Crim: Lepper epitomizes Hall of Fame tenacity and Hall of Fame personality

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QUINCY — The one thing Tom Lepper promised ahead of his acceptance speech after being inducted into the Quincy University Sports Hall of Fame was that it would be brief.

“I’m not a guy that tries to draw attention to himself, you know,” said the man who never openly sought the spotlight but couldn’t escape being the center of attention since he stood 6-foot-9 and weighed 240 pounds during his basketball playing days.

Then he came up with possible remarks he could deliver to the Pepsi Arena crowd on Saturday afternoon.

“The last time I was on this court, officially, I got three technical fouls and was booted. Thank you.”

And then he let out the trademark Tom Lepper laugh.

That wasn’t how Lepper decided to phrase it, of course, although he did mention those technicals that led to his ejection for unrelentingly arguing an offensive foul call with 17 minutes, 34 seconds remaining in QU’s season finale against St. Joseph’s on March 2, 1996.

It wasn’t a Hallmark ending to his career, but it was vintage Lepper. He was a fiery competitor and leader on and off the court. Teammates and coaches listened when he spoke, sometimes out of intimidation, most times out of respect. Yet, he also possessed an uncanny ability to keep things loose.

“If you know Lepp, you know how funny he is,” said QU coach Steve Hawkins, who was in his first stint at the school when Lepper played from 1992-96. 

“Even when things were intense, there was always going to be a moment of levity. Sometimes it was on purpose, with him joking around, and then there were other times when he would just get so mad at somebody that you had to laugh.

“He brought great talent to the court, but he also brought a personality to the program that was very much needed. To be an effective leader, you have to have people following, otherwise you’ve just taken a walk. When he turned around, there were guys who were following.”

Tom Lepper, left, enjoys a laugh with his family — from left, his wife Sara, his daughter Jordan and his son Brennan — during his Quincy University Hall of Fame induction ceremony Saturday at Pepsi Arena. | Photo courtesy QU Athletics

Lepper originally committed to NCAA Division I Southern Illinois University after teaming with Andy Waggoner and George Milsap to lead Quincy High School to a 26-1 record during the 1991-92 season before being ousted by Peoria Central in the sectional round as seniors.

After a few days in Carbondale, however, he realized he should have followed his heart and cast his lot with Hawkins and Division II QU.

“There was something in the back of my mind that I wanted to stay home and play because I knew I wasn’t gonna go beyond playing in college,” he said. “I liked it here. I didn’t really want to leave. There’s other places that get a lot of notoriety, but it’s hard to beat playing in Quincy.”

The Hawks were in transition at the time. Hawkins, hired on the eve of the 1991-92 season when Brad Dunn opted to return to Arkansas, was the third head coach in the six seasons following the retirement of Sherrill Hanks.

QU finished 8-20 playing with the roster Hawkins inherited that season. He then signed the sharp-shooting Waggoner, brought in power forward Reggie Bell from California and 6-foot-10 freshman Jon Peck from Aurora, and benefited from the maturity of veteran guard Tommy Gill and other holdovers.

As a bonus, with no scholarships available, Lepper walked on to immediately fast-forward rebuilding plans.

“Tom is obviously a legend around Quincy,” said Jay Driscoll, a pesky guard from the Chicago Catholic League who joined the team two years later and was one of several former teammates who made the trip to Pepsi Arena on Saturday for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

“He’s almost like a Yogi Berra figure where people don’t realize how good of a player he was, how dominant he was in the post. He dominated rebounding and was a big-time scorer until he had some injuries.

“And he was an unbelievable teammate because you knew he had your back. He was an enforcer. Being a little guy, I knew that going down the lane we were going to control the paint because Lepp was in there.”

Tom Lepper, far right in back row, poses for a picture with his former Quincy University men’s basketball teammates and coach Steve Hawkins, second from right on front row, following Lepper’s induction into the QU Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday. | Photo courtesy QU Athletics

Lepper scored 1,139 points, grabbed 693 rebounds and blocked 131 shots during his QU career, the latter the third-most in program history. With the help of other California imports along the way — Lavaughn Williams, David Langley, Rasaan Hall and Matt Steffe — and gritty players out of Chicago, the Hawks compiled a 75-37 record and twice qualified for the Division II national tournament.

