The charter flight finally had taken off from Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport late on a Saturday evening in March 2011, and was headed back to Minnesota. The passengers relaxed after their long and frenzied weekend in Virginia. They chatted quietly, slipped on headphones or read.
Steve Fritz ’71 sat near the front of the plane, still dressed in a suit, his left arm in a sling from recent surgery. He dozed a bit, a slight but indelible grin creasing his face, and he occasionally tugged at a basketball net around his neck.
His players had cut down the net six hours earlier and dropped it over his head after winning the NCAA Division III title game. Fritz had stalked the sidelines during that game, just as he had during 840 games over 31 years, imploring his Tommies to a championship.
As the plane cruised through the midnight skies, the net stood as a symbol of success. He eventually removed the net – exactly when, nobody is sure! – and today it is draped over the championship trophy outside the coaches suite in the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex.
The title triumph proved to be Fritz’s final game. He announced his retirement as coach that May, and the university dedicated Steve Fritz Court in Schoenecker Arena the following February.
But Fritz hasn’t left the building – or St. Thomas. You still can find him in his third-floor corner office, with windows overlooking the Anderson Student Center and O’Shaughnessy Stadium. On game nights, he settles in a seat near the entrance, in perfect position to follow the action and greet fans and friends.
A lot of fans and friends. Forty-nine years worth, in fact.
As Fritz crept closer this summer to beginning his 50th year at St. Thomas, he took time to reflect on a career – no, a life – as a Tommie. First as a student. An admissions counselor and director. An assistant to the president. A financial aid director. An athletic director. And a coach.
“Time goes by so fast,” the ultimate Tommie said. “It really does. I have been so lucky in my life.”
As hard as it is to imagine St. Thomas without Fritz, and Fritz without St. Thomas, he wasn’t a lock to enroll here in fall 1967. Other schools wanted the 6-foot-5 center.
Fritz was born in Owatonna and grew up in Blooming Prairie, the only boy among five children. His dad, an industrial arts teacher, died when he was 5 and his mom, a nurse, raised the family. He played three sports for the Blooming Prairie Blossoms.
In that era, there was only one high school basketball class, and to get to the state tournament Blooming Prairie had to beat much-larger schools such as Austin. Fritz started as a sophomore, and during his junior year he led the Blossoms to the state tournament, where they lost two games.
The family moved to Rochester before Fritz’s senior year, and he starred for undefeated Lourdes teams that won state Catholic football and basketball championships. As he looked at colleges, he narrowed his choices to St. Thomas, Saint John’s, Saint Mary’s University of Minnestoa and Winona State. He settled on St. Thomas because it was in the Twin Cities and had won the MIAC title the previous two years.
Coach Tom Feely moved Fritz into the starting lineup during his freshman year, and he never left. He set single- season school records as a freshman (12.2 points per game), sophomore (20.7), junior (19.0) and senior (20.3) on teams that were 84-23 (.785) and won two MIAC and NAIA District 13 titles. He set two school records – single game (43 points) and career scoring (1,944 points) – and he still ranks No. 2 in scoring and No. 3 in rebounds (915).
Fritz wasn’t tall for a center but played his position perfectly, said Terry McMahon ’72, a three-year teammate and fellow St. Thomas Hall of Famer.
“He was so wide,” McMahon said. “You couldn’t get around him, and you couldn’t budge him. He knew how to box out, and he had those long arms. He didn’t miss inside, what with that little hook, and he was a fierce competitor. He wanted to win so badly. You took the court and you knew you were going to win because Steve was on your team. He was the best.”
Dr. John Buri, a St. Thomas psychology professor since 1976, was a four-year starter at guard for Loras College and twice played against Fritz. “Trying to get Steve off the block was a war because he had a way of using his body that was amazing,” said Buri, who recalled one play that defined Fritz’s tenacity. “He blocked a shot on the defensive end and lost a shoe on the play. He got back down to the offensive end, without his shoe, and scored on a layup.”
Fritz was named Mr. Tommy in 1971 and was Grand Tiger of the Tiger Club, then a pre- eminent student organization. A math major, he expected to teach and coach at a high school, but a summer job in the St. Thomas Admissions Office turned into a full-time position as a counselor and he recruited students (including this writer) in southern Minnesota.
He held several administrative positions over the next two decades before becoming athletic director in 1992 (this is his 25th year in the job) and was an assistant coach until 1980, when he succeeded Feely. Over 31 seasons, Fritz’s teams had a 594-246 (.707) record, won 16 MIAC regular- season and 10 playoff titles, and became mirror images of their coach’s playing style: fundamentally sound on defense, rebounding and ball control, and always emphasizing teamwork.
