Obituaries detail

Leslie Leonard "Les" Wothke , Age: 83
Nov 30, 1938 - Nov 16, 2022

Leslie Leonard “Les” Wothke died peacefully in his Olathe, Kansas home November 16, 2022. Les was born in La Porte, IN on November 30, 1938, the only child of Leonard Edward and Edna Martha (Guse) Wothke. He grew up in Valparaiso, IN, surrounded by the devotion and attention of his parents and many aunts and uncles who were key figures in his early life and where his love of basketball first developed. After playing basketball at Valparaiso H.S. and graduating in 1957, he attended Greenville College in Greenville, IL (now Greenville University) where he played basketball and graduated in 1961 with an education major. He later completed an MS in Physical Education at Eastern Illinois. Interestingly, his thesis was related to the proposed “new rule” for the 1963-64 season of stopping the clock during free throws. His study determined how much time would be added to the length of the game.

 

Les credited his decision to become a coach to his sophomore high school BB coach, Harold “Red” Mack, for instilling the value of mental toughness; to his high school varsity coach, Virgil Sweet, for giving him the free throw method he taught every player; and Greenville College coach, John Strahl, for his wisdom and dedication first to his players, and then, to “the game.”

 

In 1961, Les married Diane Constant with whom he had two daughters, Kathleen Diane and Christine Anne. They later divorced. The beginning of Les’s 35-year coaching career began in 1961 as head coach for two years at the high school level in Prophetstown, IL. In 1964-8, he coached basketball, football and golf at Bloomington, IL H.S., followed by his last head basketball position at Rich East H.S. in Park Forest, IL. It was at Rich East that Les hired Steve Fisher (who went on to coaching fame at U. of Michigan and San Diego State) and here a life-long friendship began.

 

After beginning his coaching career at the high school level, he was recruited to become head coach at Winona State in 1970. In his first tenure with the Warriors, he led the team to four consecutive Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) titles from 1972 to 1975, as well as two NAIA District Championships and two National Championship appearances in 1973 and 1975. Wothke's teams in the early 1970s dominated play in the state of Minnesota and the upper Midwest.

 

On August 9, 1975, Les married Judith Kay (Lee) in Hokah, MN. Over the course of their marriage, they lived in 8 states, and while coaching at West Point in 1988, welcomed daughter Jessica Lee to their family.

 

His WSU success caught the attention of Illinois head coach Lou Henson, who offered Wothke an assistant coaching role for the NCAA (D-I) Fighting Illini. Les credited Henson with teaching him how to coach year-round at the D-I level with tenacity, recruiting prowess and delegation of responsibility After 4 years under Henson, Wothke was given his first D-I head coaching role at Western Michigan. He spent three seasons rebuilding a championship program at WMU and winning a Mid-American Conference regular season championship in the 1980-81 season.

 

In 1982, Army athletic director, Carl Ullrich offered him the Army (West Point) head coaching position for the Black Knights. Les coached eight seasons at Army, and in the 1984-85 season was named the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Coach of the Year. He resigned in 1990.

 

In January 2022, through a gift provided by former West Point player, Mark Clouse and his wife Kathy, Les was honored in the dedication of the West Point Athletics’ newly remodeled team/locker room as the Coach Les Wothke Men’s Basketball Team Room.”

 

During his time at West Point, special lasting relationships were forged, especially with two Army Officer Representatives: the former COL (R) Ron Hannon and LTC (R) John (Jocko) Mikula. They became Les’s confidantes, advisors, and friends. Knowing them was an honor and privilege for Les.

 

Returning to the Midwest in 1990, Les was an account manager for Burnet Reality in Mpls. MN. In 1992, WSU approached Les to rebuild the former NAIA power into a NCAA D-II contender. He returned to WSU, coaching the Warriors for six seasons, rebuilding a struggling program and leaving it prepared for the championship level. Les was most proud, however, of his players’ 100% graduation rate.

 

Community involvement was also an important part of Les’s professional contributions: public speaking, booster organizations, alumni functions and lecturing at more than 150 clinics and campuses throughout the nation. In addition, he served as co-clinician at foreign clinics in Syria, Turkey and China. Early in his collegiate career, Les began a tradition of selecting community “honorary coaches” who proudly sat on the bench for each home game. After retiring in 1998, Les continued to give back to the game he first loved. Coming full circle from his first coaching of high school players, he held shooting clinics for young athletes and helped coach Winona High School players for one year. In 2003. Les was inducted into the NSIC Hall of Fame and in 2004, inducted into Winona State University’s Hall of Fame.

 

Throughout his career, Coach Wothke’s whistle blew on several basketball courts: high school, NAIA, Division II and Division I. Hundreds of young men with athletic talent and hidden potential have called him “Coach” as he nurtured and developed discipline, team cohesion, character and confidence. His effective communication skills were an inspiration to players, parents, and colleagues. Les was also known to proudly spurn using a computer and instead, would write precise, hand-printed notes to express himself. Even though Les relished competition, he really loved the PRACTICE and insisted on punctuality. Admittedly, he spent more time creating rigorous practice schedules than on actual practice. Despite his coaching rigor, his athletes trusted him and knew they were valued both on and off the court, due to his honest, direct communication style. Often, referees officiating games coached by Les may have wished he weren’t as direct and honest, as Les’s adherence to the rules of the game was keen, and he was always a passionate and vocal advocate for his players.

 

His coaching philosophy viewed basketball as an opportunity to apply life’s skills for personal and professional success, but often there was also failure. One of Les’s finest skills was in communicating how to adjust to failure, not seeing it as a personal flaw, but a learning experience. In his own words, Les said his goal for each player was that “each would be his own coach.”     

