Hanging up facing the desk of Athletic Director Todd Fuhrmann at Indian River High School is a photo. There isn’t much else on display.
The photo is in black and white, and it’s simple: Dale Steele leaned back in his chair in his own former office, with the look of someone who’s exactly where they’re meant to be, doing exactly what they’re meant to be doing.
The point of the photo is simple as well. It’s a reminder for Fuhrmann from his former mentor on not only how to do the job, but on how to do the job well.
That’s the kind of legacy and influence that Dale Steele left behind at Indian River High School and across the Sussex County sports world when the long-time IRHS athletic director, head football coach and baseball coach passed away after a battle with cancer on Friday, Dec. 2, at the age of 68.
“He really helped me out, and helped me learn the ins and outs of being here in the small school setting,” said Fuhrmann, who spent a year under Steele after arriving at Indian River as an athletic trainer in 2004.
“He really loved the kids and just loved everything he did. He did everything for the kids. That was what was so great about him.”
“Coach Steele optimized what a good coach could be,” said IRHS Principal Bennett Murray, who played football for Steele in the early 1980s. “Whether we were winning or losing, he understood that it was about character, on the field and off the field. There’s no doubt that he bled Green-and-Gold. He was a great man, and he is going to be missed.”
By the numbers, Steele’s career at the helm for the Indians was unprecedented.
After getting his start in 1979, he retired as head coach of the football team in 1989 as the all-time leader in wins, with a 73-42-4 record.
He led the Indians to seven winning records during his 11-year career, winning five Southern Division titles (1979, 1980, 1986, 1987 and 1988), and a state championship in 1988.
During the state championship year, Steele and the Indians posted an 11-1 record, falling only to Seaford 7-6 during the regular season, and taking down Dickinson 18-13 in the state final.
Prior to that season, Steele had led the Indians to three state championship appearances, edged for the title by Archmere 23-14 in 1979 and 20-0 in 1980, and by Laurel 13-6 in 1986.
With him during the 1988 state championship run were two of his sons, Jad playing center for his senior season and Jesse at cornerback and tight end as a junior.
“That made it complete, when he won the state title with two of his sons on the team. I know he was very proud of that,” said Jesse Steele, who followed in his father’s footsteps as an educator and coach at Selbyville Middle School.
During that game, Jesse Steele had laid a hit on Dickinson’s star running back, Anthony Anderson, on the opening kickoff and ended up getting banged up enough to warrant coming out of the game.
After a brief discussion with his father, however, he went back in to help his squad get the win.
“He had a tough side to him like that,” said Jesse Steele. “You didn’t want to disappoint him.”
For those who coached with him, Steele’s influence was equally powerful.
In his shirt pocket every Friday night always was a stack of index cards listing everything he aimed to accomplish for the week. He always carried with him a cigar box full of extra shoelaces for his players, Band-Aids, whistles, gum — anything that he or his team might need. And he was famous for his own personal mantra, that at the end of the day, there were two people that one had to answer to: God and the man in the mirror.
“He made you want to be the best you could be, whether you were an athlete or an assistant coach — he made you want to be the best,” said former IR head football coach Ray Steele, who though not directly related, coached alongside Dale Steele in both football and baseball.
“He taught us our philosophy. He set the bar high, and the best thing I can tell you about Dale is he always did what was right for the kids. He put everybody else first.”
“He was one of the nicest people I’ve ever known in my entire life, and I sincerely mean that,” said IR Assistant Superintendent and former IR football coach Mark Steele.
“He was a phenomenal coach and good friend. Organization was unbelievable with him. He was just tremendous. He knew who all the kids in the program were — he was a whole-school kind of coach. If the field hockey team had a home match, he would give the boys 15 minutes to go over and support the field hockey team.
“That’s what I remember the most about him, was that to him the school was important — everybody was important.”
In addition to his noted organizational skills, Steele also became known for getting every player on the roster involved.
Whether it was first-and-goal or somewhere on special teams, he made sure that, come Friday night lights, all 44 players got a chance to shine.
“Every kid had a uniform, and every ballplayer on the team knew what his role was on Friday night — he made every kid feel valuable, feel important,” said former IR assistant coach Eldridge Cress.
Steele and Cress grew up as rivals on the gridiron, with Steele playing for Lord Baltimore and Cress for John M. Clayton high schools.
Cress went on to a career at Delmarva Power but got his start as a coach for the Indians after Steele came to him one day after basketball practice at the Bethany Rec Center and told him that he needed his help.
“I really want to thank him for giving me a chance to coach at the high school level — he taught me everything I needed to know,” said Cress.
“Through coaching, he and I developed a great friendship — a lot of Sunday mornings at his house, with breakfast, going over scouting reports, looking at film for the next week’s game. I felt like I became a part of his family, in a way. He made me feel like I was one of the crowd.”
Steele’s influence on others — as not just coaches and players, but as people — is what his friends and family, such as Cress, said that they’ll remember the most.
And whether his photo is hanging up as a reminder or not, there’s no question that Dale Steele will forever be a part of Indian River High School, with the example he set living on through all of the lives that he touched while he was there.
“He did touch countless lives, and he leaves behind that legacy,” said Jesse Steele. “I knew he had an impact that was far-reaching, but just getting to see some of the his former players and them telling me how their lives were impacted by him — getting messages from these guys and realizing how it shaped and molded their future — that’s what it’s all about, really.
“I can thank my father for the man that I’ve become — as a husband, a leader, a teacher and a coach. Thursday that was my last communication with him, and I was able to speak with him and just thank him for that.”
“He was a great man, and he’s going to be missed,” said Cress. “He’s really going to be missed.”