CEDAR RAPIDS — Everyone has their imitation of Bob Thurness.
The longtime former college and high school athletics coach and administator had a distinct voice. Kind of a low, gruff, slurring drawl that was endearing, unless you were one of his players on the business end of a butt chewing.
“How you doing, Jim? Things are gonna be good,” said Cedar Rapids Prairie assistant football coach Jim Dostal, doing his best Thurness impersonation. “You know what? That wasn’t out of disrespect, either. You kind of got to know him, and you discovered his underside wasn’t as rough as his front exterior. If you were ever around him, you’d know what I’m talking about.”
Dr. Robert Thurness received a PhD in Educational Administration, but all anyone ever referred to him as was “Thurny.” He passed away Saturday at the age of 79 of an apparent heart attack.
“He was definitely old school,” said Coe College assistant coach and former head coach Steve Staker. “I’d have to say he was just one of those three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust coaches. Let’s run the Power-I, let’s just run the football right at you. We’re going to keep pounding at you until you give up, until you surrender.”
Like Dostal, Staker’s oldest son, Cody, played for Thurness at Coe in the 1980s. A West Liberty native, Thurny had prep coaching stops at Tipton, Linn-Mar, Eldora, Davis County and Marion, where he led the Indians to their only state football championship in 1980.
He then moved on to Coe, his alma mater, where he was head coach from 1982 to 1988, taking the Kohawks to their first NCAA Division III playoffs in 1985. Coe lost to Central in the first round.
“Very much an iconic figure, I would say,” said Larry Atwater, who played for Thurness at Marion and Coe, before embarking on a long coaching career of his own. “You talk about our relationship, he has been so, so influential to me. My first coaching job, at Clarence-Lowden (High School), I can honestly say he got me that job ... He played softball with a guy who was the principal there. Their head football coach and physical education teacher resigned late during the summer. He kind of told them my name, he called me and said to give them a call. I interviewed for the job a couple of weeks later, got it, and, in all honesty, that created my path in coaching.”
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Thurness added the title of athletics director to his resume in 1988. His other college stops (he coached softball as well) were at Cornell, Dubuque and Northern Iowa, where he was facilities director and an an assistant football coach in the 1989 season for head coach Terry Allen.
“Coach Thurness was the most demanding coach any of us had ever had,” said Marion head coach Tim Lovell, who played under assistant coach Thurness at Cornell. “He had a way to get the most out of his players through his demanding style, but we knew he loved us so much by continuing to believe in us. He gave his former players opportunities to see things in them they didn’t know existed, by challenging us every day. No exceptions. Every day meant every day.
“Then he continually went out of his way to help all of his former players in any way he could.”
Thurness spent many years late in his life as the color commentator for Coe College football radio broadcasts, sharing the microphone with Jerry Kiwala. He was scheduled to do Saturday’s game against Wartburg but hadn’t been feeling well.
“He had one of the biggest hearts of any person I’ve ever met,” said Dostal, whom Thurness coaxed into playing football at Coe after transferring from Morningside. “When he knew someone was hurt, he would visit them in the hospital or write them a letter. No one would ever know about things like that.”
Thurness was inducted into Coe’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1986 and also is a member of the Iowa High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He is survived by his wife, three children and multiple grandchildren.
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