Moving the Chains with . . . SIU chaplain Roger Lipe

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Roger Lipe recently wrapped up 27 seasons as the chaplain for Southern Illinois Salukis football.

Over the years, Lipe has befriended and counseled countless numbers of individuals from all walks of life. He’s performed weddings and “sadly, a couple of funerals.”

Never one to fully pull back the reins, Lipe continues to walk the spiritual path in a variety of ways, including spending time with his wife (and former SIU football secretary) Sharon, their son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.

Get to know Roger Lipe in our Prairie State Pigskin Moving the Chains Q&A.

How did you first get started as SIU football chaplain?

I started in 1994 with (head coach) Shawn Watson. I’ve been with five head coaches, a whole bunch of assistants. I’d have to say that’s close to a hundred coaches that I’ve worked with there. Thousands of players.

For me, it’s been an immense privilege to have served this program for so many years. In every case, I’m a visitor. I don’t have any rights. I don’t have any right to be there. The coaches have been kind to have opened the door to me and let me come in. I’ve never felt like it was my birthright. They don’t owe me anything. They opened the door so I could have an avenue of service. It’s a remarkable thing to have had favor with five coaching staffs in a row in that kind of way is just unspeakable in its value.

I always started with each coach by saying, “If you’ll allow me I’ll do as much or as little as you want me to.” You could just seem them relax. I’m not a guy with a big agenda of 25 things that I want to do.

“I’m here to serve you” and they’d relax and respond, “What do you have in mind?” and then I’d offer specific things.

They’d usually say, “I like that and let’s do it.”

It wins favor because it projects the proper attitude.

What made it so rewarding that you stuck around for 27 seasons?

A couple of things. I get bored in about 10 minutes. A reporter asked me one time, “Why do you still do this?” That’s a good question because I get bored easily. But the nature of collegiate sport is that it’s very, very dynamic. Things change all the time. A quarter of the roster turns over every year. There’s changes in coaches and you get a new opponent every week. So since it’s a very dynamic thing, it’s hard to get bored. There are new challenges and new situations that come up all the time. That keeps me engaged along the process.

The other part of it is that it’s intentionally relational. That’s what makes me go. Those relations that are formed through practices and bus rides and pregame meals and game days. The relational dynamic is incredibly rewarding.

With that said, why have you chosen to step away from football at this time?

I just turned 65 last month. While many of my colleagues and contemporaries are retiring, I have way too much energy for that. I still have a sense of vision and calling. But, I thought it is probably time to make some adjustments this last lap or two, however many years that is. At this age, there is no comfortable position on a bus. It’s harder and harder for me year to year to recover from a football road trip. I walk about seven miles on the sideline on a given day. And then I’d get home and try to recover and do my regular work.

This is a younger man’s game. So I said let’s see if there’s somebody I can give this role to. And what I was thrilled to find was a guy here in Carbondale who is a young associate pastor at church who gets the athletic mindset. He himself was a collegiate athlete. So, I thought I can train this guy. I know him and I trust him. We talked about it, and shoot, he’s ready to go.

You’ve been around the SIU region and culture for many years. What makes it so unique?

“I grew up here my whole life. Carbondale is an odd mix of upstate people as well as all over the world and then you have my family that has been here since the 1700s. We’re very much from here, kind of an extension from Appalachia. We’re a very Southern culture. Loyal, probably to a fault. But we also hold grudges for a long time and are distrustful of outsiders. So there’s all that clannish mentality of people who really protect their own. 

Well, a lot of that shows up in how we do sports. We really care about people and we hold tightly to those we know. So you get that mix of cultures built into one place. That happens a lot in the sporting world. Take my wife, for example. She spent 19 years as football office secretary. It hurt her when a staff would leave because she built really tight relationships. It was like family. She was really good at her job, but that was also part of the pain of being in that spot of eventually our friends are going to leave us and it hurts. That’s been the same for me.

You’ve known SIU head coach Nick Hill for years. How have you seen him grow? How have you seen his faith impact him?

I knew Nick when he was a high school kid. I remember standing on the practice field with his high school coach, Coach Martin. I’m watching Nick throw the ball and at DuQuoin for years it was run it, run it and then run it some more. I said, “Coach, you going to throw the ball a little more this year?” He said, “Yeah, I think we might . . . ” Nick was special throwing the ball. Then he came to SIU and played and I watched him grow through that.

(After his time in professional football training camps and the Arena League), Nick came back here as a high school coach. We talked and then all of the sudden he had the opportunity to coach at SIU. We sat there and weighed the pros and cons of coaching high school or taking a chance joining the staff as quarterbacks coach. Back and forth it went, but obviously you see what he chose to do. Then he transitioned into the head coaching job and all that goes with it.

Like a lot of guys you come in with a very idealistic view of things. Well, things are not perfect. Rather than become cynical, I’ve seen Nick more practical in the way he approaches things. He’s not always expecting the best case scenario, but he’s looking for the best way to make something good happen in a less-than-great situation that can arise.

There’s a greater wisdom than there was even five years ago. I see him trying to work with players with a greater sense of maturity than he did early on. I see him growing in all those things. How he’s leading this staff, making time for family instead of just grinding out hours and hours at the office . . . he’s developing well.

You can see Nick nearly every day if you want, but any idea of how many former players you keep in touch with?

Social media lets me keep up with more than I would have been able to 25 years ago. I can’t really put a number on it, but there are a number of guys I will hear from every once in awhile. There’s some guys from way back in ’94 that I’ll bet we talk four or five times a year. Mark Gagliano was a punter for us. He was an academic All-American and an All-American on the field. Now he’s flying jets for Fed-Ex. we’ve stayed in touch over the years. He’s in his 40s now and has a beautiful family. Watching all that growth is incredibly rewarding.

As you said, you’re not a guy who can sit around. What will you do as you pass the baton to the next football chaplain?

I’m going to remain directly engaged with men’s and women’s basketball at SIU and possibly with baseball too. The way collegiate sports are these days, I’m doing meetings with coaches and players now here in the summer because they’re trying to develop those programs around the clock and calendar. I continue to work to develop character coaches or sports chaplains in men’s college basketball in the U.S. Everything from JUCO ball all the way through this year to Baylor at the top of the heap. There’s 1,093 men’s college basketball programs. We’re looking to help those coaches who want (a character coach or chaplain) and place and train a good one to serve their teams. And that’s what I’m directly doing.

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