It Takes A Good Assistant

I’m not sure of all the timing of my assistants at Wilber-Clatonia High School.  After all, it was almost 40 years ago.  I was the junior high math teacher. The senior high math teacher took over for my first assistant, the volleyball coach.

The volleyball coach was a good assistant, but I wouldn’t want to go back to back sports either.  Dave Grothen filled the gap as my assistant.  My junior high coach was Rick Hihath, a great guy but more of a wrestling coach.  

Jim Moore was the assistant wrestling coach but was always dislocating a shoulder as he helped the wrestlers.  He came on board with a natural switch of positions with Rick.  Now, my coaching staff was complete.  They helped the Wilber-Clatonia girls’ basketball team to a state championship in 1983 and a semifinal appearance in 1984.

After they took over from me, they kept things going with a couple of more state tournament appearances.  They were really good for me and my players.  It was the start of a great run of assistant coaches.

I began at Doane College in 1984-1985.  I basically ran the program by myself.  I only had about a $1,000 to offer my assistant coach.  After three years of struggling, the players were lined up for a great season.  The final piece was a new assistant coach, Stacy Immig.

Stacy had starred at Kearney High School and the University of Nebraska. She had roomed with one of my former players, Angie Miller.  Angie was a great high school player for me at Wilber-Clatonia and the pair helped turn Nebraska into a conference champion.

Stacy’s eligibility ran out, but she needed a fifth year to graduate.  I talked her into becoming my assistant coach.  Stacy was a winner and the atmosphere on the team almost immediately changed.  In Stacy’s only year as my assistant, we won 24 games and made it to the final 32 in the NAIA.

The players thought we couldn’t win without Stacy.  I looked again to the Nebraska program.  If it worked once, it had to work again.  I checked with fifth year seniors at Nebraska and found Pam Fiene.  Pam was engaged to John Dubas, whose brother was playing for Doane College.  She was the perfect fit.

The winning continued and I give my assistants a lot of the credit.  I might miss a few names and I apologize for that, but next came someone I will never forget. Paul Riechers was a fifth-year senior and had gone to high school at Wilber-Clatonia.  His sister had played for me in the early days and his parents farmed our small family land in Clatonia.

Paul didn’t bring the same credentials as Stacy and Pam, but all three shared one thing in common.  They were all a little crazy and full of energy.  Paul was especially crazy.  Once he volunteered to get the pizza for the team.  Back then, I could get enough pizza for the team for about $35.  Paul bought $80 worth of pizza.

It was somewhere about this time I had a visit from a former boys’ basketball coach at Crete High School.  Dennis Nelson asked if he could help with the program.  I barely had enough money to pay one assistant, but Denny said he would volunteer.

Denny ended up volunteering until I left Doane in 1999.  Denny’s wife, Nancy, worked for the Admission’s Office, a real advantage for us.  He also had a way of words that made his volunteering a little profitable.

Now it was time for one of my former Doane players to fill the role as an assistant coach.  That player was Kim Crider.  Thank goodness she wasn’t quite as crazy as Stacy, Pam or Paul or it might have killed me.

All those assistants were great and a huge help.  They also had their little quirks.  Stacy really related to the players.  She was a card player and as competitive with cards as she was on the court.

Pam’s future husband was a real outdoorsman.  Whenever he went on a hunt, Pam would call and say, “John is hunting this weekend, we’re going out.” She almost killed me off, but I kept her out of trouble while John bagged whatever he was hunting.

Paul was just nuts, as I mentioned earlier.  During his year, the team went to Europe over Christmas.  Paul’s job was to keep the players out of trouble.  I think the players kept Paul out of trouble.

Kim was close to the players and always let me know about what I could do to make them happy on the road.  One funny instance I remember is Kim came to me with a concern that we were going to Wendy’s too much for post-game meals.

I really didn’t care, but I honestly thought that was the players wanted. Come to find out, Kim had listened to the few and not the many.  My captains told me one particular player that complained the most had gotten into Kim’s ear.  Wendy’s came back into favor.

Denny was a man of habit.  He was hooked on caffeine and always carried around a big mug of black coffee.  No matter where we went, he always filled up that mug.  He also was hooked on nicotine.  Every break in practice had Denny headed outside for a quick smoke.

Denny also loved M & M’s .  It was hard to stay awake driving on long road games.  I used sunflower seeds to stay awake.  Denny would go through big bag of plain M & M’s and never dosed off on road trips.

My final assistant at Doane College was a former player, Tracee Uldrich.  Tracee had spent one year at a local high school. Doane found her a spot in the math department, taking over a lot of my classes as I spent a year as the athletic director.

Tracee was one of my favorite players, along with her family.  Her dad, Charlie, was always into some mischief and her mother, Mary, made sure Charlie didn’t get into too much trouble.  They had other parents follow them and it was a great time to be a part of the Doane program.

Sadly, I only had Tracee for one year as I moved to Northwest Missouri State. Tracee is married with three kids and still the coach at Doane University, having taken over for me.  She was a great assistant.  She surprised me by coming to Northwest for my last game of my coaching career.

My string of great assistants kept up at Northwest.  During my first two years, I hired someone I didn’t know but soon came to appreciate.  Angie Griffith had gotten her master’s degree at Northwest and she was known around the athletic department.

Angie and I had to really work hard recruiting to make Northwest competitive.  After two years, Angie’s health took a turn for the worst and she was forced to give up the assistant’s job. That was sad because the kids she recruited were just about to start winning.

Angie’s health is great now and she lives with her husband and kids in Chillicothe. She would have made a great head coach.

Angie Christensen did a good job for a year, then I found an assistant coach that could finally put up with me.  Lori Hopkins came as a graduate assistant but was thrust into the assistant’s position when Angie left for a head coaching job.

The team really had a great year.  I was allowed to hire another assistant coach and I found Jenny Putnam.  I went all the way to Bemidji, Minnesota to interview Jenny.  That year we lost a close game to nationally ranked Washburn in the semifinals of the conference tournament.

The team was really ready to take off, but Jenny took off, too.  I couldn’t blame her. Robin Pingeton had just gotten the head coaching job at Illinois State.  She called Jenny to become an assistant coach. Now, 15 years later, Jenny is still an assistant for Robin at the University of Missouri.

The great thing about Lori and I is we both realized our strength and weaknesses.  I was the x & o guy and Lori made sure the players kept their nose to the grind stone.  Lori also was a great recruiter.

After eight years, Lori went into athletic administrator.  It wasn’t before she had recruited Gabby Curtis, who became the only first-team NCAA II All American at Northwest and the MIAA Player of the Year.

With Gabby and her teammates, many recruited by Lori, the 2011 Bearcat team played in the NCAA II Final Four.  

I enjoyed 33 years as a head coach.  I was able to stay a head coach because I had great assistant coaches.  They all had different personalities and strengths, but they all had a hand in turning a group of women into winners.