The End of an Era

From a dubious coach to Glenrock treasure, Ray Kumpula pays it forward

Ray Kumpula shakes the hand of sophomore Andrik Moreno following Glenrock’s final regular season game Oct. 19. (Photos by Mike Moore)

Originally seen in the Glenrock Independent.

Coaching requires a great deal of sacrifice. For Ray Kumpula, a recent college graduate searching for his first job as a teacher, the biggest sacrifice came long before he ever became a coach.

Kumpula grew up in Redford Township, a large suburb of Detroit, Michigan, for the greater part of his childhood. His family later moved to Lake Linden in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and he graduated from Lake Linden-Hubbell High School in 1976. By the time he graduated from college in 1981, the automaking industry was in a state of despair.

Skyrocketing oil prices and large scale manufacturing issues negatively impacted Michigan’s workforce in the 1970s and well into the 1980s. This caused the economy to slide into turmoil, with high inflation, high unemployment and rising crime rates. When Kumpula bought his first car, a Dodge Colt from Coliseum Motors in 1981, he purchased at a staggering 17 percent interest rate.

As a sophomore at Redford Union High School, Kumpula played center for a struggling football program that won just three games during his first two seasons.

“I had absolutely no speed and no size,” Kumpula recalled with a laugh. “They let me play center because that was the only place I could get on the field, and even then I didn’t get on the field very often.”

During his first year at Lake Linden as a junior, Kumpula went out for football again but lost himself for a year as he struggled to make the adjustment from a large suburb to a small town.

A shy, insecure kid in an unfamiliar place, Kumpula turned to his football coach. Then head coach Ron Warner took the struggling teenager, and newly converted wide receiver, under his wing and helped turn his life around.

“I learned to depend on him, he basically helped me through my senior year,” Kumpula said about Warner. “For that I was forever grateful and developed a real positive relationship with the game of football through him.”

While Kumpula was at college, two of his younger brothers — Jack and Mike — played for Warner at Lake Linden which allowed him to remain in close communication with his mentor. It forged a relationship through which Kumpula learned a great deal from through the years and he soon aspired to follow in Warner’s footsteps.

“When I went to school and became a teacher, I wanted to emulate that,” Kumpula said. “I wanted to be the one to help out.”

Before Kumpula could do that he needed to find a job. It was April of his senior year at Northern Michigan University and he was exploring job postings.

It was during his search that Kumpula stumbled upon two separate teaching jobs in Wyoming, one in Glenrock and the other in Natrona. He took one look at the salary and was sold.

“I said, ‘Look at that salary ($16,200),’ that was a lot for us at the time,’” Kumpula said. “I told myself I needed to be willing to move anywhere. No one at that time was graduating and getting jobs within the state, everyone was leaving.

“Most of us were going south or west. I ended up in Glenrock.”

GIVING BACK

Nov. 9, just a few ticks past 10 a.m., Kumpula gently opens his classroom door at GHS and greets one of his students and her parents before a parent-teacher conference. He only has a few scheduled throughout the morning, but each of them is just as important as the next.

In teaching and coaching, Kumpula developed a fondness for the close relationships that can often be formed in the classroom and on the football field. He’s always strived to give back to kids the same way that Warner did for him at Lake Linden.

“It’s always been about the idea that you’re a little bit closer to the kids,” Kumpula explained. “From the beginning it didn’t matter what sport it was, whether it was football, basketball or track. I’ve always craved those relationships with them.”

Kumpula says sports saved him in high school. It’s a reminder to him that the frailty of our teenage years can often be mended and later molded by something as simple as the game of football.

“He approaches teaching the same way he does football,” Glenrock Activities and Athletics Director Julie Kuhlman said. “He makes it so that they’re a part of what’s happening and they feel pride in that. They’ll always run through a wall for him because they know he’s dedicated.”

Kumpula’s first formal education in coaching football came as an unpaid assistant under the tutelage of Mick Lehner, the legendary Herders coach from 1975–1989. At the time he was a math, science and social studies teacher at Glenrock Middle School.

