While Ed Pepple may have survived more basketball eras than any other coach in high-school history, he never budged an inch on the closely cropped hairstyles of his championship men’s teams at Mercer Island.
An Islander basketball institution for 42 years, the Bellevue Club member coached his way to 23 league championships, four state titles and more wins than any other coach in the state. In classic form, he redirects the credit to his clean-cut players—all four decades of them.
“We had some truly outstanding, intelligent athletes,” he says. “We might not have been able to jump quite as high, but we were seldom out of position. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when nobody gets the credit. We treated everybody as part of the team.”
Retiring last year, Ed will be inducted into the National Federation of State High School Associations Hall of Fame this July.
Although he received countless awards during his tenure at the helm of the Islanders, the road from player to coach was not an easy one—but then again, Ed has never backed down from a challenge. Playing basketball and baseball at Seattle’s Lincoln High School, he was actually cut as a sophomore before earning the starting point guard role as a senior on a team that finished second in the state. After graduation, he played basketball at Everett Community College, but financial woes from his parents’ separation forced him to get a full-time job to support himself.
“I had to go to work,” he says. Working full-time and attending classes, Ed didn’t have time for college athletics, but wrangled a sponsorship from Wahl’s Pharmacy for a men’s team that played in the Snohomish County League. It was there he met Shirley, his wife of 55 years. She was homecoming queen at Everett High School and they met through mutual friends, but Ed waited for the opportune time to ask her on a first date.
“I scored 27 points and got my picture in the paper and thought, this is the time to make my move,” he says. “Turns out, she had no idea about the game.”
Ed eventually went on to play basketball at the University of Utah, co-captaining a team that made it to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament in 1954. He also found his career calling during this time, and received the advice that would plague him later.
“I decided what I really want to do is work with kids,” he says. “I was basically told you need to teach PE, which was the worst advice because there’s only two jobs in each school and low turnover.”
After graduating from the University of Utah, he took a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps and played basketball and coached for the All-Marine team. After his service, he and Shirley moved to back to Washington and began his search for a high-school coaching job. He scoured the state for job openings, but had difficulty getting his foot in the door as a PE teacher.
“Everyone said don’t call us, we’ll call you,” he says. Eventually, he found an audience with the Fife School District superintendent.
“He said, ‘what do you teach?’ and I said, ‘what do you need?’” Ed recalls. As a newly minted English teacher and varsity coach, Ed took Fife from perennial bottom dwellers to fourth in the state in four short years.
He also coached three years in Edmonds and one year in Longview before landing the Mercer Island position in 1968—and the rest is basketball history. Ed taught a no-nonsense, team-oriented style of play that quickly established Mercer Island as a regional basketball powerhouse. He’s coached several generations of Islanders, including his two sons and a grandson. After so many years, was it hard for him to finally walk away from the court?
“Everybody asked me if I’ve had withdrawals, and I said ‘absolutely not.’ It was the perfect time to retire,” he says.
Besides playing tennis three times per week at the Club and spending quality time with grandkids, Ed is not spending his time looking at the past. Instead, he’s putting his considerable energy into a new project: saving the environment.
As part of a group that launched TreeFree Biomass Solutions, he is beyond excited about their development of a fast-growing, domesticated cane plant that he sees as the future of biofuel. Although his retirement signaled the end of an era for Mercer Island basketball, Ed is hoping to extend his legacy far beyond basketball and buzz cuts.