MERRILL – A longtime Merrill High School football coach and inductee into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Hall of Fame will be remembered this weekend as a man of faith and commitment.
Ronald “Ira” Rebella died Nov. 4 at age 78. Visitation will be held from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday at Waid Funeral Home, 301 S. Eagle Drive, Merrill. His funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, 1708 E. 10th St., Merrill, according to his obituary.
Rebella’s impact on Merrill is long and deep. He and his wife of 54 years, Evelyn (Evie), moved to the community in 1968. He taught physical education, math and was the head football coach for 17 years. Rebella was inducted into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1996, and a plaque honoring him hangs in the atrium of Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
“He was the type of person who always believed in doing things the right way,” said Shannon Murray, principal of Merrill High School. Murray is a 1986 graduate of Merrill and Rebella was his coach when he played offensive tackle for the Bluejays. “He was super organized and had a real eye for detail.”
He was active in a variety of professional organizations, including helping to create the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association. He was a familiar face at high school athletic competitions across the region, having worked as a WIAA official for 50 years, for cross country, basketball, baseball, softball and track.
After retiring from the Merrill Area Public Schools in 2000, he became principal of St. Francis Catholic School until 2004. He also was active in the community at large, serving as secretary and president of the Merrill Lions Club.
During the football season, Murray and his teammates would eat lunch while studying film and listening to Rebella break down plays and prepare them for the games ahead.
“I don’t know if that was common, but it seems pretty atypical to do that kind of game planning,” Murray said. “He was not going to let any detail come between him and success.”
Rebella led his Merrill teams to an 87-69-1 record, according to his biography for the Hall of Fame. His Bluejays marked one Wisconsin Valley Conference championship, one conference co-championship and made it to the state semi-finals in 1979. From 1975 to 1981, the Bluejays had the best record in the Wisconsin Valley.
Rebella put a premium on team building and athletes working together. He took teams to Wisconsin Badgers games (tickets were easier to come by then, Murray said) and to the Paul Bunyan Cook Shanty in Minocqua, and invited the athletes to his home for corn roasts.
Players, based on their positions, were assigned seats on the bus ride to games, Murray said, so they could talk about the games.
“He really believed in team, camaraderie, and doing things well,” Murray said. “The takeaway was, if you prepare, good things will happen.”
Rebella’s devotion was noticed outside Merrill, too. “He was a coach who did things the right way, and he was someone who cared for his players,” said Wayne Steffenhagen, who spent 33 years as the head coach of D.C. Everest High School and is a fellow coaching Hall of Fame inductee. “His teams were always well-prepared and fundamentally they were always sound with their techniques. … You knew that against Merrill that you had to be prepared and had to play good football to compete with them.”
Faith was a paramount force in Rebella’s life. “Daily prayer was a priority,” his obituary said, “and he devoted his life to loving and serving the Lord.”
Over the years he supported Merrill’s St. Robert Bellarmine and St. Francis Xavier parishes as usher, lecturer, Eucharistic minister and teacher. He served as president of the councils at both parishes.
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