PANAMA CITY — Vern Eppinette, whose coaching career underscored that athletic excellence needn’t come at the expense of grace and dignity, died late Monday night at Gulf Coast Medical Center.
Eppinette, 65, had battled prostate cancer off and on since first diagnosed in 2000. That led to his retirement as a coach at Port St. Joe High School, but he remained on as a teacher for a number of years.
Eppinette’s greatest success came at Port St. Joe, where he guided the Tiger Sharks to five state championships in boys basketball and one in boys track and field. He was inducted into the Florida High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 2004.
Funeral services will be held Saturday at 2 p.m. CDT in the R. Marion Craig Coliseum, commonly known as “The Dome” to Port St. Joe fans. The funeral will begin there at 4 p.m.
Eppinette led the Port St. Joe boys basketball team to eight Final Four appearances and five state titles in 10 years, winning four championships consecutively at one point.
His coaching career spanned 26 years, three high schools and was built on the foundation of discipline and sportsmanship. Port St. Joe High School won six consecutive FHSAA Fred E. Rozelle Sportsmanship Awards during his tenure as boys head basketball coach.
Veteran Panhandle coach Matt Anderson was an assistant at Malone when Eppinette arrived at Port St. Joe. The Tigers won a state title that season, and when Anderson took over as head coach added four more consecutively in what became a decade dominated statewide by area teams in lower classifications.
“We didn’t think that much of him when he first got there, he ran a basic offense and straight man-to-man defense,” Anderson recalled. “We were pretty darn good then, but we most definitely underrated how good a coach he was.
“One of my greatest accomplishments was going 3-3 against him, with all six games played in Port St. Joe. … It was pretty phenomenal. Our kids and their kids became very close. A lot of times we stayed at the same motel together at state. It became a yearly thing. There were a lot of good teams in the Panhandle back then.”
Born in Arkansas and raised in Illinois, Eppinette said he knew he wanted to be a coach as early as the fifth grade. He competed in basketball, swimming, football and track as a high school student in Illinois. He attended Eastern Illinois University and served as a U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam.
Eppinette began coaching as an assistant in football, boys basketball and track and field at Clermont High School in 1974. Within a few years he was the head basketball, track and field and cross country coach, as well as the athletic director. His teams won five district basketball and nine district track titles, and his second-year cross country program finished sixth in the state in 1988.
Eppinette served a short stint at Mount Dora High School as the boys basketball and track and field coach before moving to Port St. Joe in 1990. He enjoyed his greatest success there, was a five-time Florida Basketball Coach of the Year and twice was a National High School Coaches Association National Coach of the Year finalist. He also is a member of the Florida Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Eppinette was courted by colleges, but was put off by the specter of recruiting, and continued on in Port St. Joe even as the local economy took a downturn when the paper mill closed there.
“What would it show the kids if I left as soon as times got tough,” Eppinette told Tim Croft in 1999 for a story that appeared in the Port St. Joe Star.
Eppinette’s basketball practices were nearly devoid of scrimmaging. Drills focus on honing the skills of rebounding, defense, shooting, ballhandling and footwork. When scrimmages were allowed they often were three-on-five, varsity against junior varsity. Sometimes they were five-versus-seven.
“Everything is an overload, making practice harder than anything we’ll see in a game,” Eppinette told Croft. “Playing hard is a given. You have to love the game to play for us.”
Later he added, “You have to have an overview of the long haul. It’s not the joy you get when you win the state championship. The hard work that goes into it is what you look back on and derive satisfaction from and you don’t have to win a championship to feel that.”
Eppinette’s Port St. Joe teams compiled a record of 258-64 record.
A lifetime bachelor and a gentleman on the sideline, Eppinette was assessed three technical fouls in 26 years of coaching, two coming in one game.
“One thing with Coach Epp, I always enjoyed coaching against him, he made you have to be at your very best in everything you do,” Anderson said. “He brought out the best in good coaches; he probably was the most organized coach I’ve ever been around — high school, college, it didn’t matter.
“He always was ready and willing to help. As great a coach as he was, I believe he was an even better person. I know that people say that about people all the time, but with him it was true.”