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Sheffer, PHS coaching legend, passes at 88

Led Tigers to back-to-back state finishes

The man that put Princeton High School Tiger basketball on the map has died.

Don Sheffer came to Princeton in 1950 to take over the Tiger program. He told the school board he would take the basketball team to state one day, and three years later, they did. Twice.

Sheffer led the Tigers to back-to-back state finals appearances in 1953-54 and 1954-55, placing fourth in the second trip in the IHSA’s one-class system of that era.

“He sure did (put PHS on the map). He came from nothing and went to great guns. He had her all going,” said former PHS guard Lew Flinn.

Sheffer, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 88 in his hometown Herrin hospital, will always be remembered for his legacy at PHS. He was known as an outstanding basketball coach, one of the best in the state at the time, as well as being a disciplinarian who practiced what he preached.

“Of course, he meant a lot to me. He brought me up as a sophomore and put me on the varsity team. What a thrill that was,” Flinn said. “He was always a good disciplinarian, that’s for sure. He watched over us and made sure we did the things we should do. He was a heckuva good coach. He did the things the needed to do. I know there was hard feelings with some of the guys, but there’s always going to be in a team like that — if you’re not playing first string or this or that.

“He was a super individual to me. Not only basketball, he was always behind in track and football both.”

Perhaps the PHS athlete Sheffer touched most was Joe Ruklick. Cut from the PHS freshman team, Sheffer took the tall but awkward product from the Covenant Children’s Home under his wing. Under Sheffer’s tutelage, Ruklick mastered a deft hook shot with either hand and became an All-American center, flourishing when he moved into the Tiger lineup his junior season due to an illness of another teammate.

Ruklick, who went to become an All-American at Northwestern University and to play in the NBA, describes Sheffer as a man of honor and character. It was because of what Sheffer taught him, Ruklick said, he turned down much more “lucrative” offers from other college coaches to go to Northwestern.

Ruklick said he owes everything in life to Sheffer.

“Knowing him prompts me to think of him all the time,” saud Ruklick, who last met his coach in May. “What he did for me was lasting. What’s suprising, I haven’t forgotten a thing.”

In 1953-54, the Tigers became Bureau County’s first Sweet 16 team, compiling a 24-game win streak on the way to a 28-4 record, falling to Quincy 64-60 in Sweet 16 play in Champaign.

Sheffer’s Tigers entered the 1954-55 team season with high expectations and did not disappoint, winning their first 23 games of the season and ranked No. 1 in the state. At state, the Tigers beat Moline 60-58 on reserve Jerry Zurliene’s free throw heroics and Shawneetown 66-48 to reach the final four. They fell to Elgin 71-66 in the semifinals and then to Pinckneyville 58-53 in the third-place contest, finishing at 32-3.

In 1965, Sheffer left PHS, retiring from teaching and coaching to start up his own insurance agency until his retirement in 1988. He had a 247-152 record in 15 seasons at PHS, leaving a legacy that would never be matched again.

Former PHS coach Tony Lavorato (1974-87), once told the BCR when he came to PHS all he heard about was Don Sheffer, even though there had been two coaches and nine seasons since Shefffer last coached.

Sheffer’s state squads were inducted into the Bureau County Sports Hall of Fame conducted by the BCR in 1995 and later individually in 2000. He was also a 1975 inductee into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. The former SIU MVP compiled a 328-193 career record.

Sheffer was preceded in death by his wife, Aliene, on Nov. 17, 1996. At his request, a private service will be held Tuesday in Herrin. To see his obituary, visit southern.com.

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