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Racine Horlick Alumni 1965

Coach Jerry Fishbain

Jerry Fishbain offers a glorious voice from the past

PETER JACKEL peter.jackel@journaltimes.com Sep 9, 2018

The Jerry Fishbain File | BORN: Nov. 30, 1932 in Racine

HIGH SCHOOL: Horlick '51 | COLLEGE: UW-La Crosse '55 | RESIDENCE: Madison

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FAMILY: Fishbain and his wife, Janet, were married in 1966. They are the parents on son Jason, 49, and daughters Sarah, 47, and Rachel, 44. The Fishbains have three grandchildren.

AT HORLICK: After serving in the United States Army from 1955-57, Fishbain joined Horlick's faculty. He succeeded Jack Belden as football coach in 1961 and went on to compile a 47-23-5 record through nine seasons. His 1967 team, which shut out six opponents, remains the only team in Horlick's history to finish a season with no losses or ties. The 1968 team shut out five teams and scored the most points (231) in the program's history at that point.

The voices from a bygone sports era in Racine County are gradually fading away. Jim Thompson. Eddie Race. John McGuire. Jack Belden. Owen Evans. Don Schutt. Willie Eickhorst. Gene Veit. And the list continues to get longer with the passing of time.

Yet, there is one voice that resonates even as he approaches his 86th birthday in November. His name is Jerry Fishbain and, a half century ago, he was nearing the end of a glorious nine-year run as coach of the Horlick High School football team.

Fishbain was Vince Lombardi-esque in that he was a tough coach with a “my-way-or-the-highway” mindset. He became Horlick’s coach in 1961, two years after Lombardi arrived in Green Bay, and left after the 1969 season, two years after Lombardi stepped down as Packers coach.

From a high school perspective in this county, Fishbain’s nine years at Horlick very much were comparable with Lombardi’s nine years in Green Bay in terms of impact.

He took over a team that had won one game in 1960 and was named the Big Eight Conference Coach of the Year after guiding the Rebels to a 4-2-1 record his first season.

Fishbain’s 1964, ‘66, and ‘67 teams won at least a share of the conference championship. And that ‘67 team remains the only season in the program’s history in which Horlick players turned in their equipment at the end of the season without a loss or tie (remember, this was long before the days of the state playoffs).

The traditional season-ending showdown between Horlick and Park used to draw close to 10,000 fans in those days. Fishbain said he once heard that a line to get into Horlick Field for a Park-Horlick game stretched all the way south to Island Park.

It was a remarkable era in the history of high school sports in this county. And Fishbain was a giant throughout his run at Horlick.

“He was so smart and he was so intellectually in tune with everything,” said Mike Reinfeldt, a former NFL cornerback and executive with the Packers who played under Fishbain at UW-Milwaukee in the early 1970s. “And he was just a master of coordinating and getting these huge young football players to do whatever he wanted them to do. He intellectually managed everything. It was fun to watch him.”

Nine seasons to remember

Fishbain, who lives in Madison with his wife of 52 years, Janet, remembers those nine years with fondness. His only two requests for this interview were to focus on his years at Horlick and to not be asked about specific players because he didn’t want to single out anyone.

“We were very organized and disciplined on the practice field,” Fishbain said when asked about that dramatic turnaround in 1961. “It was a group that wanted to do it.

“They got involved in weights, which they hadn’t done before, they got involved in a little bit of training ... there was a tremendous nucleus of guys. Any of our success — and this isn’t false modesty — is that I had some fine assistant coaches and they worked their butts off. And they wanted to work with young people.”

But as modest as he comes across all these years later, Fishbain concedes that, “I went to every football clinic that I could and I read every book that I could. One of the great books I read was by Woody Hayes and I patterned a number of things I did after him.”

Fishbain was old-school tough in those days — “there was never any back talk on the practice field or in meetings,” he said — and there are some things he did that he regrets. One of the biggest was not allowing a senior who wanted to try football for the first time to join the team.

“Life should be an adventure,” Fishbain says now. “That was a big mistake not letting them play.”

But under Fishbain’s leadership, Horlick enjoyed one if its greatest eras. The ‘64 team was deprived of a perfect season only by a season-ending 20-20 tie to Park before an estimated crowd of 9,500.

In 1966, the Rebels had to settle for a co-conference championship with Madison West after getting edged 14-13 by Park before an estimated crowd of 10,000.

The peak season

And then came 1967.

Dave Morgan returned an interception 12 yards for a touchdown and Horlick defeated Park before an estimated crowd of 6,500 Nov. 10, 1967. The Rebels, who shut out six opponents that season, finished 9-0 overall and 8-0 in the conference for their only perfect season to date.

How emotional was the Horlick-Park rivalry in those days? Consider this story from Fishbain from when Horlick defeated Park 20-6 in 1968.

“We were winning by two touchdowns and we were going in to score again,” he said. “I called time out and said to the second-team quarterback, ‘You take a knee. We’re not going to go for it.’ And I got so much criticism from the Horlick people — even friends! They were saying, ‘Why would you do that?’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute!’ “

But Fishbain’s run at Horlick was destined to end on an unhappy note when the Rebels slipped to 2-7 in 1969. While Fishbain declined to get specific about what happened that year, he made clear that a number of factors were involved in that collapse.

“We didn’t get out a number of kids who had been out previously,” he said. “And I made personnel changes I should not have made. I lost my patience, which I should not have and I didn’t interact well with the assistants.

“There were other things going on that I was angry about with what was happening in the building and I let that bother me. That was no excuse.”

Moving on to UW-Milwaukee

Fishbain left Horlick in 1970 to work on an advanced degree at UW-Milwaukee, where he joined the football staff (the school dropped its football program after the 1974 season). He was head coach of the Panthers in 1971 and ‘72 and his players included Reinfeldt and quarterback Bill Carollo, who would go on to officiate in two Super Bowls and become Director of Officiating for the Big Ten Conference in 2008.

In 1972, Fishbain led UWM to six victories, its most since 1933.

Fishbain, who was also athletic director at UWM from 1973-75, was just getting started. He moved on to UW-River Falls, where he was defensive coordinator and then to the University of Minnesota, where he was recruiting coordinator.

He was hired at Wisconsin by the late Dave McClain in 1980, where he served as recruiting coordinator until getting fired by Don Morton in 1987. Barry Alvarez brought back Fishbain in 1990 for a newly-created post in which Fishbain served as a liason between the football program and the academic support staff.

Fishbain retired in 2000 with a remarkable record of success.

“I’ve been very fortunate, very fortunate,” Fishbain said. “I married a wonderful woman and have children and grandchildren. Hey, I ended up being around Division III, Division II and Division I.

“I’ve been very fortunate.”

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