“The first day I got here I contacted Mick (Lehner) and asked if I could help out,” Kumpula said. “He let me work my way into the program, gave me a few responsibilities and let me grow.”

When Kumpula left the middle school for a position at the high school in 1982, the requirements of the position entailed that he step away from football and become the girls and boys swim coach. He did that during the 1982–1983 school year and the following year, returned to the sideline.

From 1985–1989, he served as a paid assistant for Lehner and worked through the former Absaraka Conference. Glenrock was one of the smallest 3A schools at the time making it especially difficult to win games during those years.

“Week in and week out it was a fight,” Kumpula recalled. “By the end of the year we were pretty beat up and struggling to make the playoffs.”

Much like he did with Warner a decade earlier, Kumpula leaned on Lehner for support during his early years in Glenrock. He learned the town through Lehner’s eyes and while doing so, became a study of the game.

In 1990, it was his turn to lead the charge.

Kumpula explains his retirement from coaching following the team’s announcement during the final regular season game. Kumpula served as head coach for 24 years in Glenrock in two stints.

THE FIRST STINT

Naturally, the first thing Kumpula did when he became head coach was install Warner’s offense. It featured a heavy dosage of I-back formations and because of its success at Lake Linden, he felt confident he could replicate it in Glenrock.

After a 5–3 record in year one, it quickly became apparent that his offensive vision wasn’t going as planned. The Herders suffered back-to-back winless seasons in 1991–1992 and won just 12 games in six seasons. Each painstaking loss took a lasting toll on Kumpula.

“We weren’t very good and I burned myself out during those times because I tried to do too much,” Kumpula said. “As a young coach I thought it was all my responsibility so I took things away from my assistant coaches rather than letting them coach. I kept everything close to the vest and did everything thinking that it was my job to do that.”

Kumpula led Glenrock to the playoffs three of his first seven seasons as head coach but by the end of the 1996 season, he felt strongly that he had outworn his welcome.

No one internalized the losses like Kumpula did. The constant woulda-coulda-shoulda’s that accompanied each defeat weighed heavy on him. After compiling a 17–36 record in seven seasons, he decided enough was enough.

“That’s when I felt I couldn’t take this program any further,” Kumpula said. “I gave up coaching with the idea that I couldn’t make a difference in this program.

“By 1996 I had burned the candle dead.”

Kumpula stepped down as head coach following the 1996 season and became an assistant to Neil Waring for five seasons. He didn’t expect to ever be a head coach again.

But when Waring left the school district after the 2001 season, the administration and players came calling. They sent him a letter asking if he’d return as head coach, a memento that Kumpula treasures to this day.

“That letter is one of the things that I cherish most,” he said. “I said yes and I went out with the idea that I needed to do it differently this time.”

FINDING SUCCESS

Donnie Stewart was the defensive coordinator at Wheatland High School during Waring’s final season as head coach in 2001. At the time, Kumpula and Stewart didn’t know much about each other. But they would become inseparable.

In search of assistant coaches that could help rejuvenate the program, Stewart — a native of Glenrock who played under Lehner — was one of the first names that Kumpula added to his staff. Stewart served as an assistant coach in Wheatland for two seasons before becoming the defensive coordinator for a year. With a little bit of convincing, he returned home to join forces with Kumpula.

“We started with each other in 2002 and they say the rest is history,” Kumpula said proudly.

In their first two seasons together, Kumpula directing the offense and Stewart the defense, Glenrock went 8–3 and won back-to-back state championships and snapped its streak of 25 years without a title.

From there, the success and tradition of the program took off as the Herders appeared in the state final three of the next six seasons. It was also the point in time when Kumpula knew his team needed something new to hang its hat on. Something that could leave a lasting impact on Glenrock football.

Thus, the birth of the double wing offense.

