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CEDAR FALLS - John Aldrich, Sr., played many roles during his 85 years - teacher, coach, athlete, author, friend, mentor, husband and parent.

The people who knew Aldrich agree on one thing - he was a singular man.

Aldrich, a legendary sports fixture in the Cedar Valley for over a half-century, died Monday at home from natural causes. He was 85 years old.

"He was a class act and a classic act," said his daughter, Deborah Hodge.

"He was one of a kind," said Pat Mitchell, a friend of Aldrich and the head football coach at Cedar Falls High School. "It's the passing of a legend - I'll tell you that. He was larger than life."

Bob Lee was a student teacher under Aldrich at NU High in 1971. He worked with him as a faculty member and fellow coach for the Panthers over the ensuing 15 years.

"There's a hole in the athletic world," said Lee, the former track and cross country coach at NU and now an instructor at Northern Iowa. "Whether anyone can fill that, I doubt it."

A native of Providence, R.I, Aldrich played football and basketball at the University of Rhode Island. In fact, he competed in the 1944 National Invitational Tournament with his alma mater.

Eleven years later, Aldrich landed in Cedar Falls, becoming NU's head football coach and a physical education instructor.

He remained there for 31 years, retiring in 1986. Along the way, he also led the Panthers' tennis, track and baseball programs and worked as athletic director. A boys' track meet, the Aldrich Relays, is named in his honor.

Aldrich's work on the gridiron brought him national attention - as a writer. Aldrich was the author of "Single Wing Offense with the Spinning Fullback," published in 1983. Sports Illustrated mentioned the book in a 2008 story that chronicled the formation's rebirth.

"He was truly a dyed-in-the-wool single-wing coach," Mitchell said. "In his mind, there was no other way."

A member of the Iowa High School Coaches Hall of Fame, Aldrich posted a 120-49 record from 1955 to 1976 on the football field His sons, Steve and John, played for him.

"Dad was just very competitive," Steve Aldrich said. "He played the ballgame the way you should."

John Aldrich, Jr. recalled that his father/coach played it seven days a week. Sunday nights, his young assistant coaches, most of whom were football players at Northern Iowa, would drop by. Down to the basement they went to work on the game plan.

"Those are great memories," said Aldrich, Jr.

John Aldrich's son also said his father had perspective on his role.

"People always said what a great coach he was and this and that," said John Aldrich, Jr. "My dad's reply was, 'It's not the coach who makes the kids, it's the kids who make the coach.' He looked forward every day to getting up and going over to work with youth. He loved it. He just loved it when he coached."

Aldrich touched people in many ways beyond Xs and Os, touchdowns and match points.

Lee can remember walking into NU High early on a school day and hearing Aldrich singing.

"A lot of people didn't know that side of John," Lee said. "He was so big and gruff on the outside. Inside, he had a heart of gold".

And a personality that glittered.

"He just had a way," Mitchell said. "When he walked in a room, you knew the coach was there.

"Everybody from NU High to UNI people to Cedar Falls people knew him and liked him. He was an unbelievable personality and an unbelievable sports figure."

Services for John Aldrich, Sr. are scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at Nazareth Lutheran Church.

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