For 52 years, Steve Fritz has solidified his legacy as one of the school’s great Tommies. Now, that legacy will follow him into retirement.
The 2018-19 academic year will be Fritz’s final at St. Thomas as he steps away from his position as athletic director after 27 years.
“It really has been an incredible ride,” Fritz said. “St. Thomas has just been a great place to be, no doubt about it.”
There is no doubt, either, about how tightly woven St. Thomas and Fritz have been over the past half century. Following his undergraduate years as a record-setting student-athlete and leader, Fritz has never left, tracking his entire 48-year professional career across roles within admissions, the president’s office, financial aid, coaching and athletic administration.
“Steve is truly an institution at St. Thomas. While his record of athletic success is extraordinary, the kind of person he is outshines those achievements,” said President Julie Sullivan, the third St. Thomas president Fritz has served with, including Presidents Father Terrence Murphy and Father Dennis Dease. “Steve is a man of great integrity and faith who lives our St. Thomas mission and convictions every day. I have learned from and feel very blessed to have worked with him.”
“He is a piece of St. Thomas culture. He’s made a huge contribution to St. Thomas, not only in the confidence and proficiency that he has brought to each of his responsibilities, but also in the example that he has set as a leader,” Dease said. “I have come to greatly admire his rock-solid faith, his dedication to the St. Thomas community … and just plain constancy. Steve has been a rock for this community.”
As he approaches his 70th birthday in April, Fritz cited the strong current standing of both athletic facilities and staff as a major factor in his belief that now is the time to step away.
“I look with great pride at [the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex, which he helped lead the design and opening of in 2009-2010] and at our staff here,” Fritz said. “You get a good facility in place and support your student-athletes, hire good coaches and staff, and good things are going to happen.”
Purple all the way
Fritz has been a magnet for good things throughout his life and career at St. Thomas. An outstanding basketball player growing up in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, Fritz arrived on campus in 1967 at an all-male college with 1,980 undergrads, 26 academic majors, four master’s programs and no doctoral degrees. He now departs Minnesota’s largest private institution, a co-ed university with nearly 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students, campuses in St. Paul, Minneapolis and Rome, more than 90 academic majors, 80 master’s programs and four doctoral degrees – a level of growth his constant leadership has supported.
“There’s no wonder time passed so fast; there’s just so many good things that went on,” Fritz said. “It was just fun to be a part of it all.”
St. Thomas’ athletics have risen to unmatched levels of academic and competitive success under Fritz, who has constantly espoused the importance of student athletics prioritizing the former. Under his leadership, St. Thomas ranks in the top 20 of all Division III institutions in Capital One CoSIDA Academic All-Americans with 98, including 78 honorees since 2000-2001, and Academic All-America honors in 18 different sports.
“I’ve always told our students … that a college experience is more than just playing a game,” Fritz said. “They should enroll here as students first and athletes second. The vast majority of them do, and in the process they evolve into remarkable young men and women who represent their university well and emerge ready to become leaders in our community.”
That philosophy also has supported incredible competitive success, as well: In Fritz’s tenure St. Thomas teams have captured seven National Collegiate Athletic Association championships, along with 15 other top-three national finishes; won 249 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular-season championships in 21 different sports; and – over the 21 years of All-Sports Championships across all men’s and women’s athletics at 440 institutions – St. Thomas is one of just 12 Division III schools to finish in the top 10 percent every year.
“Steve’s record as an AD speaks for itself and for him being a terrific leader,” said Peter Wareham ‘85, men’s cross country coach. “It’s been an absolute pleasure to be able to work with him these past 26 years. The combination of his character, leadership and deep pride in St Thomas is unmatched.”
Underlining St. Thomas’ balanced excellence has been Fritz’s steady advocacy for girls’ and women’s athletics: In 1997 he guided the debut of varsity women’s hockey at St. Thomas and has helped lead the growth of all 11 St. Thomas’ women’s teams, including national championships in women’s basketball (1991), softball (2004 and 2005) and volleyball (2012).
