WATERLOO — Tom Girsch remembers his first day as an assistant football coach at Waterloo Columbus in the summer of 1974.
Recently hired head coach Rick Hendryx was sitting in his tiny office inside the basement of what is now Oppold Gymnasium, and Hendryx gave Girsch his first assignment.
“It was a Saturday,” said Girsch. “He says, ‘I’m going to sit here and you go count them as they come in and see how many we get.’
“I came back and said, ‘We got 23’. He looked back at me and said, ‘it is worse than what I thought, but we can do this.’”
Girsch said Hendryx eventually came up to meet their players and the first thing he told them was “There are only 23 of us, but you are the foundation and we’re going to win a championship and you will be around when it happens.”
That first season Hendryx and the Sailors won two games, and the next year, one. In year three, 1976, Columbus won the Class 3A state football championship.
Sunday, at the age of 75, Hendryx passed way in a Des Moines hospice after a long battle with cancer.
“He had fought for a long time,” said friend Tim Miller, who also was assistant coach for Hendryx at Columbus. “I knew it was very serious cancer. I knew he had fought it off before, and it reoccurred. With all the pain the guy had been going through it had been a really tough, I would say, last 2 1/2, three years. He fought it a long, hard time.”
Miller, who retired as principal at West Des Moines Valley in 2018, added that Hendryx’s daughter, Anne, called on Thursday and told him Rick was going into hospice care and that it was a matter of time.
Columbus won another state title in 1986 under Hendryx and made a trip to the state playoffs seven times altogether under him, also losing in the 1984 state finals and in the 1985 semifinals. In 16 seasons at Columbus, Hendryx went 93-60, including a 90-43 after going 3-17 in his first 20 games.
“People called him hard-nosed,” said Aundra Meeks, who was a running back on Hendryx’s 1984 and 1985 squads before joining his staff in 1989 and then eventually leading the Sailors to the 2004 Class 2A state title as head coach.
“He was pretty straight forward and very meticulous, football smart. He was well respected across the state through his coaching,” Meeks said.
Hendryx was a football standout for legendary Cedar Rapids Regis coach Tom Good, graduating from Regis in 1962. He went on to letter at Iowa in 1964 and 1965, and then returned to Regis where he served as head baseball coach and Good’s assistant with the football program.
That is where a 14-year old Miller first met Hendryx.
“I was so fortunate,” Miller said. “Coach Good was a legend in his own time. Being coached by those two guys … just fortunate. You can’t really talk about Rick without mentioning Tom Good.”
After Miller graduated from Luther College, he worked for two years at Cedar Rapids Prairie before Hendryx lured him to Columbus in 1978.
In 1990 it was a reversal of roles that saw Hendryx assisting Miller.
Hendryx, lost his first wife, Lynn, in the late 1980s, and had gotten remarried to Charlene Smith, then an assistant principal at Columbus. Smith left for an administration post in Des Moines with Hendryx following after his final season at Columbus in 1989. He landed on Miller’s staff at Des Moines Lincoln where he assisted for two seasons, then taking over as head coach in 1992, coaching several more seasons before retiring from coaching in the mid-1990s.
“He was one of the most unique people I have probably ever met,” Miller said. “The man, No. 1, was a consummate football coach. He knew how to get the most out of his players. He understood football as well as anybody I ever coached with or was coached by.
“He knew the game. He had a feel for it. He was a natural coach. That was one of the things that I think was so unique about Rick and why he was so successful. Not only was he able to bring the best out of athletes and probably get them to overachieve, but he was adept at the game.
“They talk about good coaches always being a play or two ahead and wanting to be a series or two ahead. You wanted to have that feel of the game and when to do things and when was the right time to do things. He just had an unnatural feel for the game of football. The average fan wouldn’t know that, but when you are coaching along side of him and seeing the decisions he was making it was uncanny.”
Girsch, who assisted Hendryx for 16 seasons before replacing him as Columbus’ head coach in 1990, recalls another directive Hendryx gave him early on.
“I learned a lot from him on what to do and sometimes I learned what I shouldn’t do,” Girsch said. “I was a different person than Rick. But early on he told me, ‘Here is what it going to be like. I’m going to be the bad guy, and you are going to be the good guy. Disregard what I say, because you got to be the good guy, and I’m going to be the bad guy and we are going to win.' I asked if I could ever be the bad guy, and he said once in a while, but your job is to be the good guy after I get them down and you got to get them up when I’ve been the bad guy and we went with that for 16 years.
“He was a no non-sense guy, but he had compassion for the kids. He just didn’t let everybody know.”
And if there is one thing both Girsch and Miller said that stood out more than the rest, he loved beating the other metro schools.
“In 76, we started off 0-2 with close losses to Cedar Falls and to West who had Kelly Ellis and Jimmy Frazier,” Girsch said. “Then we beat East for the first time ever at Sloane Wallace and then we ran the table.”
The Sailors beat legendary coach Duane Twait and Emmetsburg riding the strong running of all-American Dave Berry in the 1976 title game, 13-7, and then 10 years later toppled Harlan and its outstanding coach Curt Bladt, 24-7.
‘We had a lot of tough kids from St. Mary’s and St. John’s that came through those early years, and when we beat East, started winning, everybody wanted to be a Sailor,” Girsch said.
“The games with Cedar Falls, East and West, the bigger the game, the bigger the opponent the more he thrived,” Miller added. “That was really when you saw him shine.”
Beyond the coaching, Miller and Hendryx were friends.
“It was a unique relationship that I will always cherish,” Miller said. “We went fishing all the time. My fondest memory is of last summer. He couldn’t move very well, but I found a place where I could get him in a Gator and we drove around and fished in different spots.
“He caught a great big ole fish and I have a picture of that I will hold onto forever.”
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