By Bill Sullivan
NEW MIDDLETOWN — Friend. Coach. Role model. Idol. Legend. A good man. A gentlemen.
Those are just a few of the many accolades being bestowed on Leigh Klingensmith, former boys basketball coach at Springfield Local High School.
Several of the students and players he influenced will gather at a memorial service at St. Paul the Apostle Church at 3 p.m. Saturday to pay tribute.
Klingensmith, 72, died July 18 in Sarasota, Fla.
While there has been an outpouring of kind words throughout the community about Klingensmith, a common thread of respect has appeared in every conversation.
That is respect for Klingensmith as a leader, as a coach and as a motivator.
Springfield High athletic director Jeff Dyer said Klingensmith’s influence transcended the basketball gym.
“Leigh’s legacy in Springfield is not just his wins on the basketball court, but more with the people he helped and influenced during his tenure in the Springfield School District,” Dyer wrote in an e-mail.
“Leigh led the way to unite a school district made up of three distinct communities (Petersburg, New Springfield and New Middletown) into a polarized body that come together still today for a common goal to help the youth of the township through education and athletic training.
“For that we are grateful for Leigh Klingensmith.”
In his 15 years as head basketball coach there, the Tigers amassed a 232-95 record and had just one losing season.
Klingensmith went full circle coaching boys basketball at Springfield High.
Early in his career he was the head coach there for 15 years and twice took the Tigers to the state final four, finishing as the runner-up in 1968.
Although he retired from coaching basketball there after the 1975-76 season, the sport remained in his blood.
In 1983 Dom Daltorio was hired as the Springfield head coach and he immediately hired Klingensmith as his assistant.
“He jumped as the chance,” Daltorio said.
“He was the best available. He loved Springfield and he loved the basketball program. He was a great coach.”
Klingensmith spent a decade under Daltorio, who at one time worked coaching the Tiger junior varsity under him.
“He had that passion,” Daltorio said.
“I surrounded myself with one of the best coaches in the area. The kids loved him; he was such a fierce competitor.
“He brought a lot to the table — he got the kids to play hard. He was a stickler for conditioning. He was from the old school basketball.”
Mark Metzka, a 1991 graduate of Springfield, said, “He had a big impact on me. He knew how to motivate a player to get the best out of his ability.”
Klingensmith was the junior varsity coach there when Metzka was a freshman at Springfield.
That was 20 years after Klingensmith had coached the Tigers to the state championship game, the highest level in school history.
Metzka later played basketball at Slippery Rock University and still works there.
One of his first players had more kind words for the coach.
“I think Leigh was the greatest high school basketball coach to ever come out of this area,” said Bob Pekkanen, who graduated from Springfield in 1967 and played for Klingensmith.
What made him so special?
“His ability to motivate you to work,” Pekkanen said. “We went year-round before it was popular — we lifted weights, we ran, we played outdoors.
“He had that ability to get the best out of a player, to strive to be better, to have admiration for what he turned the team into.”
Metzka said “He could challenge you. If the coach thought I could do it, I believed I could.”
Leigh Klingensmith Milestones
Springfield Local hall of fame basketball coach Leigh Klingensmith died last month. Some of the highlights of his career:
1960 — hired as a teacher and boys basketball coach at Springfield High at age 23.
Head boys basketball coach there for 15 years with an overall record of 232-95. In that spell the Tigers recorded 14 straight winning seasons, won seven sectional titles, captured three district championships and reached the state Final Four twice.
1963 — Springfield lost a state semifinal basketball game.
1968 — Springfield lost a state championship basketball game.
1975 — left coaching to become principal of Springfield Intermediate School.
1983 — takes position as junior varsity basketball coach at Springfield, a job he held through 1991.
1992 — retired from Springfield school district.
2006 — inducted into the inaugural class of the Springfield athletic hall of fame.
2008 — helps induct the 1963 and 1968 teams into the Springfield hall of fame.
Source: Springfield athletic director Jeff Dyer.