“Coach Fritz got me to understand that a good college basketball player cannot play the same as he did in high school,” said Joe Buri ’00, John’s son. “To excel at the college level, you had to play differently, and a lot of high school players struggled with the transition. Steve instilled a humility in his players and he knew how to get you where you needed to be – especially if you didn’t know.”
The Tommies played in their first NCAA Final Four in 1994 but lost in the semifinal game. Led by senior forward Johnny Tauer, they opened the next season with a 27-0 record but lost at home in a second-round game. They made the NCAA playoffs several times over the next decade but didn’t advance beyond the second round, and Fritz knew changes needed to be made.
“I sat down with the coaching staff,” he said. “We wanted to be a top 20 team, so what would that take? We decided to go deeper – to play up to 10 guys. That helped us in practice and when we had injuries.”
The strategy worked in 2008- 09, when the Tommies started 30-0 but lost to eventual national champion Washington University in the quarterfinals after leading by eight points at halftime. The loss was excruciating, but it paid dividends two years later with a 30-3 season and the national title.
Not that St. Thomas coasted to the 2011 title. The Tommies mounted 15 second-half rallies during the season and tied Carleton for the MIAC title. They escaped a Sweet Sixteen tie with defending national champion UW-Stevens Point on a Tyler Nicolai layup before the buzzer and trailed Middlebury by seven points with eight minutes left in the Final Four semifinal.
“During that timeout against Middlebury,” Nicolai recalled, “he told us, ‘Guys, believe in yourselves and what you can do. We can win this.’ That instilled so much confidence in us. He was our rock and held us together. He kept us focused.”
Longtime fans wondered after the championship if Fritz might retire, following the lead of baseball coach Dennis Denning, who stepped down after winning his second national title in 2009. Fritz kept everyone waiting awhile.
“I had decided in January that it would be my final year, regardless of how we did,” he said, and added, in his typically understated manner, “It was a good way to go out.” He never had any second thoughts. “I miss coaching, sure. But it was the right decision. It was best for the program.”
It helped that Tauer was ready to take over. Fritz had recruited Tauer out of Cretin- Derham Hall, and he returned to campus in 2000 after earning his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin to teach psychology and serve as an assistant coach. During those 11 years, he said, he learned more than just X’s and O’s.
“Steve has so much integrity, and in every aspect of his life,” Tauer said. “I learned not only a lot of basketball from him but also life lessons that remain with me to this day on how to pursue excellence while leading a balanced and ethical life. That’s a difficult balance to achieve when there is such a winning-at-all costs mentality, but he did it. He never compromised.”
Fritz has long said that his priorities in life are faith and family, academics and athletics – and in that order.
JoAnn Andregg, who spent 37 years at St. Thomas, first as women’s tennis and volleyball coach and then as associate athletic director under Fritz until retiring in 2014, also appreciated Fritz’s management style and his trust in others.
“He is not a micromanager,” she said. “He understands the abilities of his coaches and staff. He used to say, ‘Surround yourself with good people and let them do their work.’ He doesn’t get rattled. He understands what you have to do to be successful.”
He also knew when to put his foot down, Andregg added. In staff meetings, coaches occasionally would suggest something and Fritz, after patiently listening, would say, “Ain’t gonna happen.” She laughed and repeated: “Ain’t gonna happen.”
Fritz is proudest of the program that he has helped to build. Four of the last five years, St. Thomas has finished in the top 10 among 440 Division III schools in the Learfield Directors Cup all-sports standings, and won a record 15 of 22 regular- season MIAC titles last year. That success has led to regular conjecture the Tommies should move up to Division I or II – an issue also raised in a May 2016 Star Tribune story headlined, “Winning Inc.”
Fritz waves off the suggestion. He makes no apologies for the program’s success and gives full credit to his coaches, all of whom he has hired except Joe Sweeney in women’s cross country and track and field. He believes the MIAC’s strength prepares St. Thomas well for the postseason.
“There is no question we are exactly where we want to be,” he said. “Going DI would change the campus. We couldn’t hold sports here. The cost would be so high – the infrastructure, the need to offer scholarships. We want student-athletes here, not athletes who also are students.”
At 67, he won’t talk about retirement because he has things left to do. He’d love to see a national football championship, and the Tommies got close under coach Glenn Caruso with two runner-up finishes in the last four years. He looks forward to next summer, when St. Thomas will get new turf fields for football and baseball, and a new track.
But even when he does retire, he’ll still be around, perched in his favorite seat near Steve Fritz Court, often accompanied by his wife of 44 years, Bev, their three children (all St. Thomas alumni) and six grandchildren, to watch the action and greet alumni who come back year after year.
“You can’t beat being with kids,” he said. “You see guys out five, 10 years and they tell you what they’re doing today, and it makes it all worthwhile. It has been a great ride.”
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