Editor’s Note: Jon Garver, a friend of Historically Inclined, recently reached the purported source of all football coaching clinics, a journey through history that ended, surprisingly, on Lake Superior’s South Shore. He chronicles his findings – along with some fascinating sidebars – in the following story.
Every university, it seems, has that one person who has gone on to achieve some measure of fame, and the University of Wisconsin-Superior is no exception. In my nearly two decades associated with the institution, when someone would ask who the most famous person was that ever affiliated with “Wisconsin’s Public Liberal Arts College,” I never had to do much thinking.
No, that isn’t a misprint. Back in the late 1970s, before gaining fame as Mr. Olympia, the Terminator or the governor of California, Schwarzenegger was a student at UW-Superior in the Extended Degree Program. While completing work on his degree in international marketing of fitness and business administration (an individually designed major), Schwarzenegger spent time on campus conducting workshops for university students, local schoolchildren and people living with disabilities. He eventually received his diploma in 1980.
In 1996, Schwarzenegger returned to UW-Superior as the featured commencement speaker and oh, the buzz in Superior, Wis., was incredible. The event, one at which he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters Degree for his philanthropy and volunteer work, particularly with the Special Olympics, was so widely anticipated that tickets had to be reserved to attend in person.
But the evening was far from perfect.
Fog in the Twin Ports forced Schwarzenegger’s flight to be re-routed from Duluth to Grand Rapids, Minn. In the meantime, graduation got underway without its guest of honor. Upon landing, a limousine ushered Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, to UW-Superior’s Wessman Arena for his speaking engagement. About an hour into the event, the giant overhead door opened and, clad in cap and gown, Schwarzenegger made the grandest of grand entrances.
Yours truly was a contrarian among the locals, opting instead to stay home and watch the live broadcast on a local cable channel. I can still hear Schwarzenegger quip, and I paraphrase, “Of all the degrees I’ve ever received, this one is the most…recent,” upon receipt of his honorary doctorate.
That’s one heck of a famous alumnus for UW-Superior, and an easy answer to the question of who is the most noteworthy Yellowjacket in history.
Then something changed for me in the last year, and not because of the Schwarzenegger marriage scandal or anything that he did or didn’t do, but rather because of an interesting discovery I made while researching for the Yellowjacket athletic department.
Schwarzenegger may still be the most famous alumnus in UW-Superior history, but there is another man who has arguably made an even larger contribution, and left a more indelible mark on society. And chances are you’ve never heard of him.
Ask me the above question today and I will tell you Ira “Irl” Tubbs is the most noteworthy person ever affiliated with UW-Superior.
That’s right, Ira Tubbs.
Readers everywhere are currently asking, “Who’s Ira Tubbs?” in much the same way the character of Charlie Donovan, the fictional Cleveland Indians general manager, asks his team’s owner, “Who’s Lou Brown?” regarding her choice to manage the team in the movie Major League.
With that in mind, please allow me to offer a short biography.
A standout quarterback and end in his playing days at William Jewell College, Tubbs carved out a niche as a coach, first in Superior at its Central High School (beginning in 1919, coaching future Pro Football Hall of Famer Ernie Nevers) and UW-Superior from 1922 until 1930. During this time he coached both football and basketball for the collegiate Yellowjackets, but it was his football squads that enjoyed the most success. Tubbs’ 1927 team finished second in the state and he followed that with a pair of state championships in 1928 and 1929. As a college football coach, Tubbs compiled a record of 37-19-6 in eight seasons. On the hardcourt, he guided the Yellowjackets to a 75-52 mark.
Tubbs also served as the athletics director during this period before resigning due to health issues.
A half-dozen years later, Tubbs resurfaced in Florida as the head coach at the University of Miami. “Once a coach, always a coach,” he said upon accepting the appointment. His belief was that football in the south was just coming into its own and the Hurricanes could someday have a bright future. He helped make that vision a reality by scheduling major opponents (South Carolina, Mississippi and Wake Forest) and leading Miami to an 11-5-2 mark over two seasons (1935-36).
Then Tubbs moved on to the University of Iowa, where he became the 14th coach in school history and presided over two fairly dubious campaigns before departing the coaching ranks.
