By Robert Hullinger
While Merrill Hoban put his signature on Howard County basketball during a 12-year reign as coach at Northwestern High School, it was his influence and lasting relationships with players, students, colleagues, friends and family that will be remembered most fondly. Hoban, 91, was a teacher at Northwestern for 31 years. He died Wednesday at St. Joseph Hospital.
Merrill didn’t waste any time in making his basketball presence felt after accepting the teaching job in 1951 — shortly after consolidation had reduced county schools to Northwestern, Western and Eastern. In four short years, he coached the talented Tigers to an upset 62-60 victory over a highly regarded Kokomo team, becoming the first of the consolidated schools to win a sectional tourney.
Competitiveness was a virtue and a way of life for Merrill, and his basketball teams demonstrated that with an aggressive brand of play. They were always well-schooled in fundamentals, well prepared, and provided formidable opposition. With only a practice gym at Northwestern in the early years, Merrill’s Tigers made the Kokomo Armory their home and a tough place for opponents.
Merrill’s zeal for preparing his teams to play to the best of their abilities never left him — even in retirement. During an hour-long conversation outside of a grocery store three years ago, he described some past games and coaches in great detail. Once he recalled a game situation which misfired; enthusiastically slamming his fist into his hand. His passion for the game never left him.
His athletic and military background contributed to his toughness. He played high school basketball, and then went on to proudly serve his country as a flight instructor and B-17 pilot in World War II. When Merrill returned from the war, he continued collegiate play at Indiana Central College (now University of Indianapolis) where he played alongside eventual major leaguer George Crowe (brother of Ray Crowe, famed Crispus Attucks coach). Their relationship would result in a series of games between Northwestern and Crispus Attucks while the latter team was making its mid-50s run to a state championship.
Whether teaching in the classroom or coaching on the basketball court, Merrill sought opportunities to interact with young people. Deb Kistler, friend and former Northwestern coach said, “He was a disciplinarian, but you know, his students and players admired him.”
Dayton Merrell, a key player on the 1955 sectional championship team, recalled the positive attitude and approaches Merrill took. “In 1954, Kokomo beat us in the sectional by one point, and immediately after that, Coach started preparing us to play them again in the sectional the following year,” Dayton explained. “By the start of the 1955 season, we already knew who we were going to guard. And when he talked about the next season, he always said, ‘When we play Kokomo,’ not ‘if.’ He was a very positive guy.”
Jim Springer, a retired Northwestern teacher and coach, was a longtime friend of Merrill’s. “He was a great guy and teacher,” Springer said. “We shared so many laughs and good times. He was genuinely one of a kind. When I went to his visitation, I saw 40 middle-aged kids [former students] who felt that way also.”
Loyalty was meaningful to Merrill. He was a popular figure after his teaching duties ended, often attending school functions or alumni gatherings. He frequently wore his Northwestern athletic jacket proudly to games or events, armed with a big smile, a firm handshake and good remembrances.
Merrell chuckled as he recalled how Coach Hoban attended the recent funeral of former Tiger Bruno Sewell while wearing his athletic jacket. “None of his players could even get into their jackets!” Dayton said.
It was another case of Merrill always leading, always teaching. He will be greatly missed.
Robert Hullinger was the Assistant Sports Editor of the Kokomo Tribune from 1958 to 1966.