Longtime Mark Morris High School boys basketball coach Bill Bakamus had a running joke going with Ed Pepple, the state’s all-time winningest coach from Mercer Island.
It was about Pepple’s lone season at Mark Morris before heading off to greatness with the Islanders. The Monarchs went 6-14 that year.
“Whenever I’d see him … I’d tell him, ‘My gosh, people down in Longview are still upset about that last losing season,'” Bakamus said.
“That is, until I saw him recently, and he reminded me we had a losing season this year.”
Pepple died Monday after a battle with cancer. He was 88.
Coaches fondly remembered the sharp-witted late legend, who won 952 games in 49 seasons at Fife (1958-64), Mark Morris (1966-67) and Mercer Island (1967-2009).
Much of his success came in 42 years with the Islanders – 882 victories, 15 KingCo titles and four state championships.
“Ed brought out the best in a lot of coaches,” said former Mount Vernon boys basketball coach Mac Fraser, who won three state titles before retiring in 2001. “He showed if you did not work hard, or that summer was not important, then you were not going to be successful against a program like that.”
Even as a young coach at Stevenson High School in Skamania County in the 1970s, Fraser recalled his players’ excitement about getting to play the Islanders – in a summer-league game.
“It was at Port Townsend, and the kids could not wait,” Fraser said. “I mean, even in the Columbia (River) Gorge, Mercer Island had a name our players wanted to measure up against.”
On the court, Pepple’s squads at Mercer Island were a handful. They were disciplined. They were efficient. And they were a team-first working unit – always.
“His in-game strategy was as good as anybody in the history of this state,” Bakamus said.
Off the court, they had distinct characteristics, too – notably the wine-colored blazers they wore to and from games, and the maroon-colored basketball with which they brought along.
“A lot of today’s high school coaches … have to fit a mold of what a head coach should look like,” Fraser said. “Ed just acted that way – professionally. And he did things his own way. He was an innovator.”
Current Mercer Island boys basketball coach Gavin Cree played for Pepple, graduating in 2000. He also coached on his staff for five seasons.
“He was incredibly organized. There wasn’t a minute that wasn’t hashed out at practice. And he was on time and prompt for everything,” Cree said. “He was also incredibly passionate and had great enthusiasm, which was one of our core things.”
Cree also knew Pepple kept important disclosures private, which is a reason why many did not know of the late coach’s cancer diagnosis.
“I remember in 2009 … he brought me to his house at the end of the season,” Cree said. “He gave no indication (he was retiring), but he broke the news to me, and said he was advocating for me to get the job.
“My heart dropped out of my chest. But his reasoning for not telling people was that he did not want a big show, or to make it a distraction.
“It seemed like he wanted to handle (his fight with cancer) in a similar fashion.”
As news of Pepple’s death broke Monday, coaches from all over the country paid tribute. Even former Seattle Supersonics coach George Karl called Pepple the “King of youth boys hoops in Seattle.”
“He was a historic man … and a person who believed in relationships,” said Bakamus, who sits fifth on the all-time boys basketball wins list in Washington with 619 – 333 victories behind Pepple.
“He made his mark on high school basketball for generations and generations. I have nothing but admiration for how he conducted himself as a coach, and what he did for his family.”