 

Many former players have acknowledged Les’s influence and have remained close. A few among the many, Roscoe Young, led WSU to its two NAIA National Tournament appearances and established The Les Wothke Basketball Scholarship at WSU; Kevin Houston, an Army All-American and Haggerty Award winner, led the nation in scoring; and Larry McCarren, was a Rich East H.S. player of Green Bay Packer fame who currently announces for the Packers.

 

During their 47-year marriage, Les and Judy called several locations “home”: Urbana-Champaign, IL; Kalamazoo, MI; West Point, NY; Minneapolis, MN; Winona, MN; LaCrosse, WI; Ft. Myers Beach, FL; Sarasota, FL; Sevierville, TN and lastly, Olathe, KS. Les viewed each new move with optimism and potential awaiting them. This same perspective describes how Les approached his many delights: morel mushroom hunting, antique trips on backwoods roads, golfing trips with buddies to Ft. Myers, displaying his piano skills, playing two favorite songs: “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” reading late into the night, learning to play “Shenandoah” on the mountain dulcimer, memorable sunsets on Ft. Myers Beach near his Florida “Creciente” home and finding joy in the happiness of others.

 

Few people in our lives have a lasting influence, and Les was one of those rare few. His dry wit and clever comebacks punctuated his personality, and with his knack as a storyteller, Les could just as easily charm a crowd as a guest in his living room. By recounting life’s zany, ironic, quirky moments with his deadpan delivery, he could lighten a friend’s troubles and challenges and ALWAYS make them laugh…even if it were at one’s own expense. If Les mildly and cleverly insulted you, it was a compliment, to be sure. He often made phone calls to friends, just to let them know he was thinking of them and of course, to make them laugh.

 

Love of God and family, loyalty in friendship, and tenacity in spirit guided Les’s moral compass. The Les Wothke biography includes many chapters filled with his impressive career accomplishments, but even more chapters highlight his admirable character strengths. He was a husband, Dad, Grandpa, Great-Grandpa and friend. He loved “his girls”, grandchildren and great-grandchild and proudly “held court” whenever they were able to spend time together. For all those who have been touched by Les Wothke’s talents, they will always remember him with love and admiration.

 

Surviving Les are his wife Judith (Lee) and three daughters: Kathleen Diane Robinson of St. Cloud, MN, Christine Anne (Greg) Hathaway of Tulsa, OK and Jessica Lee (Kyle) Simmons of Lenexa, KS.

 

Six grandchildren survive: Rachel Robinson (Brandon) Crist, Josh Robinson, Andrew Hathaway, Griffin Hathaway, Benjamin Hathaway, Charlotte Simmons and one great-grandchild, Ryder Crist.

 

Also surviving are several cousins of the Wothke and Guse families and Lee family brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews.

 

Preceding Les in death were his parents and son-in-law Lynn Robinson.

 

A private family memorial service for Les will be held at the Hokah United Methodist Church, Hokah, MN. At a future date, there will be a Celebration of Life reception for family, friends, former players, colleagues and community members.

 

Memorials may be sent to The Les Wothke Scholarship at WSU in c/o the WSU Foundation at the following link: winona.edu/give or the Hokah United Methodist Church (148 Main St. Hokah, MN 55941).

 

Notes of condolence may be sent to the Wothke family at jkwothke@gmail.com

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Condolences

Jones family Nov 22 ,2022

Friend ,Venice ,Florida

We would like to offer our condolences. Les was a very special man and we were blessed to know him. Fin is especially blessed as he learned his free throw techniques from Les! God bless, he will always be remembered. Steve, Amelia and family.

Mark & Janet Bial Nov 25 ,2022

Coached with Les at the University of Illinois. We worked together personally with the fall conditioning & summer camps, two aspects of coaching that Les loved. The summer camp was a highlight for high school coaches & players to attend. Recruiting with him, Tony Yates, and Mark Coomes at Illinois u ,Rogers ,Arkansas

Loved coaching with Les at the University of Illinois, building a program that averaged over 20 wins a season for 20 years. Enjoyed Les’s love of life, basketball & antiquing. Thankful to know Les & Judy. Our thoughts & prayers are with you & your family Judy. Janet & Mark.

Billie Squires Nov 27 ,2022

Former Assistant ,Winona ,Minnesota

Kathy and I send our prayers. Les was my mentor during our brief time together at Winona State

Lana Vaughan Nov 28 ,2022

cousin of Judy Wothke ,London, England

Dear Judy and Jessie, What an illustrious life Les has led. I knew very little of his working life. He obviously will never be forgotten by so very many former athletes and coaches. We Rossi children were privileged to get to know Les when you lived in Pleasant Valley, Minnesota, near the home of our parents, Betty and Russ Rossi. I'm so pleased that I have been able to stay in touch with you,Judy, during these past difficult months thanks to emails and hopefully FaceTime in future. I will be with you in spirit during this sad time. Love, Lana

Eddie Johnson Dec 01 ,2022

Student/athlete ,Phoenix ,Arizona

Coach is one of the reasons I elected to attend the University Of Illinois. His smile and laugh was so infectious and his words and wisdom allowed me to navigate a tough freshman year to quickly become an important part of our teams 1977-81. We talked a number of years ago and it was uplifting for me because he had intently followed my pro career and he reminded me of what I still had to do. To his family. My thoughts and prayers are with you. He was a great man and I loved him for teaching me and maturing me. God bless you all. Eddie Johnson. Uof I 77-81