“His support was unconditional,” said Ruth Sinn, women’s basketball coach for 13 years. “As a coach in his program, it gave you comfort in knowing he was there to help you grow, help you develop and he knew what it was like to be in your shoes. He truly wanted you and your team to experience all the great opportunities sport has to offer.”
“His idea of success included doing things the right way, by following the NCAA rules, by treating people respectfully and within the mission of the university,” said John Tschida, St. Thomas softball coach for 19 years. “His definition of success would include winning, but only if it was done the right way. He embraced the University of St. Thomas’s foundation in the Catholic church and served as a role model on and off the court.”
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, said she appreciated Fritz’s management style and his trust in others, in a 2016 St. Thomas magazine story.
“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.”
"Professionally, Steve represents the core principles of Division III athletics: a quality student-athlete experience, academic success and having athletics be an integral part of the student-athlete educational experience. He accomplishes these priorities at St. Thomas with leadership that is consistent, balanced and fair," said Megan Jacobson, associate athletic director. "I've been blessed to have Steve as a supervisor, but more importantly as a true mentor. He always has shown unwavering support for not only my professional growth, but a deep caring for me as a whole person. His trust in his staff and his ability to see the good in others is what truly makes him great."
Experience and priorities
Fritz brought a well-informed and empathetic perspective to the position of his coaches and athletes, as he was a basketball player and coach himself for 44 years: He was involved in 1,199 St. Thomas games (and 829 wins) as a player, assistant coach and coach from 1967-2011. His accomplishments put him in a rare stratosphere of success and longevity, highlighted by a national championship in 2011 in the final game of his coaching career. John Tauer ‘95 – a standout player for Fritz in the 1990s and 11-year assistant on his staff – succeeded Fritz and maintained the program’s elite status, including another national championship in 2016.
“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.”
Regardless of what role he held at any given time, Fritz’s “legacy is one we all should strive to carry on,” said Gene McGivern, St. Thomas’ sports information director since 1994.
“Steve is a terrific ambassador for our university. He's always represented our best qualities: a high achiever with a strong work ethic, a strong advocate for academics first, a sense of fair play, a team player who doesn't worry about who gets the credit, all with a humble demeanor,” he added. “His sincerity and his unique ability to connect with a variety of people has helped him earn respect from student-athletes, his coaches and staff, university colleagues and alumni.”
As a player Fritz still ranks among St. Thomas and state leaders with 1,944 points and 915 rebounds in his career; he also helped the Tommies reach the national tournament in his junior and senior years. Off the court, Fritz was a strong student who majored in mathematics and was a respected community leader, as reflected in his selection as Mr. Tommy and Grand Tiger of the Tiger Club, then a pre-eminent student organization.
Following his undergraduate years, Fritz planned on becoming a high school teacher and coach, but instead accepted a position as an admissions counselor at St. Thomas. After four years Fritz was named assistant to President Murphy; Fritz soon rose to be named director of the Office of Financial Aid. Throughout all that time, he assisted longtime men’s basketball coach Tom Feely, whom he took over the program from in 1980.
“Every time I got a new job we had a kid. So when they named me assistant to the president, we had our first son. A couple years later we had our second son when I was named the director of Admissions and then when I got the basketball job our daughter was born. I had to make the decision to stop taking new jobs and stop having kids,” Fritz said with a laugh.
As the late Doug Hennes wrote in 2016, “Fritz has long said his priorities in life are faith and family, academics and athletics – and in that order.” As he and his wife, Bev, raised three children and, now, six grandchildren, the opportunity to do so in an environment that so aligned with their family’s values was a blessing, Fritz said.
“The reality is that you’re very blessed to be at the same place that was always really progressive and a leader in so many ways, to be at a place where you never have to compromise your ideals or anything like that,” he said. “To be able to raise your family and bring them to school here [as students themselves] and be part of this community for this long, it just doesn’t happen very often. You really don’t see many people that last at one place for 52 years. As many interesting things as I got to do over that time, it’s amazing.”