How can Jess Settles be 50 years old? From high school hoops to now, he’s been an Iowa fave!

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

DES MOINES, Iowa, July 7, 2024 – The exchange of text messages I had the middle of last week with a young woman – she’ll be a junior in college – nearly knocked me off my chair.  

She said she was helping her mother and sisters organize a 50th birthday surprise for her father Saturday night in their home in the southeast Iowa town of Pella. They thought it’d be fun having a few dozen people who’ve known him tell favorite stories on a video the family would watch together.

And he is?

Jess Settles!  OMG, 50 years old!

There may be a very few of you readers out there saying, “Who?”

For those few, it’s fun for me to explain him this way: Jess Settles was the Caitlin Clark of basketball in Iowa 30 years ago.

Joanna and Jess Settles, after a college basketball game for which Jess had done analysis and commentary. (Photo from the Settles family)

At little Winfield-Mount Union High School in southeast Iowa from 1990-’93, the 6 ft. 8 in. Settles, a farm boy, led the Wolves to a 76-5 record in three seasons, the last two of which they had good runs in the state tournament.  In that last prep season, he was selected as Iowa’s “Mr. Basketball.” Then he went on to the University of Iowa, where nagging injuries extended his career to six seasons and he was an All-Big Ten selection. 

Since then, Settles has taught, coached, authored a couple of motivational books, lectured, he’s still farming, and he has become one of the best college basketball analysts in the nation, working for the Big Ten Network, ESPN, FS1 and other major media production companies.

He is, without a doubt, one of the most popular Iowans of his time.

I’ve written a lot about him, going back to his sophomore or junior year of high school.  What follows are my favorite stories about Jess Settles, re-told this time especially for his family.

And here’s the Settles line-up: 

–Jess’ wife Joanna Settles, his high school sweetheart, was a great athlete herself.  She’s now a science teacher in the Pella Christian schools, an assistant volleyball coach at Central College, and a commentator on Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union telecasts of state volleyball and basketball tournaments.

–Oldest daughter Jema will be a junior at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where she is studying strategic communication and social media, and sings in the worship choir.

–Josie will be a junior at Pella Christian High School and is a cross country and track runner.

–Julia is an eighth grader at Pella Christian and plays basketball, volleyball and softball.

The Settles family in 2023. Parents Jess and Joanna in back, daughters (left to right) Julia, Jema and Josie. (Settles family photo)

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Jess Settles play in the small high school gym in Winfield, on a cold January night in 1993, in his senior year.  Jess, his 6 ft. 7 in. running mate Klay Edwards, who was a year younger, and the rest of the Wolves smoked Cardinal Stritch of Keokuk 101-37.  My recollection is Settles and Edwards having more than a dozen dunks between them, and they played barely more than half the game.

Settles had already committed to playing for the U of I (and Edwards would go on to star at Iowa State).  When I asked the young Settles that night if he wished he’d been able to attend and play basketball at a larger high school, he swatted away my question.  “I’d never trade what I have here,” he said. “The best thing about Winfield is that these people don’t treat you any different because you’re a basketball player.  They support you whatever you do, and they’ll be here for you when it’s all over.”

He told me then he doubted he’d follow his father into farming.  “I don’t fit in a tractor cab real well,” he said. “And I bang my head on the door of the farrowing house.  Maybe farming’s more for 6-footers.” (He’s changed his mind in later life.)

Did he think then he might eventually play in the NBA (which his back injuries ultimately prevented)?  “Anyone who plays Division One in college probably dreams of going on to the next level,” Settles answered back then, then grinning, “but for right now, jumping from Class A to the Big Ten is a big enough challenge for me.”

Jess Settles dunking for the Winfield-Mount Union Wolves in 1993, in this photo shown in a clipping from the Des Moines Register. (Permission for use of the photo given by the Register.)

He also told me that he’d become a columnist himself.  Cathy Lauderdale, then the editor of the weekly Winfield Beacon/News, a year earlier had talked him into starting a weekly sports column, which Settles named “Above the Rim” – as in where he likes to play his basketball.

I mentioned that in one of my columns in the Des Moines Register, where I called Settles “Iowa’s tallest sportswriter” and wrote that “he is a columnist I look up to.”

At tournament time of his junior year, he’d continued writing his weekly columns as W-MU fought its way to Des Moines.  He even included a poem the week the Wolves had qualified to play in the state tournament, starting it this way: “Three months ago in early November/ we decided to make it a year to remember.”  It ended this way: “We’re 26-0/ And headed to The Show!”

