Located in the top right hand corner of a mural full of great moments in Stoughton wrestling history is the portrait of the man who made the program into the powerhouse it has been for decades.
The mural and portrait of Vern Pieper were part of last year’s renovations to the wrestling room at Stoughton High School.
One of the last renovations was a sign placed above the east entrance of the Vern Pieper Wrestling Room, an honor Vern’s wife, Bev, is grateful for.
“The room means a lot to the family,” Bev Pieper said. “He put in a lot of time there. All of the wrestlers were like his kids, even though he had five of his own.
“We’re so thankful for the support from the community and the school district, especially Mel Dow. Our entire family is grateful. The community always treated us so well and they still do.”
A native of Caledonia, Minnesota, Vern Pieper met Bev, a St. Paul native, at Winona State University. The two married and moved south to Richland Center in 1959, where Vern started the wrestling program.
The couple came to Stoughton four years later when Vern had the opportunity to coach football and wrestling. Bev joked that she would get him a cot to sleep on in the wrestling room since he spent countless hours inside the grey cinder block walls.
Stoughton won seven team state wrestling championships in Vern Pieper’s 33 years as head coach – 1968, 1972, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1987 and 1988. He was one of the founding fathers of the Wisconsin Wrestling Federation and became the organization’s first president, as well as a member of the Wisconsin and national wrestling halls of fame.
“He was a very gentle person,” Bev Pieper said. “He didn’t raise his voice on the mat and sat in the corner. He always did his instruction in the room. If he ever got upset, there was a reason why.”
Despite all her husband’s success, Bev said she was “very happy” to not be informed of each team’s progression throughout the season. What happened in the wrestling room, staying in the wrestling room.
“We never discussed wrestling in the house,” she said. “Even when our two boys wrestled, we always came home and ate together, and wrestling was not discussed.”
One of Vern Pieper’s many state champions was current co-coach Dan Spilde, who won the 132-pound title in 1987 and was a member of Pieper’s final state championship team in 1988.
“Vern loved every champion, and the greatest part is he loved every wrestler who was 0-100, too,” Spilde said. “He and Bev built this program and set it up so Bob and I could just try to continue what they did.”
Spilde went on to become a Big Ten Conference champion at the University of Wisconsin, but returned home to coach. He was an assistant for one year under Pieper and then became Stoughton’s head coach in the 1994-95 school year.
Four years later, Spilde and Bob Empey became co-coaches.
“It took awhile to get the program going, and I know he’s so proud of Dan and Bob,” Bev Pieper said. “I see both of them do some of the same things Vern used to do.”
Vern Pieper passed away in 2017 at the age of 81, two years before the room that now honors him underwent a makeover.
The benches and exercise bikes that used to butt up to the mat were moved to a small area adjacent to the wrestling room and the weight room on the main floor of the high school.
The room received a fresh coat of white paint, new mats were installed and the pictures of nine team state championship trophies were put up under the mural.
The small board in the corner of the room with the names of state champions pinned to it turned into several large boards that hang on the south wall. All of the individual state medalists’ names stand out in white text on the purple boards.
Spilde said some wrestlers write their names on a piece of tape and stick it onto the board of state champions.
“We start every year by looking at those boards and wonder who’s going to be the next one to put their name on it,” Spilde said. “We’ve got a bunch of kids who believe in the program and work hard inside our room and outside of the room.”
The wrestling room will need more additions after another successful state tournament series.
Nicolar Rivera and Brooks Empey gave Stoughton its 52nd and 53rd individual state championships, extending the Vikings’ state record.
“Vern would be proud of these two just like he was proud of each one before them,” Empey said. “Just like him, everyone in this program bleeds purple and white. We’re proud of this next group keeping the tradition alive.”
A 10th team state championship trophy will be added under the mural after the Vikings won their third straight title on Saturday, March 7, at the UW Field House.