PORTAGE | Les Klein retired as Portage's winningest football coach and coached many great players, but the one season that still sticks out in the hearts of Portage fans is 1977.
Klein, who is in the Indiana Football Hall of Fame, won 156 games at North Judson, Lowell and Portage. He was 115-81-1 from 1970-88 at Portage.
Klein's 1977 team did what no Portage team has done since and that is win a state title. The 1977 Indians were Class AAA champs, which was then the largest division, and were led by some talented young players such as all-state running back Mike Wishnevski.
That season, however, hardly started in championship mode.
"We had six guys without physicals the first day of practice," Klein said. "I told that group, 'I expected a lot out of you people and this is how it starts?'"
The Indians lone loss was in Week 5, a 34-7 drubbing to defending AAA state champ Merrillville. The two met in the first round of the playoffs and nobody except Andrean coach Pete Billick gave Portage a chance. He said the Indians would win 3-0.
Portage did as Alec Mackenzie kicked a field goal with less than 30 seconds left to pull off the upset.
"I remember Merrillville was driving at the end and we were kind of worried," Klein said. "They dominated the whole game, but made some mistakes. Our kids just hung in there and never gave up."
Portage beat South Bend Washington the next week then beat Evansville Reitz 33-14 for the state title. It was the Duneland Conference's third straight state title as Valparaiso (1975) and Merrillville (1976) had won.
Klein remembers the week of the state title game.
"I was putting in a solar furnace for my brother," Klein recalled. "It probably helped with the tension because I would leave practice, work until about 11 at night, come home, eat and watch some film. Our guys were real relaxed, but prepared for the state game."
Klein, an avid outdoorsman, recalls where he was the week after the game.
"In Nebraska, hunting with bird dogs," Klein said. "My wife (Trudy) answered all the questions because I was hunting. We called 1977 our sandwich season because we were 2-8 in 1976 and 2-8 in 1978 with a state championship in the middle."
Klein's roots are in the soil and outdoors as his family had a farm in Lake Village.
"We raised cane — sugar cane, pickles," Klein said. "I looked forward to football practice because that gave me a break from working in the fields. Kids today say they have to rest up for practice, well, I worked 8-9 hours on the farm."
Klein starred at Morocco High School, which is now part of the North Newton School Corporation and was also part of something special for the Beavers football program.
"We won a six-man and an 11-man conference championship in 1955," Klein said." It has never been done in Indiana."
He starred at St. Joseph's College where he played Bob Jauron, father of Dick Jauron. He was the leading rusher in Indiana Collegiate Conference as a senior (1959) and was the Pumas most valuable player. He earned Little all-America and all-Catholic All-America honors. Klein said he also had a tryout with the Bears.
Klein got started as an assistant at Elwood before moving to North Judson, then Lowell. He came to Portage in 1970. His 1974 team was also special as it made the playoffs, losing to Mishawaka.
"I don't think we had a kid over 200 pounds, but we had six shutouts and held two teams to three points," Klein said. "I look back, my great assistants I had were a big key."
Klein enjoys golfing, hunting and fishing as well as his grandkids. Recently he was putting up a volleyball net in his backyard for the grandkids.
"My wife, a football coach's wife, is a big reason for a coach's success," Klein said. "Football takes up a lot of time and Trudy was behind me all the way and so were my two girls."