Hired during ’74 strike, Sexton coached generations
By Scott Bellile
Former Hortonville football coach Mike Sexton aimed to make men out of boys during his 24 year-career with the Polar Bears. This Friday he’ll reunite on the turf with the men he made.
Coaches, past players and the Hortonville Football Booster Club will recognize Sexton Aug. 28 for his induction this past spring into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame Class of 2015. All former Hortonville football players are invited onto Hortonville High School’s field to stand with Sexton during halftime of the 7 p.m. game against Appleton North.
“It’s gonna be great seeing some of them,” said Sexton, 64. “Some of these guys I haven’t seen in 30 years. Some of them I haven’t seen in 40 … Some of the kids I coached are gonna turn 60. They were 18 when I was 21. That’s a scary thought.”
Sexton, a New London resident, served as athletic director for 30 years and coached Hortonville varsity football from 1974 until 1997. He then switched over to the district’s eighth-grade football program so he could watch his sons play in New London and St. Nobert. He continued that gig until he retired in 2007. He spent several years as an assistant coach at Little Wolf High School after retirement.
Tom Kolosso, co-head coach for Hortonville High School’s football team, said because Sexton’s March 28 WFCA Hall of Fame induction took place in Madison, few back home saw him get the attention he deserved.
In response, the booster club and team arranged this Friday’s local celebration. After the game the public is invited to a pizza party at Pork’s Sports Bar and Grill on Main Street.
“Mike Sexton was the guy for Hortonville football for a long time,” Kolosso said. “When you think of Hortonville football, Mike’s the guy who laid the foundation and really put in the time.”
Hired at a turbulent time
Sexton, a Class of 1969 Little Wolf High School grad, was finishing his student teaching placement at New London in 1974 when he was hired by Hortonville High School to teach history and coach.
Because the Hortonville’s teacher’s strike was underway in 1974, he said the district lacked interest in hiring a fresh UW-Stevents Point college grad. But Sexton’s desire to also coach landed him the job.
To nearby teachers who knew Sexton, the news of him joining Hortonville hurt. They couldn’t believe he would choose to be a strikebreaker or “scab,” although the strike was illegal under Wisconsin state law.
For Sexton, he simply wanted to coach varsity football, and only a district in crisis would hand a head coaching job to a new graduate. His motivation for accepting the job was anything but a political statement, he said.
“It was a bad situation,” Sexton said about the strike. “For as far as I’m concerned, I got in the right place at the right time. I’m 20 miles away from where I was born and raised. It was a good thing. The politics wasn’t, but I was interested in [the job] at the time. [The strikers] were out, I was in. That’s the way I viewed it.”
The strike pitted neighbor against neighbor. Teachers who were fired sent their kids to other districts. Baseball games at Commercial Club Park were picketed by community members.
Riot police kept order at the school. Sexton said he had 44 desks in his classroom his first year.
The Sept. 11, 1974 Press-Star published a front-page letter from the Hortonville Education Association urging coaches throughout the then-East Central Conference to blacklist Hortonville sporting events.
The letter’s advice to Wisconsin coaches on how to handle “scab coaches” included petitioning their local school boards to drop Hortonville from their athletic schedules, wearing buttons for the “Hortonville 84,” and even giving coaches the silent treatment or verbal abuse.
Sexton received the ill treatment from coaches. The Sept. 11, 1974 Press-Star reported that North Fond du Lac’s football coach wore a black armband and offered a clenched fist rather than a handshake following Hortonville’s 22-6 loss on Sept. 6, 1974.
An article titled “Sexton snubbed again” in the Sept. 18, 1974 Press-Star stated Ripon’s coaches too left the field without acknowledging the Polar Bears after Ripon’s 34-0 win.
Recalling that game 41 years later, Sexton said he hopped onto Ripon’s bus after the game. He threatened to rough up the coaches unless their boys unboard and shook hands with the Polar Bears.
Sexton took issue with the coaches’ politics spilling over to his innocent players. After all, the strike had already impacted the team. Parents were sending kids to other districts and the team was losing game after game. Sexton’s six starters were all sophomores and the quarterback was the previous year’s water boy.
Over the years Hortonville’s climate changed and its student population grew. The team won games again and landed a 1984 East Central Conference championship.
Sexton appreciated some of the policies that resulted from the strike. He spent 30 years as the union negotiator, representing Hortonville’s educators before the school board.
Sexton coached two generations of football players for many Hortonville families. During his final year of coaching eighth grade in 2006, 28 of his 35 players were sons of fathers who played on Sexton’s past varsity teams.
Sexton said he enjoys attending his former players’ college football games, but those are tapering now that the last eighth-graders he coached are finishing college.
Sexton said he has seen many changes in football over time: The decline of all-farm boy teams and football practices in thunderstorms. The rise of concussion protocol, athletic trainers and participation trophies.
A disturbing trend to him is parents putting kids in sports early in life and screaming from the stands. He said organized sports shouldn’t start until middle school and parents shouldn’t be allowed to spectate until high school.
“They just burn them up,” Sexton said.
To Sexton, coaching was not just about winning a game. It was about taking his teaching role onto the field and developing boys into men.
“They wouldn’t have extra-curriculars in school if there wasn’t an educational value,” Sexton said. “You’re just teaching them how to get ready for the real world. You’ve gotta know who to kiss on the head and who to kick in the butt. It’s just another extended role of a teacher.”
Al Conger, father of current Hortonville running back Brad Conger and a player himself in the early 1980s, described Sexton as a “no-bull” and straightforward coach who taught well. Sexton always wore a smile unless a player deserved his scowl and a few choice words.
“His coaching style was unique and defiantly old-school,” Al said. “He demanded mental and physical toughness from his players, much like Vince Lombardi. He truthfully made men out of boys. In his years of coaching concussion awareness was non-existent. Bumps and bruises were everyday occurrences and hard-hitting execution was the base of it all.”
Sexton said his coaching style has upset parents, but a number of his past players have complimented his hard-hitting style and wished the same for their own kids.
“I got to work with good kids for 36 years,” Sexton said. “It didn’t matter if it was high school or middle school. The thing I miss is the interaction with those kids and watching them mature.”
Al Conger said Sexton changed players’ lives.
“He loved his players and would do anything for them to succeed, not only on the football field but in school or at home,” Conger said. “Many bonds and friendships still exist today, and if he only knew the impact he had on so many young men’s lives, the induction into the Hall of Fame would be small potatoes.”
Sexton said his 24 years were excellent.
“If the right opportunity came up I might think about going back,” Sexton said. “But I tell you, what you really miss is the Friday nights.”