RIPON — On Saturday in Ripon it was the end of an era. A truly beautiful day celebrating a coach who gave everything to a community, who in return gave him and his family all they could ever ask for.
Since September of 1991 Ron Ernst has roamed the sidelines for the Ripon Red Hawks.
“Ripon means everything to him and he means everything to them,” said his son John Ernst, who also played for him.
32 years later, the head coach led his team onto the field one last time.
“It's been a heck of a run,” Ron Ernst said. “It really has. Couldn’t be happier with these guys here.”
Well before kickoff Ingalls Field was filled with not only fans and players, but family members, alumni and so many who were influenced by the man who made Ripon football what it is today.
“This has been on the calendar — there was nothing that was going to keep me away,” said former Ripon Safety Josh Kramer.
“It has been on the calendar since the moment he said he was retiring – we knew we had to be back here for this game,” said Max Herrmann, also a former player.
Ernst says when he first took over the job, he couldn't have imagined he'd still be here more than three decades later
“Well I tell you what, I was just thankful to have a job at that point,” he laughed. “I was happy to be at the college level. I knew that we could really have something special here. I really did.”
In a short amount of time, he turned a losing program into a winning one.
“I was hoping to have some success,” said Ernst. “We were hoping to have good things happen. You just never know. you just really never know. But when we started our first full recruiting class and they really started turning things around you could see we could do something special here.”
Players say he was a coach who always held them accountable.
“He was relentless. He never let us take plays off in games or in practice.”
But what made him successful was that he connected with each and every individual player off the field.
“A lot of his genuine nature as a coach and as a man,” said Herrmann. “He really cared more for us as humans then as athletes.”
“No matter what’s going on with you and your life, or what’s going on with him and his life – he was always going to sit down and have a conversation and talk to you,” said Kramer. “You always felt cared for as a player.”
Wins and losses came and went, as did players. All Ernst wanted was to turn them into productive young men.
“To me, that’s success,” he said. Whether we win a game or not, it’s about churning out young men that are going to be very successful in that part of their life.”
It was only fitting that his last game was against Lawrence university, a football rivalry dating back to 1893.
“Having them end the season 9-1 and then also just absolutely destroying Lawrence which makes it even more sweet,” said his son John. “It’s a storybook ending.”
The Red Hawks sent their coach out with a Midwest Conference championship after an 82-0 win.
“It just couldn’t have been a more perfect day to end today – it really was,” said the now retired coach.
After the game the team and former players celebrated their hard earned conference championship and one last hurrah with a man who left a giant foot print on their lives.
“How do you put it in words?” said Ernst. “I feels so blessed. I feel lucky to have so many great players here that are coming back, that they wanted to come back. They wanted to hang out with me, I guess. It's humbling. it really is.”
And even as he was about to leave, former players chanted “4 more years.” Safe to say, it was tough to see him go.
“This is who we are and this community has done nothing but great things for our family and we’re just very lucky. We just really are,” Ernst said.