some point we won’t be able to stay there.
“I haven’t lost that edge, yet. I’m more eager because of the journey.”
(Eppinette would take the Tiger Sharks to one last state Final Four, losing in the title game, before health issues would force his retirement from coaching and, in 2004, as an educator. He left Port St. Joe after 10 seasons, compiling a 258-64 record with eight Final Four trips and five titles. The gymnasium floor was later named in his honor. And he remained a vibrant mentor to many coaches and teachers and married his long-time girlfriend, teacher Judy Campbell.)
Vernon Eppinette, former educator and coach at Port St. Joe High School, passed away late Monday after a long illness. Visitation is 3-5 p.m. ET Saturday, May 17, followed by memorial services at 5 p.m. ET at R. Marion Craig Coliseum at Port St. Joe High School.