Not long after his 400th career win Dec. 28, Pickerington High School North boys basketball coach Pete Liptrap said he would keep the job as long as someone wanted him around.
"My passion is still the same now as it was when I started this at a relatively young age (22)," he said. "As long as they still want me, I'd like to stick around here awhile more."
Within the next few months, as the Panthers struggled to records of 10-13 overall and 4-10 in the OCC-Ohio Division, Liptrap began to think a new voice might be best for the program's fortunes. So, one year before he reaches retirement age in his teaching career, Liptrap left coaching June 10 after 30 seasons in the Pickerington school district.
Liptrap finished 406-263 (.607 winning percentage), coaching 20 years at Pickerington before moving to North when it opened in 2003. He submitted his retirement notice to principal Kiya Hunt and athletics director Molly Feesler on June 10 and told the team later that day.
The news wasn't publicly announced until June 27, when it was shared on the North program's Twitter account.
"I just think the program could use a new voice and a new spark," Liptrap said. "I'll miss the coaches I worked with and the kids I coached. I love competing and all the aspects of coaching. I feel holding the title of coach always had a lot of prestige."
Liptrap will be succeeded on an interim basis by Jerry Groves, one of his former players at Pickerington who also has coached at Mount Vernon (1998-2005) and Pickerington Central (2005-10). Groves, a 1988 Pickerington graduate and social studies teacher at North, is expected to be approved at a future school board meeting, Feesler said.
Despite the Panthers' recent struggles, the program has a 134-87 record. North won OCC championships in 2004-05, 2005-06 and 2010-11 and lost four times in Division I district semifinals, but the Panthers were 12-12 overall in 2011-12 and had trouble finding a consistent identity this past season after center Jake Butt graduated early to enroll at Michigan, where he will play football.
"My dad knew retirement was coming, and he didn't want to keep coaching just for himself," said Joe Liptrap, a 2012 North graduate who played for his father and now attends Ohio University. "He had a passion for Pickerington basketball when it was just one school and it's been the same way at North."
Two programs, one legacy
Liptrap, a 1974 Eastmoor graduate, played college basketball at Muskingum. He coached four years at the freshman and junior varsity levels at Pickerington and spent a season as a graduate assistant at Miami University before taking over Pickerington's boys program in 1983.
The Tigers went 1-20 in Liptrap's first season and he was 25-60 after four, but his 1990-91 team won the school's first district championship since 1959. Pickerington got within one win of the Division I state tournament in 1991, losing to future OCC-Ohio rival Lancaster 50-37 in a regional final at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.
Pickerington won three consecutive OCC-Ohio titles from 1999-2000 to 2001-02, having to get past the Golden Gales each year. Lancaster regained the league championship in 2003, capping a two-year stretch in which two of the four meetings between the Tigers and Gales required three overtimes to decide.
Pickerington won another district title in 2002, the last for the program until now-Central's 2012 Division I state championship run.
"Pete's one of the finest coaches I've ever gone against. After you played his teams, you knew exactly what you had to do to get better," said Jack Greathouse, Lancaster's coach from 1988-2003 and a longtime friend of Liptrap. "He was hard on his kids, tough on his kids, but those who survived turned out to be better high school players, better college players and better human beings."
Joe Liptrap wouldn't argue, saying he lived a dream by playing for his father.
"I always wanted to play for him, then I did it and lived that dream, and now I'm one of his former players," Joe said. "After being away in my first year at college, I realized just what a great experience it had been playing for him. Now, this will be the first time in my life he's not a head coach.
"I've had so many people tell me over the years they hope I realize how proud my dad is of me. Well, he may not realize how proud I am of him."
Pete Liptrap, who teachers honors world studies, honors law studies and honors government, did not completely rule out returning to coaching as an assistant.
"(Coaching) is obviously what I love to do, and I've had a chance to do it for over 30 years," he said. "Not doing it will be an adjustment, but who knows? I'll play it by ear. Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end, and maybe this won't be the end. It is for now, though."