On cusp of 300 wins, West Branch's 'family atmosphere' driving force behind Butch Pedersen's success
WEST BRANCH, Ia. — A short turn off Interstate 80 gets you going in the right direction. The bustling traffic’s low roar lingers in the distance, but a scenery shift drastically alters the ambiance while rolling through the cornfields on Herbert Hoover Highway.
Five minutes or so pass before the high school emerges. You’ll find the town’s pigskin palace another mile down the road. West Branch’s population hovers right around 2,500, but the community engulfs its football program with support and adoration from all angles.
The current climate mirrors Butch Pedersen’s vision from 35 years ago. The head Bear yearned for this when he took the reins in 1983, continually molding and shaping a family atmosphere full of people eager to help in any way possible. The faces around Pedersen have shuffled over time, but the program’s pillars remain sturdy as ever.
This week provides no better illustration of that effort.
As Pedersen closes in on win No. 300 as a head coach — he sits at 299 heading into Friday’s game versus Tipton — there’s a uniting vibe among West Branch greats of past and present.
Many have returned to the program, offering their time as assistants on Pedersen’s current staff. Another standout is down the road in enemy territory. Others are still chasing their football dreams, whether in college or at the professional level. Some of the program’s finest remain in uniform and will be trying to deliver the milestone win Friday night.
No matter the role, those who’ve been part of Pedersen’s run have a unified message: The dean of West Branch football has made their lives better.
“You’re talking hundreds of kids, thousands of kids that he’s impacted,” said former West Branch running back Kevin Braddock, who helped guide the Bears to two state titles (1989, 1991) and is on staff now as the receivers/defensive backs coach. “I know it shaped me being part of the program. It makes you an all-around better person.”
'You learn that when you need him, he’s there'
Observation without introduction can lead to a skewed perception, but Pedersen hardly minds. He knows he’s an eccentric figure on game days, a gruff disciplinarian during practice. That’s been his style from the jump — and it’s worked.
“Sometimes in today’s society, people are afraid of discipline and tough love. I’m not afraid to do that,” Pedersen said. “And I think kids come back 10, 15 years down the road, and they’ll say, ‘Ah-ha, we now understand why you were tough on us.’ Some people think we’re too tough. I don’t think that all. I think a lot of other people are too soft. And I think that’s society in general.
“You can’t always be the nice guy. Sometimes, you have to get a little tough with them. And in the long run, they’re going to come back and say thank you. I can’t tell you the number of kids who’ve gone on to the military and said basic training is really similar to some of our camps at the beginning of the year. You break them down mentally, but you always love them to death. Then you bring them back strong.”
Those who judge Pedersen on limited exposure don’t see him behind the scenes. As much as he’s the intimidating figure patrolling the field, looking for any sign of wasted effort, Pedersen's office door remains open for anyone going through — well, anything.
He’s the one speaking at former players’ weddings, the one who attends funerals, the one who guides pupils through trying times of adolescence and adulthood. The tough love doesn’t resonate with everyone, but most emerge on the other side with a friend.
“Butch can be kind of scary, especially when you’re a freshman or sophomore,” said John Hierseman, West Branch’s quarterback on the 1989 state title team and now, Pedersen’s offensive coordinator.
“But when you get to know him a little better as you get a little older — you learn that when you need him, he’s there.”
'I wanted to involve as many people as I possibly could'
Welcoming back former players like Braddock, Hierseman and others on staff is one of the most pivotal ingredients in West Branch’s family recipe.
Eight Bears alumni are on the 2018 staff, their time in uniform spanning across multiple decades. Guys like Braddock, Hierseman and junior-varsity coach Matt Hills are from the glory years, when West Branch won three titles in four years from 1989-92.
There are more recent guys, like offensive and defensive line coach Jack Rummells, a two-time all-state lineman (2008-09) and former Northern Iowa standout. Linebackers coach Tyler Bailey, a 2006 graduate and ex-Cornell Ram, comes from that era as well. The gap between the youngest alumni (Austin Finnegan, 2012) and the oldest (Dave Kabela, 1974) covers nearly 40 years.
Many of them chuckle when recalling Pedersen’s recycling. From “intestinal fortitude” and “smash-mouth football” to his signature “Hi, boys!” practice greeting, some things haven’t changed in 35 years.
Pedersen’s longevity — and his personal connection to those around him — form a West Branch football time capsule, of sorts, every time the team is together.
“It’s pretty funny to hear the same one-liners come out like every single year or the same speeches he has,” Rummells said. “It’s pretty funny to hear all his Butch-isms.
“I thought I’d been in football a while, but that’s only been 10-plus years — and that feels like forever. So no, I couldn’t imagine how long he’s been here.”
With ample success, there have been other opportunities arise along the way — but the West Branch tug has kept Pedersen planted. The town’s football culture is among the richest in the state.
There’s been national praise, from Little Rose Bowl recognition to the fan base's unending support. The on-field results have stayed consistent over the years, but what’s unfolded off the gridiron leaves Pedersen smiling wide.
"I wanted to involve as many people as I possibly could, and I think we’ve done that, Pedersen said. “There aren’t too many people in West Branch who have offered to help that I haven’t said, ‘Go ahead and help. We need your help.’ And I think that’s important.
“Sometimes you go to a homecoming night, and they want the football team and their support staff to come out on the field. There’s nobody in the bleachers. They’re all down on the field with us. And I like that. I want to have a lot of people involved.”
'It’s not me. It’s all of us together'
Pedersen isn’t quite as spry as he was 35 years ago, but the 67-year-old shows no signs of slowing down. Football is his world, his livelihood — and envisioning Pedersen doing anything else is hard to fathom.
“They do it right all the time,” said Marv Cook, the former West Branch, Iowa and NFL standout turned Iowa City Regina head coach. “The longer I’ve been in this, the more I’ve appreciated how well he’s been able to do it.
“I vividly remember being a junior-high kid sitting in the end zone, loving it when they were backed up in the end zone so the huddle was really close to the end line. You just want to be a part of it, and Butch has been able to continue that over the past 30-plus years.”
Pedersen’s place in Iowa high school football history has been well-cemented, but another historical stamp will come whenever this next milestone is achieved. A win Friday would make him just the 13th coach in state history to reach 300 wins, and only the fifth to do so at one program.
Even at an elevated level, Pedersen’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed from his coaching peers. Leave it to the FBS’ current longest-tenured coach to appreciate the effort guys like Pedersen have put in.
“Butch has done such a great job,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “… Our state is, in my mind, really rich in coaches like that. They're doing it because they really love kids and they love coaching. They're not doing it because they're trying to be whatever. But all those guys, in my mind, are legends, and Butch is certainly in that category. Those guys are rare people.”
Pedersen, predictably, didn’t want to revel in his own accomplishments. He called reaching 300 wins “an honor” but also took time to highlight the numerous individuals who’ve contributed along the way.
“When I get those 300 wins,” Pedersen said, “there are a lot of assistant coaches, a lot of players, a lot of parents, a lot of community people who are going to get 300 also. That’s the way this program’s been built.
“It’s not me. It’s all of us together.”
That’s just how West Branch rolls.
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.