Good Men Whose Team Reflects Their Character

The spring semester started this week and life on campus is back to normal. Students hurry across the Quad with cell phones tucked to their ears. The days get longer. The Grill gets busier. And the basketball Tommies again sit atop the MIAC men’s standings, ranked No. 8 in the nation in Division III.

What’s remarkable about the Tommies’ success is how routine it seems to be: No hype. Little fanfare. Business as usual for head coach Steve Fritz and assistant coach John Tauer (plus assistant coaches Jon Hughes, Don Johnson and Tommy Fritz). In some ways, Fritz and Tauer stand apart because of what they stand for:

The authenticity of their approach. They understand the priorities of D-III: Go to class. Do your work. Get a degree. Develop your character. And, then, play hard – to win.

The beauty of their bond – to each other, their players and to St. Thomas. They love the university and it shows in most everything they do.  Both were basketball stars here. Fritz has been head coach for 31 years and Tauer his assistant for 11. (Since 1955, Fritz and his predecessor, Tom Feely, have coached the Tommies to 998 wins.)

The content of their character. These are good men. They took a chance on a freshman I knew who got in some serious trouble his first semester, the kind that landed him in court. He never was a starter or a star, but the coaches kept him in the program and under their wing.  He graduated in December, with a bachelor’s degree and a clean slate.

Those are the ABCs of who they are. The lessons that I take from how they coach are about being humble, civil and adaptable. Fritz strikes me as a real straight-arrow guy, not given to fads or fancy stuff. Yet, he found a way not only to appreciate but also to celebrate Alex McCoy, the 250-pounder who played for him with shoulder-length dreads a couple of years ago.

Both Fritz and Tauer are demanding coaches. But they are also good teachers. And Fritz can do more with a 15-second stare than a 15-minute tirade.

They know the sports reporters in the Twin Cities, and Tubby Smith, the Gophers coach, is no stranger to UST basketball practice. Yet neither Fritz nor Tauer is apt to call attention to himself.  They’re living proof that success doesn’t necessarily spawn arrogance.

I saw the Tommies in a Saturday afternoon game against St. John’s in the new Schoenecker Arena.  This wasn’t their best game, but they survived a second-half St. John’s rally for a 62-59 victory. While the game didn’t sparkle, the setting did, with a giant video board, a fancy new scoreboard, parquet floor and almost a full house.

It caught the attention of Patrick Reusse in his Sunday column in the Star Tribune. He recounted the competitive history between Fritz and St. John’s coach Jim Smith, dating back to 1967.

The irony is that’s longer than St. Thomas football coach Glenn Caruso has been alive. At halftime of the St. John’s game, the 36-year-old Caruso was presented with the Division III Coach of the Year Award. It’s nice to know, I thought at the time, that St. Thomas is so well-represented at both ends of the coaching spectrum.

Coaches like these deserve our support. Find out for yourself and check out the action this month as the Tommies gear up for the playoffs.