“We came into the weight room one Saturday at 8 a.m. and he (Kumpula) sat there and said, ‘You’re the defensive guy, what’s the worst offense you’ve ever had to stop in your life?’” Stewart recalled. “I said we got a lesson taught to us when we went to Kemmerer. When I looked at that double wing on film it looked like a childish offense.

“And it dawned on me that if you want to run the football, that thing was a nightmare to stop. Everything you’ve taught kids doesn’t work. We didn’t know a darn thing about it but we instantly started winning football games.”

In 2008, Kumpula and the Herders completed an unforgettable 11–0 season and won their third state championship in seven seasons.

It was during that stretch of years that one of Kumpula’s players learned what Glenrock football was truly all about.

“I always knew that the town was known for its football team,” former Glenrock running back from 2005–2008 Drew Nielsen said. “But Kump helped bring an identity to the school, not just with the wins and success but with the mentality. We had a crappy field at the time that no one ever wanted to play on. We just embraced it, it was a big metaphor for us.

“We used to take a pail of dirt to our away games, that was kind’ve the mentality he helped grow along with the other coaches. It’s what defines the Glenrock community — people who work hard, bust their butts, are tight knit and that’s how our team was. It really grew into the community and signified what they were about.”

THE KUMPULA EFFECT

When Kumpula first became head coach in 1990, he went through the history books and learned about Glenrock football all the way back to 1931. He was interested in records and the number of head coaches that preceded him at Glenrock. He admits he’s a history buff.

“I’ve always been interested in the little things, like in 1944 when Glenrock didn’t have a season because of a rubber shortage,” Kumpula said. “They didn’t have tires for the team bus during World War II.”

He also enjoyed learning about how legendary Casper coach Art Hill got his start in Glenrock and where the Herder nickname originated. It’s all intriguing to him.

But even today, after 24 seasons at the helm of the program and 134 wins — the most in school history and tied for 14th all-time among Wyoming coaches — the magnitude of his success still hasn’t dawned on him.

“I never put myself in that boat, I just thought I would go out and do my best and see what happens,” Kumpula said. “In my mind I just thought we were trying to work hard and win football games. I never let myself get there.”

When it was known that Kumpula was retiring as head coach at the end of the 2018 season, Kuhlman reached out to Kumpula’s wife, Barb. She asked her what the administration and school could do in order to present him with a proper farewell. The answer was simple: It’s all about the kids.

“He said he didn’t want anything big but he said he wanted letters from his former players,” Kuhlman said. “He didn’t want the accolades.”

Kuhlman said she ended up receiving 30 letters from former players, nearly all written with the goal of reminding Kumpula of the impact that he’s had on them.

“He’s meant so much to our school and our community,” Kuhlman said. “He invested his time, his knowledge and his life to Glenrock football. He grew it into what it is today.”

LEAVING A LEGACY

Kumpula will be the first person to tell you that the success and tradition that’s been built in Glenrock was not possible without the help of Stewart. The two coaches are joined at the hip.

“When you’re in trouble, he’ll pick you up,” Stewart said. “When you get in trouble, he’ll stand by your side. The kids have seen him in the weight room, staying until 10 at night to support them. They’ve always seen the guy that’s there and the guy that isn’t.

“The effort he’s given to them has come back to him.”

For many of Kumpula’s players over the years, he’s shown them what it takes to win. He’s shown them what it means to respect but also to be respected. And he’s shown them what it means to be great.

The same young, insecure kid in high school that later became a head coach full of doubt, will now head off into the horizon with a legacy that will be long remembered in Glenrock.

“The outpouring this year has floored me, I never even imagined that it existed,” Kumpula said. “As a coach what do you hear? You hear the disgruntlement, the people saying you could be so successful if you just threw the ball. You hear that all the time so that’s why you keep your head down.
“I never envisioned any of this.”
Parents and fans gathered on the field following Glenrock’s final regular season game to thank Kumpula for his commitment and dedication to the Glenrock football program for more than three decades.