He was never appreciated like he should have been for his 23 years as Piqua’s basketball coach, but the basketball world around him will never forget what Dave Zeller meant to basketball…and what basketball meant to him.
Piqua, OH – The news Thursday that former Piqua basketball coach Dave Zeller had passed away in Toledo took me by surprise. The fact is that Zeller had been in struggling health for a while, but those who played and coached for him, or even knew him, must have believed that ‘Z’ would have outlived us all.
Such was his impact on boys and men, alike, and such was the reputation he leaves as being one of the best coaches in Ohio to never have won a state title…or even had the chance.
He grew up in Clark County, played with Wayne Embry for coaching legend Frank Shannon at Tecumseh High School (graduating in 1957), and then went on to a sterling career at Miami University, where he averaged 23 points a game in his senior year for coach Dick Shrider.
Following his graduation from Miami he spent one season with the NBA Cincinnati Royals where he played as a backup to Oscar Robertson. But unless you actually were Oscar Robertson back then NBA subs made little or no money, and Zeller left professional basketball to come home and teach and coach at the high school level – at Springfield Northeastern, Piqua, Graham, and Miami East – then for several years as the men’s coach at Piqua Edison Community College.
A great story-teller, one of Zeller’s favorites was about his days with the Royals when coach Charley Wolf would sub him into games to give Oscar Robertson a break.
“I’d go in and tap Oscar on the back and he’d look at me and say, ‘You’re not serious, are you?'” Zeller would laugh. “Let me tell you, the toughest thing I ever did in basketball was trying to convince Oscar that he was coming out of the game.”
He was legendary as a shooter…at Tecumseh, at Miami, and even with the Royals on those rare occasions that he got to shoot. Frank Shannon once said of Zeller, “I called him the ‘shooter’. He’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen, anywhere.”
And ‘Z’, as he was called by players and friends, took notable pride in that fact.
“It’s all we ever did when I grew up in Clark County,” he once told me. “We didn’t have TV so all we had to do was play basketball. We’d go to the school on Sunday afternoons, or someone’s barn with a rim in the loft, and we’d shoot all day. The reason ‘frickers’ can’t shoot anymore is they don’t practice enough. You gotta’ shoot.”
He was unique, from his language to his disdain for players who couldn’t do it as well as it came naturally to him. Once, in the winter of 1969, Zeller’s first year as the Indians’ coach after replacing Bill Kennon, I asked him if I could come out for basketball, telling him I was a pretty good shooter. I didn’t tell him I was slow afoot and didn’t play much defense – just that I could shoot. He watched me for two days of practice, then came to me at the end of the second day.
“I’ll tell you what,” Zeller said. “You and I are going to race from the end line to half court and back. If you beat me you can play. If I beat you…you can be the team manager.”
He beat me by ten feet, even though he was twice my age…and I was from that point on a manager, pestering him incessantly to share stories of his days with the Royals and Oscar.
He never won a state title, or even took a team to Columbus, and for that reason I think he was never justly appreciated by the public. But he won enough at his various stops (over 500 wins in his career), to garner the immense respect of his coaching colleagues.
“Dave coached at Piqua while I was at Vandalia Butler,” said Ray Zawadzki, Sr. “And a radio guy from Piqua once asked me what I thought of him as a coach. I told him, ‘I’ve got a young basketball player living at my house (Ray, Jr.), and if I couldn’t coach him I’d want Dave Zeller to coach him.’ That’s how much I thought of Dave as a coach.”
Former Piqua player and coach Dan Penrod remembered: “When I was coaching the junior high team under ‘Z’ he would have some of us go out and scout opponents for him. One time he called me into his office and said, ‘I’m buying you dinner.’ I asked why. ‘Because we beat the team you scouted, and that was our first win of the year. I’m buying you dinner.'” said Penrod.
Springfield Shawnee coach Chris McGuire played for Zeller at Graham High School.
“He was my basketball mentor,” says McGuire, now in his 16th season as coach at Shawnee. “And for years I’ve called him and asked advice about my team, or a play, or just to talk. Or he would call me and ask if I saw a game or a play on TV. As late as this spring we talked. Coach was like a father figure to me.”
A lot of former players will remember him for making basketball – just being around the game – fun and more enjoyable. When Piqua used to play at old Roosevelt Field House he’d shoot players for quarters after practice. No one ever beat him, of course, and Zeller would take the quarters and go up the street to Frisch’s, on Ash Street, and eat dinner.
There’s a story that someone once bet him he couldn’t hit 50 free throws in a row (Zeller hit 93 of 101 in his senior year at Miami). Zeller took his money…twice!
He was a member of both the Piqua High School and Miami University Halls of Fame, and Zeller once cracked “You’d think I’d be hall-of-famed out by now. But it’s an honor. I’ve always tried to give back to the game as much as possible.”
And to that point former Springfield South coach Wayne Wiseman once remembered him this way.
“Dave had as much respect for the game of basketball as anyone I’ve ever known,” said Wiseman. “Basketball meant everything to him.”
Several years ago, after he’d stepped down as an active coach, I ran into Zeller at Krogers. He remembered me, of course, and we immediately started to talk basketball.
“You got a good out-of-bounds play from under the basket?” I asked, kidding him for old times sake.
He whipped out a Sharpie and a piece of paper and immediately started showing me one of his favorites. Basketball, and the people who loved it, did mean everything to ‘Z’.
Dave Zeller was 81 years young…and left us too soon.