By GARY DOVE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Coaching football, especially in high school, is about a lot more than “Xs and Os” and “wins and losses.”
Coach Mitch Estep, who retired from that profession last week, after spending 34 years as a football mentor, with 33 of those as a head coach at Iaeger and River View high schools, bears witness to that opening statement.
The “wins” were there, as Estep’s teams compiled a 212-135-1 record with him as head coach, going to the playoffs 13 times, including the last three trips by River View in its initial three years of existence.
Over this past weekend, after deciding to hang up his whistle, the personable Estep sat down to talk about the last 34 years, doing what he loved to do.
When asked about the memories, he gushed, “There are so many that stand out. Memories of being with a different group of kids each year, memories of players over the years, time spent with the other coaches; what it (football program) has meant to the community.
“It was a good opportunity for someone (himself) to be a part of doing what I wanted to do,” he assessed.
Always someone who wasn’t after the personal glory, but rather making certain everyone shared in any praise for the accomplishments of the teams he coached, Estep continued, “I want to mention five people who have been in it with me for the long haul, who have influenced me:
“The first one is my Mother, who was very supportive when I wanted to go out for football in junior high school, and who is still a very positive influence in my life. She still keeps up with what is going on with River View and follows what I am doing.”
“Coach (Howard ‘Butch’) Bivens has been a mentor to me. He is like a Father to me. There’s a saying, ‘Be like Mike.’ I wanted to be like Coach Bivens. I wanted to be like him and have the same impact as he did on his players. He helped me get started in coaching and still supports me, cutting the grass on the field and he is willing to do anything he can for the program.”
Bivens was Estep’s coach in high school at Iaeger and was in his final season as the Cubs’ head football coach when Estep came out of college and became an assistant in 1979 at his alma mater. Coach Bivens guided Iaeger to its first-ever football playoff appearance in 1979, but stepped down after the season, opening the door for Mitch Estep to begin his head coaching career.
“Coach (David) Addair and I have been together over 30 years as coaches,” Coach Estep continued. “I can’t imagine coaching and not seeing Coach Addair on the sidelines with me. He’s been like a brother to me. We and our families spent a lot of time together away from football.”
“Doris Wimmer has been there 30 years as our trainer. She seemed to know what I wanted done and I seemed to know what she wanted done. She has been a big part of our program.”
“My wife, LeFon, she’s been such a part of my life as a player and as a coach. We’ve had a lot of late dinners and there have been a lot of things we’ve missed (due to coaching hours). From August to November, our house was all about football. She was cheerleading coach and actually was an assistant football coach one year.
“We coached girls’ softball together seven years. She has been so supportive. She’s the one I go to when I have a problem. She’s been a real big part of it all.”
Looking back at his childhood and his decision to become a teacher and a coach, Estep recalled, “In junior high, I kind of got the idea I would like to become a coach, if at all possible…In the 11th grade, I really decided that is what I wanted to do, and I was fortunate enough to be able to do what I wanted in life.”
In junior high and high school, Estep played football, basketball and track.
After a stellar football career at offensive guard and linebacker at Iaeger, he played football at Bluefield State College, where he was fast enough to move to defensive back and perform for the Big Blues.
Addressing his longevity in the profession, Coach Estep quipped, “I played with some players and later coached their sons and now I have coached their grandsons.”
Speaking to his coaching philosophy, he continued, “We tried to teach more than just football. We tried to instill lessons for life, how to be good husbands; how to be good fathers; to be respectful of others.”
“Now, I’ll see former players and they’ll introduce me to their wives and their children and tell me about their jobs. That makes me feel proud of who they have become, that they want them to meet their old football coach.”
Coach Estep had earlier this year retired from teaching. He talked of his classroom work, “I had a back-up plan, in case the coaching didn’t work out. My degree was in business, so I taught business for years and Physical Education. I enjoyed that part of my career. I just felt like it went hand-in-hand.”
He went on to talk of his experiences in coaching, “I worked with a lot of great people. I worked with a lot of great players. I got to go a lot of places…I always felt we had good coaches, with good moral character, who had different things to bring to the table. Our common goal (as coaches) was to do what was best for the kids.”
Estep continued, “We always got a lot of support from all the administrations, from the central office at the Board of Education to the school administrations. The community support was really good. We had to sell the program to start, but the community got on board and supported the program, from the band, to the cheerleaders, to everybody. We tried to involve everyone.”
“You have to have good players, who believe in what you’re doing,” he concluded.
Looking forward at things he’ll miss not being head coach, Estep related, “I’ll miss the practices, the games, the excitement on Friday night, teaching the players and working with the other coaches.”
He went on to say, “There are not many times you get that feeling like you do on Friday night (before and during games).”
Several times in the talk, Coach Estep remarked, “I didn’t do anything by myself. It was a total effort by the other coaches and players, along with everyone who supported us.”
One of the proud accomplishments Estep talked about was his attendance. In 34 years as a head and assistant coach, he only missed one practice — that was when his older daughter Malorie was born — and he didn’t miss any football games over that same span, either varsity or junior varsity.
Addressing his retirement from coaching, he spoke, “In 34 years, I learned that coaching football is a 24/7 job (during football season). If you are going to spend time with your family and take care of other obligations, you can’t spend the time you need on football.”
Estep has plans to spend more time with his parents, along with his wife, LeFon, daughter Malorie and son-in-law Michael and their two children and his younger daughter Megan.
Always a very religious man, Coach Estep quoted what he called “His motto,” from over the years, “Pray, work hard, do your best and to God leave the rest.”
He concluded, “I wish the best for River View. I will always be a Raider fan.”