By Todd Brommelkamp/KGYM Radio
Chances are you didn’t know Bill Fleming. Maybe you’re a high school basketball junkie or at some point in time you’ve called Jackson County home. You probably still didn’t truly know Fleming, who passed away Thursday at 76.
He was a complicated man who did some of his best work out of the public eye.
But for 33 years, Bill Fleming was very much in full view of an adoring public in Maquoketa, where he coached boys basketball. And for 33 years Bill Fleming was a thorn in the side of opposing coaches and the target of harassment from fans and student sections across the now defunct Big Bend Conference.
Fleming was confident. Some would say cocksure. He was something else, too. Bill Fleming was a winner. He took the Cardinals to six state tournaments, including the Class 3A finals in 1983. Cedar Rapids Regis denied Fleming a state title that season, handing the Cardinals a 5-point defeat.
Maquoketa was – and still is – the chief rival of my old high school: Central DeWitt. It was usually standing-room only in the gym when Fleming’s Cardinals traveled south on Highway 61 or when Neil Padgett’s Sabers visited Maquoketa. I’ve covered college basketball for almost 20 years and the atmosphere surrounding those games matched some of the best rivalries I’ve attended.
I can still picture the last time I saw Fleming over 20 years ago, making a hard right turn out of the visiting locker room in DeWitt. His sport coat, which was adorned with a gold Nike lapel pin, and his hair were both immaculate. There was always an extra fire in his eye when he faced the Sabers.
That’s why I wasn’t shocked to read he had made the pilgrimage from Urbandale, where he had been living, to Maquoketa last week to watch the undefeated and No. 1 Cardinals win one last game. The opponent, of course, was Central DeWitt.
In the following days Fleming reportedly decided to quit taking medication that helped him counter the effects of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a terrible condition that involves scar tissue building up in the lungs, lessening the flow – and slowly strangling the body of – oxygen.
He was diagnosed last May. Doctors gave him a couple months to live. It typical Fleming fashion, he pushed the disease to the breaking point and beyond.
Tributes to Fleming poured forth Thursday on social media, many coming from former players and rival coaches. One came from Mike Peasley, who now works at an ESPN radio station in Dallas. I remember watching Mike, who is also from DeWitt and was friends with a classmate’s older brother, take on the Cardinals and other Big Bend rivals like Camanche and Dyersville Beckman as a kid.
“You knew going in you had better roll up your sleeves and get ready for a fight that night,” he wrote.
That’s probably the best epitaph you could write for Bill Fleming, whose teams were fundamentally sound and played to the whistle – sometimes a little after it.
He was one of a kind.
And if his old rival Padgett, who succumbed to cancer in 2002, had dreams of resting in peace, he got a rude surprise yesterday.