File Former Woodlan football coach Leland Etzler, right, talks with former school athletic director Ray Gilbert in 2005 after the school's field was named after the longtime coach. Etzler died Sunday at 78.
Wednesday, September 05, 2018 1:00 am
Etzler lived up to legend status
Coach's character impressed peers as much as his success
Reggie Hayes | For The Journal Gazette
The term “legend” gets bantered about all too frequently in sports. It should be used more judiciously, reserved for the truly deserving.
It should be saved for someone like former Woodlan High School football coach Leland Etzler.
“Legend” fits Etzler.
“I had the highest respect for him,” former Adams Central coach Rick Minnich said. “I played against him, coached against him. His teams were always very disciplined, and he was very strong in his faith.
“And his teams kicked our butts several times.”
Etzler, 78, died Sunday at Parkview Hospital Randallia surrounded by his family. His funeral is 11 a.m. Friday at Woodburn Missionary Church, 5108 Bull Rapids Road. Visitation is from 2 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the church.
For 40 years, from 1965 to 2004, Etzler walked the sidelines as Woodlan football coach. He chalked up the wins, with his 287 victories ranking highest in Allen County history and 13th in Indiana history. His teams won 11 ACAC titles and reached the Class A state title game in 1981. He was inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame in 2001. The football field at Woodlan bears his name.
Yet those who talk about him today mention his character first, his coaching second. Etzler was first-class in both categories.
“He was a father figure to many,” former Heritage football coach Dean Lehrman said.
Lehrman joined Etzler's staff as a first-year teacher in 1977. He spent nine years watching, learning and teaming up with Etzler for the weekly ACAC battles.
“Leland was one of the greatest mentors I could ever have had as a first-year rookie,” Lehrman said. “He taught me how to deal with young men and coach football.”
Minnich and Lehrman both used a singular word to describe Etzler's coaching style: Disciplined.
“He was a stickler for detail and just a traditionalist,” Lehrman said. “It had to be done right. It wasn't fancy. The offense we ran had a minimal number of plays. But the plays had to be done correctly every time.”
Denny Miesle first coached junior high football for Etzler in 1971 and spent many years as Woodlan wrestling and baseball coach. He echoes the importance of discipline and says Etzler's goal was always to put the students first.
“He was honest, sincere, unselfish,” Miesle said. “To him, it was about the kids and treating them the right way. I know when they dedicated the field to him, he said, 'I don't deserve this.' He never did it for himself. He would do anything for anybody, anytime. That's just how he was.”
The 1981 team is often considered the most memorable of Etzler's career, simply because the team advanced to the state championship game. Etzler wouldn't likely have singled out one team as his favorite – that wasn't his style – but the 1981 team generated small-town community buzz in a way very few teams could. The Warriors finished 11-3 and lost the title game 7-6 to Hamilton Southeastern.
Barry Ehle played on the 1981 team, returned later as an assistant coach under Etzler and was Woodlan's head coach for six years after Etzler retired. Ehle was among 52 former Etzler players to go into coaching.
Etzler was indeed a stickler for detail, practicing all possible scenarios. “He didn't like drawing plays up in the sand, as people say,” Ehle said.
“We're coaching at Adams Central one time and we haven't played well in the first half,” Ehle said. “Before we go in the locker room to see the players, we're talking about adjustments we need to make and Leland looks around at the coaches and says, 'You think I ought to lay into them? Should I go snap their attention?'”
Etzler, a picture of calm before he opened the door, walked in and let it rip.
“He actually planned his hellfire and brimstone speech,” Ehle said. “He left nothing to chance. That, to me, was typical Leland.”
Etzler's success could have led him to other schools, perhaps schools with larger enrollments and more players at his disposal. He stayed in Woodburn. A graduate of Monroeville High School, Etzler met his wife, Gayle, as a teacher at Woodlan. They had four children and celebrated their 50th anniversary two years ago.
Etzler taught math and physics at Woodlan and later became the school's guidance counselor. He was also the former owner/operator of the Dairy Sweet in Woodburn. He sang in the church choir.
Prior to his induction in the Indiana Football Hall of Fame, Etzler talked about his decision not to pursue other coaching jobs.
“When I was young and foolish, I thought about it,” Etzler said in 2001. “I thought about bigger, but I don't think that other word goes with it – better. Bigger isn't always better.”
Etzler forged on at Woodlan and became part of a cadre of coaches who represented the golden years of ACAC football. During Etzler's heyday, he coached against some of the conference's most successful coaches, including Minnich, Heritage's Bob Yager, South Adams' Kirk Sorg, Norwell's Gary Scott (before the Knights left the ACAC) and Southern Wells' Mark Lefebvre.
The Woodlan family, and Etzler's immediate family, received a scare in 2001 when the coach suffered an aortic aneurysm and had to undergo heart surgery. He became ill at midweek and missed that Friday night's game, the first one he'd missed in 36 years. He was back at it in relatively little time.
Ehle and Ed DeLong ran the team in his absence.
“I have a good staff and that points out what I've said a lot of times,” Etzler said in 2001. “Programs aren't run by one man.”
One man can, however, set the tone for a program, as Etzler did at Woodlan.
Etzler will be remembered for winning games over four decades, but more importantly for molding quality men. In his case, the term legend fits just fine.