Legendary Renton High basketball coach Irv Leifer dies at 93

A memorial service for Irv Leifer is 1 p.m. Sunday, March 20, at the Roberts Campus Center, Building I, Renton Technical College, 3000 N.E. Fourth St., Renton.

Legendary coach Irv Leifer, who guided four Renton High School boys basketball teams to state titles, died on Friday at age 93.

A memorial service for Leifer is 1 p.m. Sunday, March 20, at the Roberts Campus Center, Building I, Renton Technical College, 3000 N.E. Fourth St., Renton, when family and former players will speak.

Leifer, who had lived in the Renton Highlands with his family, was preceded in death by his wife Dorothy in 2008. He died Feb. 26 at an assisted-living facility in Issaquah.

He’s survived by three sons, Randy and Mike of Renton and Irvin (“Butch”) of Palm Desert, Calif.

Randy and Irvin played for their father at Renton High School.

“He wasn’t easy to play for,” said Randy. “He demanded a lot.” But that also brought them closer, he said, “so that was a good thing.”

His father was a “really good coach,” Randy said, but he thinks he was a better player.

Leifer was an All-American player on the Eastern Washington University basketball team and was inducted into the college’s Hall of Fame. In 1947, he was named most outstanding player in the NAIA Men’s Division I National Championship tournament. He was a charter member of the NAIA Hall of Fame.

The NAIA, which represents small colleges, in 2012 named him as one of the top 60 players in the nation in the past 75 years.

He began his coaching career at Renton in 1947 and in the following three decades amassed a 481-202 overall record, with 72 wins and 31 losses in the postseason.

Leifer won 12 league titles and four state titles, in 1953, 1960, 1966 and 1967. In an interview with the Renton Reporter in 2011, Leifer called his 1967 team his best ever.

His rosters read like a who’s who of Renton, including businessman Ron Crockett and former mayor Don Custer and former City Council member John Reed, who are both deceased.

In 2010, he was elected to the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association Hall of Fame.

In 2013 Leifer was named a “Friend of Renton High School” by the Friends of Renton High School organization to honor his contributions to the school and its students.

“It was an emotional moment,” said Stephen Clymer, with the organization, as family, friends and past players watched as the frail coach received the honor.

In his 30 years at Renton, Leifer taught a variety of classes from math and science, to P.E. and health.

The Renton Reporter interviewed Leifer in 2011 for a special section devoted to the Renton High School Centennial.

“I can’t say I didn’t miss it,” Leifer, then 88, said of coaching, after his retirement in 1978.

“I used to not sleep any time we lost a game,” Leifer said in the interview with reporter Adam McFadden. “I had a lot of trouble sleeping and I decided it was time to quit. It was a little too stressful for me toward the end.”

Leifer and the Indians won their first title in 1953, beating Lincoln, Cleveland, Elma and Aberdeen.

“The greatest accomplishment by one of my teams was the 1953 team,” Leifer said in the interview. “We played against one of the first seven footers to play in the state. Everybody was getting beat really bad by Elma that year.”

Elma’s star was Gary Nelson, who stood 7-foot-1. Nelson had been mowing through the opposition that season and scored 40 points the previous day against Bremerton, McFadden wrote.

Leifer’s strategies to slow Nelson down included extreme ball-control offense. Renton passed the ball upward of 40 times before shooting and led 7-5 at the half.

The Indians, and primary defender George Strugar, held Nelson to 13 points and won the game 34-30. They went on to beat Aberdeen 51-48 in the title game.

Leifer guided Renton back to the state tournament in 1954, 1957 and 1959 before winning it all again in 1960. Those Indians won games by an average of more than 13 points and beat Central Valley 59-41 in the title game.

The second round of the 1963 state tournament against Bishop Blanchet sticks out in Leifer’s mind as one of his toughest losses, McFadden wrote. The Indians led the entire game until committing a foul at the final buzzer.

“They hit their free throw after the buzzer had gone off and we lost,” he said in the interview. “That was a hard thing to take.”

The Indians got back on top in 1966 when they won another state title, Leifer’s third. Renton then won again in 1967 with what Leifer called his best team ever.

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