But there is a lot more to Tubbs than his coaching resume.
For example, Tubbs played an integral role in the construction of UW-Superior’s on-campus gymnasium. The original Gates Gym, which was nicknamed “Tubbs Gym” by locals, opened in 1925. Earlier, Tubbs organized and conducted the first-ever coaches clinic in the United States, in 1923. A document compiled by UW-Superior in 1970 states:
Ira Tubbs, the great immortal, football coach, athletic director, inventor and gentleman originated the very first Coaching Clinic in America. The first clinic was held on the Wisconsin State University, Superior campus in August of 1923. In 1924, the phenomenal great football coach Knute Rockne was the guest clinician and over 250 high school, college, and university coaches attended for a two-week period. Each coach was required to actually participate in skills, techniques, and strategies of the game. At the conclusion of the clinic, each coach had to pass a test and then was given a grade for his effort while in camp. Other such clinicians were Doc Meanwell, Biff Jones, and many others. The clinic was dropped in 1930 until 1956. Mertz Mortorelli, football, wrestling, track coach, and athletic director reestablished and reorganized the original Coaches Clinic of America and it continued until 1970, and hopefully, will be allowed to again bring to the northern Wisconsin area nationally renowned coaches with new and fresh coaching ideas. Some of the great nationally known coaches that were guest lecturers from 1956 to the present are: the great immortal Vince Lombardi, Bill Austin, Adolph Rupp, Ara Parseghian, Branch McCracken, Milt Bruhn, Forest Evancheski, Bob Devaney, Wally Johnson, Bob Swift, George Martin, Murray Warmath, Ralph Miller, Swartzwalder, Jucker, Danny Devine, and many, many other greats. Mertz Mortorelli was the clinic director from 1956-1966. Dr. Glenn Gerdes from 1966-1969 and Mertz Mortorelli again in 1969-1970. The popularity of the clinic declined in 1966 when the clinic emphasized only classroom experience and very limited and practically no social activities.
That list is a veritable “who’s who” among coaches from the era. Rupp, the legendary University of Kentucky basketball coach is fifth all-time in wins among NCAA men’s college basketball coaches. Parseghian and Devine had back-to-back stints as the head football coach at Notre Dame. Meanwell (basketball) and Warmath (football) are coaching icons at the University of Wisconsin and University of Minnesota, respectively. And for most, Lombardi needs no introduction. All of them are legends, and all of them conducted various seminars and lectures in Superior at the earliest coaching clinics in the nation (Mortorelli, who is mentioned prominently in the story, was no slouch himself. A longtime coach and administrator at UW-Superior, Mortorelli amassed more than 800 wins in over 100 seasons of competition as a coach of eight sports from 1954 until his death in 1985).
Another example of Tubbs’ lasting impact, one that has likely crept its way into the most lives, is the needle valve, which Tubbs is credited with inventing. What is the needle valve? On inflatable balls – basketballs, footballs, volleyballs, tetherballs, and simple rubber balls you find in giant bins at retail stores, there is a small, round indentation where a needle is inserted and air is pumped into it. UW-Superior records indicate that Tubbs invented the needle valve in 1924. So if you’ve ever played with a ball that was inflated with air, you have utilized one of Tubbs’ innovations.
There are others, such as advances in the quality of padding used in football pants, but it is the needle valve that cemented his place in history.
For his efforts as a coach and his contributions to sports, Tubbs was chosen as a member of the inaugural class of the UW-Superior Athletic Hall of Fame in 1963. Seven years later, he passed away in Illinois.
So which is it? Which person has the title of UW-Superior’s most noteworthy? Is it Schwarzenegger with his memorable catch phrases and movie roles, or Tubbs and his inventions and innovations, which, and it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to say, may have touched the life of nearly every person on the planet? For me it’s now the latter, although I do have a soft spot for Schwarzenegger as Detective John Kimble (Kindergarten Cop), John Matrix (Commando) and of course, the Terminator.
Regardless of choice, the fact that a small, public liberal arts college in northwestern Wisconsin can lay claim to both is remarkable.
- Jon Garver
(For more on Tubbs, his innovations and his move to Miami, click here for a Milwaukee Journal feature from 1935.)