CEDAR RAPIDS — Through 57 seasons and 1,264 games as a head basketball coach at the high school level, Bob Hilmer accomplished an amazing amount of things.
Heck, just lasting 57 seasons and 1,264 games is crazy amazing.
Then you consider he is Iowa’s all-time career wins leader with 917, a total that’s 30th all-time nationally. He led 12 teams to the state tournament and won two championships: with Forest City in 1976 and North Linn in 2019.
He had the WACO gymnasium named after him. From a not-quite-as-tangible standpoint, he has made a difference in so many kids’ and other coaches’ lives.
Yet here might be the most impressive thing about him. In almost six decades on the sideline, he was given a technical foul once.
One single time.
“And the call went our way,” laughed Hilmer, 80, after it became public Friday that he was retiring. “It was a block-charge call, the second game of a new season. I remember we had suspended a couple of players, was a big rivalry game that we really wanted to have ... The year before, they had allowed you to stand up during a dead ball. But this season, they said you couldn’t stand up during a dead ball. So we have this block-charge call, (son) Mike was our point guard, he wasn’t looking. I stood up to yell something to him.”
The official who’d made the original call that benefited Hilmer’s Forest City team saw Hilmer come off the bench and, boom, he was T'd up.
“What year was that?” he said. “Boy, I don’t know. Mike was playing, so it had to have been somewhere from 1985 to 1987.”
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Understandably all the games and seasons blend together after awhile. Bob Hilmer began his career in the 1963-64 season at Fredericksburg, moved on to Forest City, where he won over 500 games in 34 years, and eventually to WACO, where he coached 14 seasons.
He and his wife, Sharon, moved to Cedar Rapids five years ago to be near their four children. That allowed him to commute the short distance to North Linn, where he was co-head coach with Mike.
The Lynx went 128-5 in that span, making the state tournament four times, with a championship, two runner-up finishes and a third-place finish.
“First of all, time passes really quickly,” Bob Hilmer said. “It just seems like yesterday I was coaching at Fredericksburg and we were getting ready for the substate tournament. That’s been 50-however many years ago ... I have enjoyed it all, and I think that’s the big thing. I have enjoyed every year, which makes time pass quickly. I’m really lucky because I got to do the thing I wanted to do the most, and that was be a high school coach. I have been lucky that Sharon has supported that all the way through, my family has supported that all the way through.
“I was able to coach my two boys in high school, I was able to watch my two girls play sports a lot, never missed their activities, either. Then I got the chance to coach with Mike and coach (grandsons) Austin and Jake. Holy cow, how many people ever get that opportunity?”
Jake Hilmer was co-Mr. Basketball in Iowa in 2019. Austin Hilmer is just a sophomore with two years of ball left.
That’s why Mike Hilmer was caught off guard when Bob called him in mid-March, a week after this North Linn season had concluded with a 26-1 record and second-place finish in Class 2A, and told him he was considering retirement. Mike had assumed his dad would just keep going, at least until Austin Hilmer graduated.
“He got home from Des Moines and unwound a little bit,” Mike Hilmer said. “It took him a lot longer to recover back to normal than usual. You are always tired at the end of the year, especially when you go down to state. I know he stayed up a couple of nights a little later than he should have talking to the parents and myself and stuff.
“I had no clue. I was not even remotely thinking he was saying he might retire.”
But Bob said his retirement reasons were multiple.
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He was frustrated by not being able to physically demonstrate things to players and take part in drills. He found the last two years that driving at night became more difficult.
Then there was Sharon.
“In August, it’ll be 56 years being married,” Bob said. “All that time, we have been working to get schedules together. We had kids in activities, and we always had to make sure we had somebody help us get them home when they were younger ... I don’t know, I just wanted to step back and take life a little easy. Sharon and I can enjoy the remaining years we have left and just take things easy without a lot of stress.”
Spend more time with their 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, not have to worry about anything. Bob Hilmer has earned that.
So has Sharon.
“You always have to have the support at home, and my mom was always willing to let him spend the hours it takes,” Mike Hilmer said. “Then I would say one thing my dad always did is he really prepared for every game. He didn’t care if you were facing the best team or the worst team, he prepared the same ... My dad was a gameplanner and an adapter, and that definitely helped.
“Then one other thing I think about. You look at all of the coaches who last forever, they are pretty darned good people. You look at guys like Al Marshall at Cascade, Mitch Osborn at Harlan. You look at guys like that, and Bob Hilmer where he’s been. They’re not getting any negativity from their personal life because they live their lives the way they should and have set a great example for the kids.”
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