By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - John Raffensperger was much more than just arguably the greatest high school track and field coach in state history.
That is obvious from the reaction to his death on Sunday evening after a long and courageous battle with cancer.
I posted my condolences on Twitter, and said the world just won’t be the same without Raff, as he was called by just about everybody, and the first two responses to my tweet described him perfectly.
“A great coach, and a better, kinder man,” said Steve Sherwood, who coached with Raffensperger at Iowa City High School in the 1990s and 2000s.
“Top 5 greatest persons I’ve ever known,” said Ross Hilton, who was a member of the City High track team from 1996 to 2000.
Raffensperger was a great coach, an incredible coach when it came to track and field, and he loved to win, as we all do.
He was proud of the dynasty that he built as the City High boys track coach, and had reason to be because winning 10 state titles in 11 years truly is spectacular and something we’ll probably never see again.
But it was also Raff’s kindness and humility that made him special.
He was soft spoken, but his words came through loud and clear.
He was also meticulous, had incredible attention to detail and a gift for making all of his athletes feel important.
I moved to Iowa City in June 1991, and the dynasty under Raff started the following spring.
Raff helped turn Tim Dwight into one of the greatest track and field athletes in state history in the early 1990s at City High.
Raff also played a key role in Joey Woody’s rise to prominence as a hurdler at about that same time.
Woody would go on to be star hurdler for Northern Iowa, where he won a national title in the 400-meter hurdles in 1997.
He is now the Director of track and field and cross country at the University of Iowa, and until recently, Woody had Raff helping him as an unpaid volunteer assistant.
Woody paid tribute to his former head coach and close friend on Twitter.
“I have a very sad heart today, but I thank God for putting Coach Raff in my life! He influenced so many during his lifetime. I’m proud to call him mentor, coach, and friend! Thank you Coach Raff for all you did for me and many others. You will be missed, but never forgotten! RIP.”
What always amazed me is how much the City High athletes would improve under Raff’s watch. Dwight and Woody were easy to coach because they were physically gifted and driven to succeed.
But it was Raff’s success with the lesser-skilled athletes who needed time to grow and develop before they could shine that truly defined his greatness as a head coach. He took a lot of kids who very easily could have settled for being average and made them stars by believing in them, by encouraging them and by coaching them in ways that made them get better over time.
Raff also made all of his athletes feel as if they were an important part of the team, because to him, they were all important. It didn't matter if you were Tim Dwight or the slowest runner on the team, Raff made everybody feel special.
He sometimes would encourage me to write about a less-heralded athlete on the team because he knew what it would mean to that person.
Raff was always thinking of ways to make his athletes happy and motivated because he cared so much for them as people.
The last time I saw Raff was in early February and everything seemed fine with him. He still was volunteering with the Iowa track program and was excited about Iowa’s potential.
But then he came down with pneumonia and the flu, and that combined with the effects from battling cancer for so long, ultimately was too much to overcome.
Raff passed away at his home in Iowa City with family by his side.
He leaves behind a legacy of winning with class and dignity.
Raff had become a source of information for me because he knew so much about so many different things.
He was the son of former Iowa football coach Leonard Raffensperger, who coached the Hawkeyes in 1950 and 1951.
Raff was also the public address announcer in the press box for Iowa football games, although, his health issues kept him from doing that last season.
And he wrote a book about the history of City High athletics.
Raff came up to me in early December during an Iowa men’s basketball game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and handed me a small piece of paper.
Written on the paper was the upcoming indoor and outdoor schedules for the Iowa men’s and women’s track teams. It was Raff’s way of promoting the sport that he loved, and his way of saying hello and keeping me informed.
I feel guilty and have regret not making it over to Raff's house to see him in his final days. I had hoped to visit him this week, but sadly, it is too late.
Raff's visitation will take place on Sunday in the City High gymnasium at a time still yet to be determined. The funeral will be Monday (April 29) at the First Presbyterian Church on Rochester Avenue.
The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to either the Iowa track and field program or to the Raffensperger scholarship through the Iowa City Community School District Foundation — given annually a senior track athlete at City High.
I will miss my conversations with Raff because he had a knack for making you feel important. He was a devoted reader of mine, first with the Iowa City Press-Citizen, and now with Allhawkeyes.com, and would often tell me that he appreciated my work.
That meant a great deal to me, and it inspired me.
It was the same with Raff’s athletes. He inspired them to achieve greatness by doing the little things that mean so much in life.
He cared for his athletes and they wanted nothing more than to please him.
Rest in peace, my friend.