SANDPOINT — Once in a while you stumble across an iconic photo that warrants more than just a quick glance, that is clearly worth more than a thousand words.
Former Lake City athlete and coach and current Sandpoint athletic director Kris Knowles has a timeless photo hanging on his office wall from the first game ever played at what is now Sandpoint Middle School. The black and white photo from the 1953-54 basketball season is brimming with nostalgia, and features three sports legends among its ranks.
West Valley High School, coached by Jud Heathcote, was facing Sandpoint, coached by Cotton Barlow, before an absolutely packed house. Among the Bulldogs was a strapping young three-sport athlete named Jerry Kramer.
If you’re from North Idaho, and play basketball or wrestle, chances are you’ve spent some time in the SMS gym, which looks and feels like something straight out of Hoosiers.
The photo begged for more context, so calls were made to a couple of the players on that Sandpoint team — Doug Schedler of Coeur d’Alene and Ralph Hawkins of Sandpoint — to find out what basketball was like some 65 years ago today.
FIRST OFF, we’d be remiss not to say Rest in Peace Coach Heathcote, who passed away in August. The College Basketball Hall of Fame coach cut his teeth at West Valley from 1950-1964, before taking a job as an assistant at WSU and eventually becoming the head coach at the University of Montana.
He led the Griz to the NCAA tournament in 1975, where they were upset in the Sweet 16 by a little program called UCLA. Four years later, Heathcote coached Magic Johnson and Michigan State to an NCAA championship, the top line of a sterling coaching résumé that spanned decades.
A lesser-known fact is that Heathcote also coached the late Billy Peoples, of Butte, Montana, to a National handball championship while at UM, and remained involved in the niche sport into his 70s. He often showed up to watch the finals of the Lilac Handball Tournament at the Spokane Club.
Schedler, a 6-3 junior forward in that first ever game at the new gym, won 49-42 by West Valley, remembers playing against Heathcote and like many in these parts, enjoyed following his decorated college coaching career.
“Oh yes, he was a tough coach. He and Barlow were buddies,” recalls Schedler, adding that the two teams played each other twice a year back then and the two coaches were well acquainted. “They had a mutual admiration for each other. He was a super coach. He could out-coach Barlow.”
Schedler, now 81, left Sandpoint after graduation and moved to Coeur d’Alene where he and his son, Stan, once a three-sport athlete at Coeur d’Alene who qualified for state in the 400 meters, run a longtime local insurance business.
The most memorable game Schedler ever played in at Sandpoint was a stinging loss on a buzzer-beating heave against the rival Vikings, a moment he remembers well.
“Coeur d’Alene was always a big rival. In one of the games, we were ahead by one point with a few seconds to go,” recalls Schedler. “Wes Wood, from Coeur d’Alene, he threw that son-of-a-gun from beyond half court and they beat us by one point.”
ANOTHER sports icon in the photo is Jerry Kramer, who played for Barlow in football and basketball before starring at the University of Idaho and for the Green Bay Packers in a decorated career. Provided the NFL Hall of Fame voters come to their senses and don’t inexplicably shaft him again, Kramer could soon be having his bust enshrined in its rightful place in Canton, Ohio.
But back to 1953. Sandpoint was led by a player named Kenny Armstrong, a lithe 6-foot-6 post who scored 20-plus points against West Valley. Other players on the team included Duane Emery, Don Farrar, Paul Kelly, Roger Olson, David Walker, Thane Fowler, Wayne Rogers, Ralph Hawkins, Leon Lewis, Schedler and Kramer.
Armstrong drew both the attention and hard fouls of opposing defenses, before Kramer, who had a hand injury and didn’t start, would come off the bench to spell the much taller Armstrong.
“In those days, that (6-foot-6) was a giant, but he was very thin and people used to beat on him. Jerry was built very strong and would go in there for Kenny and straighten those guys out,” said Schedler, likening Kramer to an enforcer. “He’d get in there and knock the crap out of those guys. When he’d leave the court, he’d say ‘don’t you touch him (Armstrong), or I’ll cream you.’”
Another quirky feature of the old gym, which was designed by Barlow and ultimately built smaller and more intimate to meet cost constraints, was a running track above the court, just in front of the elevated bleachers.
Hawkins, a longtime Sandpoint resident, admits it changed how you had to play on the baselines.
“You couldn’t shoot from the corner, it cut the corners off,” describes Hawkins of the track, which was eventually removed. “It gave us a little advantage over the other team.”
Hawkins was younger than Kramer and didn’t know him that well in high school, but like most Idahoans, is immensely proud of the Sandpoint product and his All-Pro career as a championship-winning guard for Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers.
“We knew what he done. He went on and became a celebrity, there’s no doubt about that,” recalls Hawkins, remembering Kramer’s famous block to win the Ice Bowl. “He made that great play, pushed ol’ Bart Starr over the line.”
THERE’S a reason the football field in Sandpoint is named Barlow Stadium at War Memorial Field. As great North Idaho coaches go, it’s tough to find many better than Barlow, who went on to coach at Coeur d’Alene High School for years after his time in Sandpoint.
Schedler played for Barlow in the 16-team state tournament in Pocatello as a junior, then in a four-team state tournament the next year in Coeur d’Alene after the state switched playoff formats.
Just like Kramer has in so many of his speeches, Schedler spoke of his former coach with great fondness.
“Cotton was a nice guy. He could have run for mayor and been elected,” says Schedler. “He was a tough taskmaster. If you didn’t play hard, you were sitting on the bench. He said ‘we don’t have the best talent, but we’re going to run everybody to death.’”
Hawkins, who played safety for Barlow on the football team and forward for him on the hoops court, said he was better at coaching football than basketball, and the sterling win-loss percentages from the former back up the claim. But a good coach is a good coach is a good coach, regardless of what sport he plies his trade, and Barlow’s hoops teams were rock solid.
While the photo smacks of a bygone era, the same spirit can still be found in gyms all over the country. And if you think the Bulldogs played an old-fashioned four corners offense, or shot two-handed jumpers back then, let Schedler set you straight.
“We played Orofino in the district tourney, and Cotton went down to scout them. He came back and said ‘they’re a good team and they have more talent. We’re going to run them to death,’” claims Schedler. “That was one of his signature things, he ran us. Orofino led all game, then in the fourth quarter, they couldn’t keep up with us. We tired them out, they were dragging their tails.”
Eric Plummer is the sports editor of the Daily Bee in Sandpoint. For comments, suggestions or story ideas, he can be reached at email@example.com.