Door County lost a lifetime of basketball knowledge Jan. 27 when John Toppe, who coached the sport at all four mainland high schools, died at the age of 79.
Toppe’s coaching career spanned 50 years, four schools and every level of the sport. Some teams were awful; some teams scraped the pinnacle of the sport, but he coached them all with an unmatched passion.
None of his teams achieved greater success than the 1992 Southern Door girls squad, which rode the shooting of 1,000-point scorers Nikki Malcore and Tonya DeBroux to the state semifinals – the first and only Door County girls team to get to state. DeBroux said Toppe pushed that team to the brink with tough practices and meticulous preparation.
“When we did things wrong, he yelled, and we ran,” she recalled. “There was no messing around in practice. It wasn’t necessarily a fun practice, but he got the best out of us.”
Toppe held Sunday practices (but not until after the Packers game ended), during which the girls scrimmaged with local men whom Toppe brought in to push them. DeBroux said the team only had nine players, but those tough practices prepared them to wear down opponents.
PODCAST: Myles Dannhausen Jr. on coaching with John Toppe:
“I can’t talk enough about how much of a great coach he was,” she said. “He loved basketball, loved to coach. He’d coach anything.”And he did.
If a school needed a freshman or junior-varsity coach, Toppe answered the call. If they needed a baseball or softball coach, he’d do that, too. He finished his coaching career coaching JV girls at Sturgeon Bay High School.
The man many called “Topper” got his start at Sevastopol in 1967, when he took over a struggling boys program and turned it into a conference champion. Ron Meikle, a star on those teams who went on to work in the NBA for 25 years, said Toppe changed the culture at Sevastopol.
“He put his handprint all over teams and all over people’s lives in Door County,” Meikle said. “There’s a lot of people that are going to miss him. He was like a dad to me.”
Meikle said Toppe changed perceptions of what was possible for the boys at Sevastopol, where they played a fast-break style that drew packed houses to the new gym in Institute. If you wanted a seat, you got there early.
“He really enlightened a lot of players with thoughts of going on to play in college,” he said. “And for a lot of guys on my team it did happen.”
He was competitive, known to hop into the team’s scrimmages regularly and round boys up on snow days to get in the gym.
“He wasn’t a very good driver,” Meikle recalled. “He had this huge car, a Lincoln Continental. It would be a snow day and everything was closed, and he’d call and say we’ve got practice, and he’d drive around and pick everyone up and be fishtailing all over the road. Of course we loved playing, but those rides were scary. It drove my dad crazy.”
Toppe later went on to coach the Sevastopol girls as well, leading them to within a game of the state tournament, before moving on to coach at Southern Door. DeBroux said he often compared her team to his earlier Sevastopol squads.
“The guy had a photographic memory,” DeBroux said. “Thirty years later he could have told you a player’s name and how many points they scored in a certain game.”
“John Toppe has forgotten more about basketball than most coaches know,” said Korey Mallien, the Southern Door athletic director who covered many Toppe teams during his 25 years writing for the Door County Advocate. “He really knew his stuff.”
Toppe always had time for interviews and was known as the first coach to report scores to local outlets. “He was a big promotor of his sport,” Mallien said. “I think there are times when coaches sometimes don’t know the importance of that.”
His voice was raspy and high-pitched, and when he got fired up, his wrath sometimes came out toward a player, official or opposing coach who, fortunately, couldn’t often understand what he said. His battles with Luxemburg-Casco’s legendary coach Mike Schanhofer are the stuff of local lore.
“Back then, they couldn’t stand each other,” DeBroux said. “They would yell at each other so much during games that the refs had to stop the game and tell them to sit down.”
Toppe’s thick, black hair and bushy eyebrows looked nearly the same in year 50 as they did in his first year prowling the sideline. He always wore a suit when coaching varsity games, but his coat would go flying to the floor so quickly after tip-off that you wondered why he even bothered.
“First quarter, he’d lose the coat. Second quarter, he might toss a clipboard, and in the third quarter, he might shove a chair,” DeBroux said.
Toppe’s fire was rarely directed in anger, but rather with a passion for playing the game right and getting the most out of his teams.
“Because he loved the game so much, he would never turn away a coaching job somewhere, no matter what level,” DeBroux said. “He wanted to coach kids, and he wanted to teach.”
His passion rubbed off on others. Pete Claflin was an assistant during Toppe’s stint with the Southern Door girls. He said he didn’t have an interest in coaching, but it came with the teaching job when he got it.
“When I got to meet John and got to working with him, I loved coaching with him,” he said. “He really helped me get into it, and it really helped develop my philosophy with coaching.”
Claflin would go on to coach the Southern Door boys for 20 years, including a run to the state tournament in 1998, and Toppe would serve as a freshman and JV coach for him several times.
“I learned not only about coaching Xs and Os, but how to deal with kids and deal with parents,” Claflin said. “I spent a lot of hours just talking with John and going to camps and going to clinics, and it seemed I always learned something from him anytime I talked to him. He was just a basketball junkie.”
Toppe’s addiction to the game extended to scouting. When his teams weren’t playing, he would often drive hours to scout potential tournament opponents or just to take in the game from high in the bleachers. His empty seat now leaves a massive hole in local prep basketball.