- By Tom Archdeacon columnist
When it comes to football, Dave “Dunk” Dunkelberger — “everybody calls me Dunk,” — can tell you about longevity and he can tell you about luck.
In the mid-1970s, he and a pilot were in a single-engine plane returning to Manhattan, Kansas — where he was a coach at Kansas State — after a recruiting trip to the hinterlands of the corn belt.
“I was half asleep and all of a sudden I hear ‘pfft…pfft….pfft….tssshhhhhh!” Dunk said. “Guess what? The engine had just quit!
“So the pilot goes, ‘Hey Dunk, give me that book right there. I got to find a sod runway.’ They have all those crop dusters out there in Kansas and, sure enough, he found one a half-mile away.”
He said the pilot made a dead stick landing:
“That scared the hell out of me!”
And yet Dunkelberger made the Wildcats’ game that day and soon after was out recruiting again. That’s the way it goes for a football lifer.
Following a standout career as a three-sport athlete at Miamisburg High School in the mid-1950s and a stellar run through DePauw University, he became a football coach.
Since then he’s had a staggering 22 jobs around the nation and in Canada, too. Most have been at the college level, although he’s been at four high schools, too – in fact he coaches defensive backs at Olentangy High right now — and he’s been a pro coach, as well.
In over six decades on the sidelines, he said he’s seen the game change dramatically. He mentioned everything from the emergence of black athletes to the radical changes in equipment, rules and training as athletes, in his words, “have gotten bigger, stronger and faster.”
There have been other strokes of luck, too. Like the time the team bus collided with a plane on the tarmac or the day the team plane blew a tire on takeoff and went jerking and sliding to a stop.
And yet – after all of this – he’s about to experience something new tonight when Miamisburg hosts Olentangy at Holland Field.
For the first time since his 1956 senior season, Dunk will step onto a Miamisburg football field Friday night.
But this homecoming comes with a mix of allegiances and emotions.
In celebrating Dunkelberger’s return, Miamisburg has made him an honorary captain and that means he’ll accompany current Vikings players to midfield for the coin toss. Then he will turn and walk back to the Olentangy side the field – and soon after will head to the coaching booth in the press box – so he can guide the Braves’ defense against his alma mater.
He says he feels little funny about the game:
“I’ve done something like this before. I’ve gone back with teams to places where I’d been before – I coached against the University of Cincinnati, Indiana State and Kansas State, too – but this is different.
“Miamisburg is where I grew up and played. It’s a special place to me. I want us (Olentangy) to win, I really do, but I want it to be a good game for both of us , too.”
Dunk’s father died when he was just four, so later he often found his father figures in sports.
“From my house, if you went down the back alley about two blocks, you were at Harman Field, where they played football then,” he said. “Although I didn’t realize it at the time, all those coaches really helped me tremendously. So did my basketball coach, Tay Baker.
“He later became the head coach at UC. Without him I don’t think I’d have gotten where I did.”
He said after high school he had an offer to play football at Wittenberg:
“It was a good school and they had a good program, but I was afraid if I stayed here, I was going to get in trouble. I’d still be around all the guys I used to run around with and I wouldn’t study. I’d flunk out and I’d end up working at Frigidaire. And that’s all right, it’s just not what I wanted to do.”
In the spring of his senior year he expressed his concerns to Baker, who had a coaching friend at DePauw and made the introduction.
Dunkelberger earned three letters each in football and track there and after graduation turned again to Baker, who got him a graduate assistant coaching position at UC.
He left for a year to make some money coaching at Leipsic High School in Putnam County, then returned to UC to complete his masters while serving as the freshman football coach and head track and cross country coach.
Wanting a full-time football job, he left for Indiana State, where on September 17, 1967 he coached in the first game on Astroturf. “That spring all the big schools like Alabama and Notre Dame came to check it out,” he said.
After that – with changes often prompted by the staff getting fired along with the head coach – he began a series of jobs, many as defensive coordinator, at schools like Cincinnati again, Virginia, Western Illinois, Kansas State, Kansas, Rice, UTEP and Temple before he had a year’s stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League
While the moves were tough for him they were most challenging for his late wife Louise, who’s from Centerville. and their two sons, Dave and Dan..
He said without Louise – to whom he was married 48 years before she died in 2014 – he had “no chance of making it. She was the best I’ve ever seen. Without her I don’t get where I am. I would have had no chance.
“It’s never easy for a coach’s wife. She finds a house she loves, fixes it, you get fired and then she has to sell it and buy another.”
Dunk was gone a lot for practices, games and, of course, recruiting.
And that leads to another wild story. While the plane didn’t crash in the other one, a car did in this one.
“I’m not going to tell you the school,” he said. “That wouldn’t be fair.”
He said he was recruiting a junior college player and, unbeknownst to him, a booster had bought the kid a car and it was at the high school:
“I get there and the kid doesn’t know how to drive. He’s out in the parking lot practicing and he rams another car.
“Holy Cow! Now we’ve got two problems: No. 1 he didn’t have a license and No 2., you can’t just give a kid a car.”
‘Love teaching kids’
After he and the rest of the staff were fired at Otterbein following the 2002 season, Dunk said he and Louise agreed they had moved enough.
“She loved living there so I decided to coach at high schools in the area and substitute teach,” he said. For two seasons, though, he did go over to Blackburn College in Illinois to help a friend with his team.
Now 79, and with his wife gone four years, Dunk continues to teach, takes care of their home in Westerville and coach at Olentangy North.
He said he’s able to connect with today’s players, even though there is nearly a half century age difference with them.
“First of all, I don’t move like a 79-year-old,” he said. “I demonstrate drills on the field and all that.
“And when I tell them where I’ve coached, that catches their attention.”
In turn he said he gets something special from them:
“I’ve coached a lot of kids where, if they didn’t have football and you didn’t stick with them, they wouldn’t have made it. I love teaching kids and seeing them grow.
He said back when he and Louise were married about 10 years, she asked: “’Hey Dunk, when am I gonna get out of this?’ And I told her, ‘Well you’re getting to see the country, Louise.’”
These days he still is.
And while Friday’s experience is a new one for him, it’s not like that time the engine blew and he was forced to land on an unknown strip of sod.
Tonight he steps onto ground that is familiar to him.