W-MU got beat in the championship game that year. So in 1993, when they were returning to the state tourney, Settles wrote in his column the week before it, “No poems this year. It’s all business.  See ya in Des Moines.”  He also announced he would not be writing his column during the rest of the tournament.

I wrote about that in my Register column, adding, “It’s a pretty big local story that columnist Settles is skipping this week.  I figure I better pinch-hit for him, if editor Lauderdale will allow it.”  I called her and offered, she accepted, and so I wrote “Above the Rim” in the Winfield Beacon/News for a couple weeks.

In a shocking upset, the unheralded Hudson Pirates knocked off Winfield-Mount Union in the semi-finals of that ’93 state tournament.  And I’ve never forgotten how Jess Settles answered my post-game question in the interview room: “What happened?”

After a long pause, he said, “They were young and confident and having fun out there.” He paused again, then said, “Maybe we weren’t having enough fun.” 

Two years later, Settles was in his sophomore year at the U of I.  He’d already become a big name across a much wider territory, after having been selected as Big Ten “freshman of the year.”

He’d been reading along as I wrote stories about my visits to Sam’s Barber Shop in Audubon, Iowa, which I had named “my sample precinct,” a place where I could find out what was on the minds of real Iowans.  Settles told me two or three different times that I needed to visit his own favorite place for haircuts, which was Lonnie’s Barber Shop in Wapello, Iowa.  “You’ve got to see this barbershop,” he told me. “It’s a classic.  One chair. The guy still uses the straightedge razor and straps. Just a great place to hang out.  You’ll love it.”

Jess Settles getting his hair cut & shaved in 1994 in his favorite barbershop in Wapello, Iowa, in this clipping from the Des Moines Register. Note that I shot the photo. (Permission for use of the photo given by the Register.)

In November, 1994, as he was about to start his sophomore season with the Hawkeyes, Settles called me and said he was heading to Lonnie’s in Wapello for a haircut.  So I met him there.

What I learned in that visit was that barber Lonnie McGill almost dreaded his star customer’s visits. Why? Settles would typically order McGill to cut his hair so short that there’d be “no more than a sixteenth of an inch of hair left – if that much – on top of his head.”  And Settles would want his scalp shaved from above the ears down. 

McGill said “some call this haircut ‘the high & tight,’ kind of like the Marines wear. The way Jess Settles wears his hair isn’t going to bring me any business.  Nobody wants to get their hair cut like that.”

J.T. Settles, Jess’ grandfather, came in the shop after one of the young guy’s close haircuts and told the barber, “Lonnie, you ought to be ashamed of yourself for cutting that boy’s hair like that.” But McGill had a quick answer: “J.T., when somebody 6 ft. 8 in. tall says to shave his head, I shave his head!”

My Des Moines Register colleagues headlined my column “Jess Settles’ ‘classic’ cuts,” with an inside-page headline adding, “Settles is normal, his haircuts aren’t.” 

Settles loved the whole fuss.

Joanna, Jess and Jema Settles after Jess had done analysis and commentary for a game at Carver Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. (Settles family photo)

One more story.

In about 2001, when I was teaching at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake in northwest Iowa, I helped persuade Settles to speak to the BVU student body about what he’d learned from being so involved in competitive athletics.  He was tremendous, connecting so well with our students. He was only a few years older than they were.

He’d heard me talk, or had read my stories, about a coffee group I was a member of in Storm Lake.  The group met early mornings in the back room of the “Sportsman’s of Storm Lake” sporting goods store and included local business leaders, former BV faculty members and coaches, referees and fans of Beaver sports.  We’d discuss the news, sports, weather and more, going on for an hour or so.  And the group – with membership occasionally changing – had been doing that for at least 30 years.

The affection among the coffee drinkers was clear, even though there were always arguments, too, most of them good-natured.

Jess Settles asked to attend that morning he was in town.  Of course, the old sports at Sportsman’s were thrilled, hanging on every word of the stories Settles told.

When it ended, he and I were walking across a parking lot to our cars.

“Those guys don’t know how neat that is, do they,” Settles said.

I assured him they did know, and that they’d appreciate it even more knowing that he thought it was neat, too.

And all of the above are reasons why Jess Settles is the person he is today, at 50 years old.

You can comment on this column below or write the columnist directly by email at chuck@offenburger.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *