When Dante Brown last spoke with Gene Epley on Oct. 4, Brown said
they spent most of the time talking about life.
“He wanted to talk about how things were going for my family and me,” Brown said. “We also talked about his life. He told me he was going through chemotherapy again and needed to go in for a surgery.”
Epley took over a floundering football program, and rebuilt it into one of the best in NCAA Division III during the mid-1990s.
In 1995, the Pioneers enjoyed one of their finest campaigns ever. Marietta went 8-1-1 and played in one of the best Division III games in history — a 41-37 loss to Mount Union at Don Drumm Stadium.
Brown remembers the 1995 football season like it was yesterday.
“We had so much fun,” said Brown, who set almost every Marietta and NCAA rushing record during his career. “Coach Epley was always smiling that season. It was so much fun to play for him that year because everything just clicked for that team.”
Epley coached five All-Americans — running backs Brown (twice) and Kenneth Sasu ’01, defensive back Bryan Bown, defensive lineman Jason Olivea, and offensive lineman Chad Coning — at Marietta, along with 74 All-Ohio Conference players.
Johnny Ziomek remembers Epley as an old-school, in-your-face type of coach.
“He was a guy you either loved or hated but either way, you respected him. He helped mold hundreds if not thousands of young men into hard working and successful men,” Ziomek said. “I respected and continue to respect him greatly. I appreciate everything he did for me and what he taught me about being a man. I offer my sincere condolences to Mrs. Shelly Epley and know that Marietta College and the football community at large lost a great man.”
Epley’s coaching career included stints at the U.S. Military Academy, Virginia, William and Mary, Shippensburg, Utah State and Utah. Following his retirement from Marietta following the 2002 season he joined former assistant Bernie Buttrey at Parkersburg High School, where he eventually helped the Big Reds winning a West Virginia Class AAA state championship.
Debbie Lazorik, who was the athletic director when Epley was hired, remembers speaking with him during an interview dinner.
“I remember it like it was yesterday ... and we realized that he was Serbian and I was Slovak (not many of those in Marietta). We would compare stories of our ethnic foods and traditions. It was not that long ago that I took him halupke (stuffed cabbage) that my mom had made,” she said. “I am very saddened with the news of Coach’s death. It’s hard to believe he will no longer be with us.”
Lazorik, who has taught and coached at Marietta since 1980, said Epley elevated the standard of Pioneer football to a level it hadn’t experienced in decades.
“As a fairly new AD, he was the first head football coach that I hired, and we sure got a great one; Gene could coach football, especially defense,” she said. “He got our football program turned around by recruiting great talent and as he would say ‘coach ’em up.’ His goal for every player was to earn a degree, which was first and foremost with Gene. His teams were tough, well-prepared mentally and physically.”
Current Marietta football coach Jeff Filkovski said he almost joined Epley’s staff as an offensive coordinator and has known Epley for the better part of 25 years, but in the last three years their friendship really blossomed.
“I have lost a great friend and a wonderful part of our football program,” Filkovski said. “He was someone I leaned on greatly when I got here. He was someone I visited on a weekly basis, and talked shop with him. This is truly a sad time.”
However, Brown said he wants to remember the coach who convinced him to leave Jacksonville, Fla., to make the most out of football and getting an education at Marietta.
“He was so cool on the outside. He loved to tell you jokes and his office was always open if you needed to speak with him,” Brown said. “He always impressed me with the way he coached a game. The way he coached never changed. He was loud on the sidelines. I’ll never forget the man.”
Longtime Marietta Times sports editor, Bill Robinson, said he was honored to have covered Epley’s Marietta teams.
“He was about as passionate of a football coach as I’ve ever seen around here,” Robinson said. “He didn’t let his players make any excuses and he made a lot of guys better than they ever thought they could be.”
When he announced his retirement, Epley had the following to say: “The joy of coaching is seeing the results of your work when the young men you have coached leave the field of play, escape the classroom and begin productive lives as citizens. These are the gifts you receive as a coach, and I am so appreciative of the memories that will last forever.”
Epley’s memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 27) at Marietta’s St. Luke’s Church on the corner of Fourth and Scammel streets.