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It has been 55 years since one of Portage County's finest coaches stood on the sideline.
Even so, Jack Cordier can recall seemingly every detail -- with a twinkle in his eye.
There's a reason for that -- what Cordier accomplished in Atwater is pretty unforgettable.
Before consolidation, long before Waterloo left the Portage Trail Conference, in part because the Vikings found it difficult to stay competitive, Cordier's Atwater Spartans had the Portage County League by the neck.
As Ron Briggs, who graduated Atwater in 1960, recalled, the Spartans might get dominated in football, but they would simply tell their opponents, "When basketball comes, it's our turn." It nearly always was, as the Spartans won roughly 93.75 percent of their games under Cordier. Naturally, they attracted quite the following, with "hellacious pep rallies," according to Gary Huber, another Atwater Class of 1960 member, and loud crowds.
"You had better get there early, because there wouldn't be any seats," Briggs said.
The details haven't escaped Cordier's mind. In an instant, he flashed back to Bob Babich, a senior on his first team, and the night he scored 44 points in a county-tournament showdown with Mantua and Mantua's prized big man Art Youngblood. He goes even further back and remembers name by name, position by position the kids he gathered for his recreational baseball team when he was a teenager.
Whether it was those Canton recreational baseball leagues or the Portage County League, Cordier rarely lost. At one point, his Spartans won 42 straight league games. Atwater took the PCL in seven of Cordier's eight years at the helm. And then like Barry Sanders, Cordier left at the top of his game, to become a Superintendent, first at Atwater and then for decades at Mogadore. It wasn't that he tired of coaching kids; rather, it was that he had five children of his own at home, and superintendent was a more lucrative position.
"I loved coaching," Cordier said. "(Leaving) was always about the money."
Money was in short supply growing up, Cordier explained. Like many children raised in the wake of the Great Depression, Cordier worked from a young age.
"I always worked. We never (owned) a house," Cordier said. "Everyone was poor. You worked in the steel mill when there were jobs."
Even when Cordier coached the team, he drove a beat-up Ford, with the driver's seat propped up by a piece of wood, Huber recalled. At the time, Cordier made extra money by selling encyclopedias, and he found that his players and their families made good customers.
With their parents at work, Cordier and his friends formed their own baseball team in the Canton recreational league, or, rather, Cordier, an aspiring player-manager, put a team together. He managed to get the neighboring grocery store to sponsor his team. There was only one problem -- Cordier and his group of friends didn't win a game all summer. For some, that might be fine -- it was a great chance to have fun on the diamond with friends. Not Cordier -- he wanted to win and so he traveled around the city searching for good ballplayers.
"I went all over the city the next year to pick the best players," Cordier said. "I knew the good players. It was a knack I had."
Among the players he found were Eli Popa, who went on to play football at the University of Illinois; John Rogers, a member of the Canton McKinley Hall of Fame; and Nick Petroff, another Canton McKinley Hall of Fame member who went on to play for Ohio University. Cordier, himself a four-year starting shortstop at Canton Lehman, wasn't bad himself. Growing up idolizing Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau, Cordier said he got a good look from baseball legend and then-Indians scout Bill Bradley, who, impressed by how hard Cordier hit the ball, told the teenager he wanted to make a third baseman out of him.
"I'm sure I could've made it," Cordier said. "I was probably the fastest kid in the whole area. I don't think I ever got caught stealing."
The only problem was Cordier didn't want to play third base; he wanted to play shortstop.
Still, if his stubbornness didn't suit him well in that moment, his knack for finding talent, first demonstrated in the Canton recreational baseball leagues, served him well soon enough. After several years working at the Ravenna Arsenal, Cordier realized it was time to shift career paths as the Korean War came to an end, which is ultimately how he ended up at Atwater and coaching the Spartans.
He found great talent there, too, from Babich to Chick Campbell, who made Second Team All-Ohio in 1961-62 and played for Mount Union, and Jack Doerfler, who made Third Team All-Ohio in 1956-57. Doerfler, Briggs said, might have averaged 35 points per game had there been a 3-pointer back then.
"Doerfler was an all-around player," Briggs said. "He rebounded, he passed, he just had the natural ability. He was probably one of the first guys in Portage County to make the jump shot a premier shot."
Campbell had a sharp shot, too.
"He lit it up," Huber said. "There wasn't a shot he didn't like."
At Atwater, Cordier proved he not only could find talent -- he could develop it.
Cordier was meticulous in how he ran practices. Every day started with every player shooting 100 free throws -- with a lap for every missed free throw.
"We won a lot of games just because of the foul line," Huber said.
Cordier always had his team focus on fundamentals. Huber remembered a drill in which two players started with the ball -- and grabbed back and forth to see who would end up with it. The Spartans spent up to 15 minutes in a single practice working on jump balls, in an era when there were no alternating side-outs in place of jump balls. They worked on passing and receiving -- with a ping-pong ball. On Black Wednesday, Cordier said, he had his "farmer kids" wear the boots they did their chores in to practice, and further bogged them down with 10-pound weights on their ankles for Jumping Jacks.
"We'd go over every fundamental in the game," Huber said.
They also pressed relentlessly.
"We never lost a game because of foul shooting," Cordier said. "The other thing we prided ourselves on were turnovers. Those are the things that are key today, too. The team that turns the ball over the most usually loses."
During those grueling practices, Cordier rarely yelled.
"I don't remember ever being yelled at by him," Briggs said.
Huber responded, "When his head got red, I knew he was serious."
When he was really mad, Atwater alum Jim Manion recalled, the Spartans would shuffle back and forth in defensive drills, seemingly endlessly.
"He was just pointing his finger," Manion said. "The madder he was, the longer you did it."
That intense competitiveness never left Cordier -- as his former players and golfing buddies would eagerly attest.
Norm Lingle, brought in to coach football at Mogadore while Cordier was Superintendent, golfed with Cordier for many years. He recalled a number of memorable golf trips with Cordier, former Mogadore basketball coach Tom McClary and former Mogadore football coach Bill Evans. Cordier, Lingle said, golfed on days most people wouldn't even think about leaving the house.
"We would golf all day and come home, and Bill and his wife, of course, they would entertain us," Lingle said of their many golf trips. "We would generally go out to dinner and then we'd come home and play cards until 11 p.m."
Whether it was golf or poker, Cordier simply had to win.
"It didn't matter whether it was golf or whether it was cards, he'd just want to cut your throat," Lingle said. "We've had some classic card games and we've had some classic golf games, because he would bet on anything. It's amazing some of the things we would bet on."
Beyond the competitiveness, Lingle said Cordier simply made him laugh, to the point where he would almost cry.
"It's easy to like a winner, but he was beyond that," Huber said.
Briggs added, "He was a legend in Atwater."