Former Albert Lea basketball coach inspired players

Published 3:38 am Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Column: Notes from Nashville, by Andrew Dyrdal

When Orrie Jirele paced up and down the sidelines as Albert Lea’s boys’ basketball coach, there was no mistaking his passion for the game.

After a bad call, he would lose his jacket. The tie came off next. He wanted to win, not for himself but for his players, and amassed 168 victories over 15 years, becoming the winningest coach in program history.

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Jirele died on Saturday while hunting in Albert Lea at age 73.

When news of Jirele’s death began to spread this weekend, those who knew him began posting their favorite memories of O.J. online. There was a common theme: That the passion that fueled Jirele as a basketball coach was present in each part of his life.

He was a violinist, playing in two community orchestras, and a counselor for 15 years at Albert Lea High School. When you spoke to Jirele, if was as if nobody else existed. He was only focused on you.

Jirele graduated from Pacelli High School in Austin and moved to Albert Lea in 1973 when he took over as the boys’ basketball coach. He went 14-6 in his first season and led the Tigers to three Big Nine Conference championships and three regional finals.

Jirele’s teams weren’t always the most talented, according to former player Paul Woodside, of Albert Lea, but they were successful, because his players worked hard for him.

“We became winners because of him,” Paul said. “He had a lot of passion and high expectations. He was a wild guy on the sidelines, but you knew he cared about his players.”

Paul said Jirele inspired a team that was expected to finish toward the bottom of the conference and led them to a co-championship.

He recounted losing to Owatonna on a last second shot during his junior season and being called to Jirele’s office before boarding the bus the following day to play the conference favorite Winona. Paul thought he and another player were in trouble but Jirele told them how proud he was of their effort and that he cared for them.

“Winona didn’t have a chance that night,” Paul said. “It was over when we walked off the bus.

“He was tough to play for but real sincere.”

Jirele didn’t just inspire players but future coaches as well.

One of Jirele’s closet friends, Tom Jones, of Albert Lea, said while he didn’t play basketball in high school or college, he and his YMCA men’s league teams were asked to come scrimmage the Tigers varsity team.

“That’s when I got to know Orrie,” Jones said. “He asked me to coach my first team in 1985 and I’ve coached 23 years of basketball because of that.”

Jones said that his most memorable moment with Jirele came after one of those scrimmages when the coach told him, “I can only describe your game in one way. Your strength is inconsistency.”

Jones went on to referee basketball with Jirele for years and called him an “adult kid,” who seemed to never age.

“He’s a person who would do anything for you if he could,” Jones said. “I don’t think the kid ever left him.”

Even well after Jirele retired, he continued to be passionate about Albert Lea sports and his community.

Jirele was a substitute teacher for the Albert Lea Area School District, a board member for the Albert Lea High School Athletics Hall of Fame and attended every boys’ basketball game he could. He often sat on the court, near the Tigers bench in a folding chair. He appeared at youth basketball camps and practices and knew the X’s and O’s better than anyone else in town.

Jack Woodside, of Albert Lea, played golf with Jirele every week this summer and said all they did was talk about sports.

“He liked to reminisce about when Albert Lea and Austin had those great ball clubs,” Jack said. “Should have won this one, should have won that one. He loved it, and I loved it.”

Jirele’s impact on today’s high schoolers is evident. A Facebook group created on Sunday named “RIP Mr. Jirele” had 1,926 “likes” within 24 hours, and students are planning to wear camouflage to school on Friday in memory of “an amazing sub,” the page says.

Jirele’s passion and presence in the community as a coach, mentor, musician and leader will be sorely missed.

Jerry Nelson, of Mound, was Jirele’s principal at Albert Lea High School and said he had a wonderful rapport with all kids, regardless if they played basketball or not.

“He was a man for all seasons,” Nelson said. “He loved to hunt, fish, play violin. He was quite a guy.”

Andrew Dyrdal’s column appears in the Tribune each Tuesday.