July 18, 2008

Coach Jimmy Feix

An epiphany. It's when something hits you that seems so simple.

Coach Jimmy Feix had an epiphany standing on the baseball field at Fort Polk in Louisiana in 1956.

While Feix was serving in the U.S. Air Force, part of his responsibilities was to coach baseball, football and volleyball teams on the base. One June morning, Feix was showing a 15-year old boy how to pickoff a base runner.

As he was giving instructions, a C-119 Flying Boxcar plane went soaring overhead. Feix looked up and was immediately struck with what he wanted to do as a profession.

"There I was out on that field in the sunshine, the breeze blowing and the 15-year old eating up what I was talking about," Feix said. "I went home that day at noon and told my wife, Frankie, 'we're gonna get out of this air force. I'm gonna try to find a coaching job somewhere because I think I wanna be a coach.'"

After finishing his four year service commitment the following year, Feix joined the football staff of new coach Nick Denes at Western.

It wasn't that Feix was unfamiliar with football or the Hill, but he was new to coaching as a job.

Just four years earlier, Feix led the Toppers to a 9-1 record and victory in the Refrigerator Bowl, the school's first appearance in a bowl game. During Feix's four years at Western, from 1949-52, Western went 24-12-2. In his senior season, Feix led the country with a 63.1 completion percentage and threw for 1,581 yards and 15 touchdowns.

"I was able to play early, starting my third game as a freshman," he said. "I got to play a lot and played early. I remember that I was surrounded with a lot of good athletes."

Feix was good enough after his senior season to be drafted by the New York Giants but suffered a career-ending knee injury before the start if the NFL season. It was then that he went into the Air Force.

Feix joined Denes staff which consisted of four coaches: Feix, who coached the offensive backfield, Denes, Frank Griffin, who coached both the offensive and defensive lines and Turner Elrod, who coached the defense and their backs. Elrod was also Feix's high school coach at Barret High School in Henderson.

"I learned a lot from Coach Denes," Feix said. "He was a great man and a great coach. The principle thing I remember always is he emphasized that the player was the most important part of the program. The student athlete was the key and not to be carried away with how great a coach you were or what kind of facilities you had."

Feix was named the head coach when Denes retired, following the 1967 season. In 1968, L.T. Smith Stadium opened, symbolically beginning the Feix coaching era. It was a successful era. Feix went 106-56-6 during his 16 seasons as head coach, from 1968-83, the school's leader in wins.

"He was a great organizer, great moral values, a great person," former quarterback Leo Peckenpaugh said. "That stands out above anything else. He stands for and stood for all the right things in life. He won with class and we won a lot. He also lost with class. He was a fierce competitor. He despised losing but he was as gracious in defeat at recognizing the winner as anybody I've ever seen."

Western was the Division II national runner-up in 1973 and 1975. Peckenpaugh was a senior quarterback on the 1973 team.

The Toppers also churned out nine AP all-Americans and 73 all-Ohio Valley Conference selections.

But it was Feix's presence with and respect from his players that makes Feix such a commodity. He was a father figure to many and was beside his players through the good times and bad.

"The things that Coach Feix has done for me and all the other kids, we could never repay him," former linebacker and 1983 team captain Walter York said. "I don't know, it's almost like he was an oracle because he could see the future. He was worried about how his kids were gonna do in the future, than in the four years that I was there or the time that I knew him. I'm still good friends with Coach Feix."

Feix helped many of his players through his faith.

"He was absolutely one of the finest Christian men on this earth," former punter Adam Lindsey said. "He was a good influence on me and a good influence on a lot of my teammates that played at Western. He brought several people from that team that grew up on the rough side of life to know Christ and accept Christ in their life. He was basically some of the guys' liaison to what the church was about. He was a great influence on us as young adults."

In 1991, Feix was named to Western's inaugural hall of fame class. Later that year, Western named the field at L.T. Smith Stadium in his honor. He's also one of only three former Western football players to have his jersey retired, his number 66 hanging next to Virgil Livers and Willie Taggart.

"Most of those achievements were team awards as it were," Feix said. "The head coach gets the credit, too much credit and also gets the criticism, to much criticism. Those awards are recognition of the team accomplishments and staff accomplishments, of family sacrifices."

Feix is still seen around the field and at many of the football team's golf scrambles, banquets and other events. He's also a member of the w-Club and is an active ambassador.

"It keeps me going and I'm awful grateful to Coach (David) Elson," Feix said. "He's been so kind to Frankie and me, to include us in their program. It does me so good, almost like getting your battery charged to get in the car, drive up and find a parking place somewhere."

Feix's epiphany that day kept the football tradition in motion while also changing the landscape of football at Western. It's Feix's work at Western before and after his 'ah hah!' moment that has the school on its way toward the highest level of football.

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