There was a certain charisma to Gordon Zapp that made people gravitate toward him.
He had big aspirations, a strong recruiting presence and a football mind that was on display from 1963-1967 at Dakota Wesleyan University. When former athletic director Gordie Fosness hired him, he inherited a program that went 2-7 in each of the prior two seasons.
When he talked, his players listened. When he asked them to play hard, they played hard, even if it meant showing them himself. The Tigers became winners under Zapp, who ranked third all-time in wins at the time at 21-22-2.
“He’d get right down and show us without pads or a helmet,” said Mike Denney, who played football under Zapp and is in the DWU wrestling hall of fame. “He had a forearm. Back then, we could use our forearms. He’d get right in there and show us.”
Zapp died on Aug. 2 in his Arvada, Colorado, home due to diabetes. He was 84 years old.
His death was mourned by his players and peers, many of whom continued to stay in touch with Zapp through the years. After being named the 1965 South Dakota college coach of the year during DWU’s 7-2 season, the DWU hall of fame inductee took a job as the head football coach at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado. He was able to make the jump to NCAA Division II, a dream he had when arriving in Mitchell.
Zapp later went into insurance in 1971 and became a member of the Million Dollar Sales Club in 1973. Football never left him, though. He helped scout player personnel in Denver for the New England Patriots and was the offensive coordinator for the Colorado School of Mines from 1993-1995.
Even as he moved away and found different career paths, he never forgot about DWU. He stayed in touch with coaches, community members, administrators, and most importantly, his former players.
He called them around Christmas to keep in touch, and anytime a former player was being inducted into the DWU hall of fame or honored, Zapp would make the drive to Mitchell to be there in person. He attended homecomings, and his players did, too.
“He had a great love for his players, and it showed because they played hard for him,” said Fosness, who was an assistant football coach under Zapp. “… I don’t know a kid that didn’t like him. Not one. He kept track of those kids. They came back for some homecoming just because of him. Because they liked him.”
A storied coaching career
Denney never visited DWU before fall camp in 1965, but the way Zapp carried himself and the charisma exuded had him committed to the Tigers.
He visited Neligh, Nebraska, where Denney resided in a graduating class of no more than 65 students, and Denney trusted his word that DWU was the right fit. Melvin and Ed Melcher, who was a couple of years older and the 1966 team captain, both committed, too. As Zapp built a Nebraska pipeline, his program’s success grew, too.
Zapp was intense, but all of his players knew what was expected from them. If they showed drive, determination, desire, discipline and a strong work ethic, there would be mutual respect between them and their coach.
“You had to prove in practice you had some of those same qualities,” Parkston native Wayne Heisinger said, who now resides in Sioux Falls. “He was tough on everybody, but once you proved to him that you had what it takes, there seemed to be a mutual respect for each other. That respect turned into a lifetime respect and mutual respect in teammates.”
Zapp’s approach was “work hard and if you got some talent, you’re going to win,” which was the same as Fosness, DWU’s men’s basketball coach. Zapp was also an assistant basketball coach under Fosness. And for a year, despite never wrestling and not knowing much about technique, was DWU’s wrestling coach.
“I kind of saw him in a different light,” said Denney, who was a seven-time NCAA Division-II wrestling national champion coach at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. “He didn’t really know what to get intense about.”
Denney and Heisinger both got into coaching, and took a little of Zapp’s fiery intensity with them.
Heisinger became a member of the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association football hall of fame and Minnesota State Track and Field Coaches Association Hall of Fame after racking up numerous state titles in both sports. Denney is now the head wrestling coach Maryville University (Mo.) after initially playing for the Omaha Mustangs in the Continental Football League.
“Probably too much,” Heisinger said jokingly when asked if Zapp influenced his coaching style. “He was very hard, very disciplined and that’s kind of the way I coached with my philosophy.”
“The success that I enjoyed in my life, I owe in part to the influence of coach Zapp,” Heisinger later added.
Staying in touch with former players
DWU athletic director Jon Hart got to know Zapp through the hall of fame committee. Whenever a player from the 1960’s was in the discussion, he’d call Zapp and ask for his opinion. He had become a staple of DWU sports in the 1960’s, alongside Fosness.
“Nearly every alumni event I go to, or homecoming, those players still come up to me and mention how those two guys (Zapp and Fosness) changed their life over the course of the year,” former DWU athletic director and Jon Hart’s father Curt Hart said.
Denney mentioned multiple times about how trusting Zapp and attending DWU was one of the best decisions of his life. Heisinger also never considered DWU until Zapp and Fosness started to recruit him.
When Zapp left after the 1967 season, some players felt the loss of their coach. But he continued to champion for them, even in his final years. He worked hard to get his players inducted into the DWU hall of fame, including Heisinger in 2008.
“He’d always try to get his crew together at Dakota Wesleyan, whether it be inducting people into the hall of fame, or any way to get together,” Heisinger said. “... I actually had him introduce me into the hall of fame, so it was an honor for me to have him there and introduce me to the crowd.”
He genuinely cared about the people he met. Curt Hart knew Zapp from his high school days when he’d attend camps or workout at DWU, and their relationship never ended. Zapp would still call Hart, and at times offered him advice.
“I will miss those calls from coach Zapp, but he always gave me good advice,” Curt Hart said. “Like his players, I, too, will have great memories of him and the legacy he left at DWU. I often think of (Zapp), and I’ve thought of him a lot since he died. I’ll always have those memories.”
In Zapp’s obituary, he asked for all donations and memorials to be made to the DWU and Western Colorado football programs.
“He was only there for a short time, but he definitely made a resounding impact on a lot of athletes during that period of time,” Jon Hart said. “You talk to a lot of those graduates that were around that 60’s era, everyone of them has a memory about one of the two Gordie’s, or both of them.”
Denney’s final memories are his calls with Zapp this past year, as he’d spend hours asking him questions about his life and career, so he could really get to know him. Fosness continued to talk to him about once a week before his death.
Zapp knew how to be a coach, but even more so a friend.
“I never had a better friend than Gordie Zapp. Never,” Fosness said. “He was as good as there was. He knew how to be a friend, and he was a friend.”