Pepsi Arena was usually packed and alive in those days. Quincy High School fans flocked to watch Lepper and Waggoner, their hometown boys, and others were drawn by QU’s exciting — and winning — brand of basketball.

There weren’t many players Lepper’s size in the Great Lakes Valley Conference in those days. He wasn’t fleet afoot, given that one leg was an inch shorter than the other, meaning he often appeared to lumber up and down the court.

Accustomed to being double-teamed in high school, he developed into an adept passer from the post to find open teammates. If it was man-to-man, he could use his strength to back an opponent under the rim for a short shot or baby hook.

And pity the poor guards who dropped inside to try to swipe away the ball.

“He had no trouble using his fouls or his elbows,” Hawkins said. “If Lepp grabbed a rebound and these little guards tried to steal the ball, they soon realized they were at elbow height for him. They learned pretty quick to get away from him.”

By nature, however, Lepper has always been a fun-loving farm boy.

Back when reporters were allowed in the locker room after games instead of giving requests to a sports information staffer and waiting for them to bring players out, he could be found standing in front of his locker in some stage of undress.

“What do you want now, Crim?” he would bellow for everyone to hear as I approached with pen and pad.

After a few moments of steely peering down on my 5-foot-10 frame, he would break into an awe shucks grin and proceed with answering every question.

And then there were the road trips.

The Hawks always ate at the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, an all-you-can-eat buffet in Owensboro, Ky., the night before they played Kentucky Wesleyan. It offered everything down to banana pudding and was one of Lepper’s favorite haunts.

“It was his senior year, and as I headed out, Lepp was standing outside the bus,” Hawkins said. “I thought he wanted to talk with me, so I said, ‘What’s up with you?’ And he looked back at the Moonlite Bar-B-Q and said, ‘You know, it’s just a damn shame that I won’t get to eat here again.’

“I look at the big guy and knew he meant it. He was not happy about not getting to return to the Moonlite Bar-B-Q. Here we had a big game the next day and he has the ability to cut up and still have a lot of fun. That encapsulates Tom.”

After graduating, Lepper spent many years as a special education teacher in the Quincy School District before becoming dean of students at Quincy Junior High. It takes a special person willing to work with special kids, and the gentle giant of a man had a knack for it.

“Kids keep you young,” he said.

Hawkins went a step further.

“Anytime you’re around Lepp you know things are going to turn silly pretty quick,” he said, “but he’s also got a very serious side to him, a very sensitive side to him. He probably won’t like me saying that. He’s an incredible family person, too.”

Lepper also has spent a quarter-century coaching in the Blue Devils basketball program, first as a sophomore assistant, then head sophomore coach and, finally, as a varsity assistant to both Sean Taylor and Andy Douglas.

He’s been dealing with a serious health issue the last couple of years, something he prefers not to dwell on. He took a leave of absence from the school district and coaching this year.

“It’s been a challenge,” he admitted. “Things are about the same. There are good days and bad days. I’ve done more crossword puzzles this year than I ever have to keep my mind sharp because, you know, I’ve been told to keep it cooking.

“My wife (Sara) does a wonderful job. I couldn’t make it without my wife and my family. You’ve got to roll on every day and that’s what I’m doing. Let’s just say how wonderful my family is and leave it at that.”

Being inducted into the Hall of Fame five days after his 50th birthday was special for many reasons, the foremost being that his wife and their two children, Jordan and Brennan, were on the court with him.

“That’s something you can look at with pride,” Lepper said.

He also had the opportunity to walk around the arena to mingle with former teammates during and after Saturday’s victory over Lewis University.

The fondest memories of his four years at QU?

“It’s kind of a broad answer, but it’s the people you meet and the friends you make,” Lepper said. “I’m 50 years old. I mean, time has flown by. It seems like yesterday we were all together. We still remember each other and still make contact.

“There have been a lot of good players at Quincy University who have been promoted to the Sports Hall of Fame. To be one of those many, many athletes is truly an honor.”

It also was a special moment for Hawkins, who is once again trying to rebuild the QU program.

“When I was at Western Michigan for 20 years and I looked back on my time in Quincy, there were certain things I thought about,” he said. “Friends, obviously, but when I thought about players, he was always one of the top guys.

“It wasn’t just him as a player or as a leader, it was him as a person. That’s what made him who he was and who he is.”

A Hall of Famer in every respect.

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