Fleckenstein leaves behind legacy
‘Coach’ left mark on players, community
By Greg Seubert
Two people have held the title of varsity football coach at Iola-Scandinavia High School since 1969.
Scott Erickson has coached the Thunderbirds since the 1994 season.
Before that, the job belonged to Steve Fleckenstein, who most people called “Coach.”
Fleckenstein, who coached the T-Birds to a 131-88-2 record from 1969-93, passed away April 24 at his Iola home at age 89.
“During football season, his time was dedicated to those boys on the field,” said his daughter, Holly Neumann. “I kept stats for him at the time and I could see the love of the game and for his players every time he was out there.
“He used to make us take stats from the opposite side of the field that he was on, so we always got a good view of him running up and down the field and throwing his clipboard,” she said. “It always made us laugh.”
Fleckenstein’s teams won five conference championships; made five playoff appearances; and had undefeated seasons in 1975, 1978 and 1986.
That success continued under Erickson, who played for Fleckenstein and later spent 10 years with him as an assistant coach.
“You could always go to him and talk about your personal life, as well as football,” Erickson said. “He was always there to listen and that was a side that I got to see more and more. I coached with him for 10 years and we did a lot of things together. We went to other ballgames and rules meetings together. I probably got to know him a little better than a lot of people because I got to see him from a couple of different angles as a player and coach.”
Hall of Fame
The Wisconsin Football Coaches Association inducted Fleckenstein into its Hall of Fame in 1998, five years after he retired as a physical education teacher and football coach.
The recognition was a big deal for Fleckenstein, according to Neumann.
“He had a class ring that he was so proud of wearing,” she said. “He invited some of his players to take part in that presentation. It meant the world to him. I don’t think he ever realized how much of an impact he made on the lives of players and students, but that was some acknowledgment that he was successful.”
Twenty years later, Fleckenstein and his wife, Dottie, attended a pep rally at the school for the football team, which was heading to Madison in November 2018 to face Racine Lutheran for the WIAA Division 6 state championship.
“He hugged me and he’s a father figure that some kids never had,” Erickson said. “It made a big difference in a lot of peoples’ lives.”
The T-Birds returned home from Camp Randall Stadium with a 43-14 win and the program’s first-ever state championship.
The following summer, Neumann brought Fleckenstein, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, to a football practice in Iola.
“Anything that had to do with football was important to him,” she said. “To be able to be there and be a part of that was important. It made him feel good. I will never forget that day because Scott had talked to the players beforehand.
“He introduced my dad as a former coach and second father figure to him,” she added. “After Scott talked to the boys, every one of those players got up and shook my dad’s hand.”
“It’s pretty special when you have your former coach that you played for come and watch your practice,” Erickson said. “I wanted to make sure that my guys appreciated that. I had them shake his hand, meet him and say hi to him. Those moments are special.”
“Dad cried as we were walking away,” Neumann said. “It was meaningful for him to be a part of that.”
A special connection
Fleckenstein grew up in Milwaukee, graduated from Custer High School in 1950 and played football at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“When he played football in high school, he was little,” Neumann said. “He didn’t even weigh 100 pounds when he first started.”
Fleckenstein later attended Wisconsin State College-La Crosse, now UW-La Crosse, where he competed on the school’s gymnastics team.
He coached track and was an assistant football and basketball coach at La Farge High School in southwestern Wisconsin before he and Dottie moved to Iola. He ended up teaching physical education for 35 years, including 24 at Iola-Scandinavia. He was also the assistant girls’ basketball coach from 1976-82.
Fleckenstein had a special bond with the players he coached over the years, according to Neumann.
“He had a great connection with them,” she said. “Some of those boys still keep in touch with him today. There was a time in my life when I used to be jealous of some of that, but he was still my dad. He was there for just about anything: when they got in trouble, when they got married. I remember going with my dad when Scott had his first baby. He stayed involved as much as he could with all of them.”
Erickson recently visited his former coach.
“I got to spend some time two weeks ago when he got home from the hospital,” he said. “He repeated himself a lot, but he still joked around and had fun. He always left you with a little comedy when you had a conversation with him. He was always fun to be around.”
Neumann helped care for her father after the Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
“He’d forget some of the simple things, but if you asked him something about football, he’d recall it every time,” she said. “When he would go to the doctor, one of the questions they’d ask him is what year it is. He would always say, ‘1974.’ We never knew the significance of that, but that the year of one of his favorite teams in football.”
Life after football
Fleckenstein missed coaching the T-Birds after he retired, but ended up coaching an Iola-Scandinavia Pee-Wee team for three years.
“He got the opportunity to coach my son, Devin Paulson, in that program,” Neumann said. “He had coached my other son, Braden, in flag football. Being in a tackle football program with one of his grandchildren was meaningful to him.
“If he could have stayed coaching without teaching, he would have done it,” she said. “At the time, they had to offer it to a teaching position. He had a big Rubbermaid container of football memorabilia and in there was a letter that he wrote to the school board saying that he wanted Scott to have not only his teaching position, but to coach.”
“I appreciated him giving me that opportunity to coach,” Erickson said. “When you’re a young person, sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to do. I was at the university in Stevens Point at the time taking some classes. His assistant coaches were leaving the next year and he asked me if I wanted to coach and I said, ‘Yeah.’ My first day as an assistant coach is when I knew the path I wanted to take. I really dug my heels in and finished my degree to be a teacher and a coach.”
Fleckenstein told Erickson what he needed to know to take the program over.
“You had to have a tough side to take the adversity that goes along with the success,” he said. “You’re going to get challenged by parents and community members that think they know more and you had to learn how to let that roll off your back and not let them take you over.”
“I asked him the other day what his favorite part of coaching was and he said, ‘Bringing glory to Iola-Scandinavia, the little town with the big heart,’” Neumann said. “I asked him how he brought glory to Iola-Scandinavia and he said, ‘By installing a winning attitude in all his players that they can carry on throughout their lives.’”
“He was always very disciplined and very demanding,” Erickson said. “He always thought you could do better than what you thought you could do and he put that mindset in your mind that you could accomplish anything if you work hard enough. If you made a mistake, he jumped you, but it was because he believed you could do it. It wasn’t because he was mad at you. He always pushed you to be better than what you were. His demands were tough, but you lived up those demands and you gave it all you had. Maybe you fell short sometimes, but he got everything out of you that you possibly could give.”
A visitation for Fleckenstein will be held from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 30, at the Iola-Scandinavia Community Fitness & Aquatic Center gym, with the funeral service to follow at 6:30 p.m.
“The last few days, the messages and comments about little things he did for people has been one of the things that have helped our entire family through this,” Neumann said. “One girl talked about how in gym class she was running and when she finally ran the whole distance, he bought her ice cream.
“It was the little things that made him special,” she said. “At such a sad time, we’ve also had lots of laughs and time to share stories of things he’s done over the years. That’s been wonderful.”