Here’s the thing about being a coach in a small town, according to Tim Rietzke.
“What I take pride in is that I coached when they needed me to coach,” Rietzke said. “In times when they couldn’t find a coach, it was usually because the program was just completely on the floor. You know it’s going to hurt your winning percentage and I know this is probably a hard thing for people in the city to understand … but in small communities, if they’ve been loyal to you, then I think you have an obligation.”
That explains why Rietzke, 64, has spent so much time in his career coaching boys and girls basketball simultaneously. He’s done it for 17 years total, although since 2008 he’s coached only the girls team at South Central High in Coldwater.
All of that coaching has meant a lot of late nights, a lot of looking at blurry game film through blurry eyes and a lot of bumpy late-night bus rides on dark, two-lane roads.
But when a guy loves to do something, and loves doing it in a small town near the cattle ranch he and his wife operate, what’s he supposed to do?
“The ranching has always been my livelihood,” said Rietzke, who grew up in Kensington, a small Kansas town near the Nebraska border where farming was the norm. “But my passion has always been about basketball and coaching, probably because of all the coaches who left a lasting impression on me.”
Rietzke started coaching after his playing career ended at Fort Hays State. He was the boys coach at Nemaha Valley in Seneca for four years, starting in 1974, before heading to Coldwater, where his father-in-law needed help with the ranch. He’s been a Rule 10 coach — he doesn’t teach at South Central — since 1982.
You might be wondering now about just how many games Rietzke has coached over the past 41-plus years. It’s a bunch. So many that he’s accumulated 440 losses, which speaks to his belief that a small-town coach has to step up and help in difficult times, regardless of the type of team he’s inheriting.
But he also has 701 wins, which speaks to his ability to connect with kids and teach them the game he loves.
“There are advantages and disadvantages to being a Rule 10 coach,” Rietzke said. “I think an advantage is that sometimes if you deal with these kids in the classroom and on the basketball floor — sometimes they need a break from you and you need a break from them.
“A disadvantage might be that you’re not there all day with them, so you don’t know when somebody’s having a bad day or having issues at school. You have to depend on other people to fill you in about those things.”
South Central is 17-3 heading into Class 2A sub-state play next week. But the Timberwolves are without their leading scorer, Micaela Jellison (18.3 points), who recent tore an anterior cruciate ligament in a knee.
“That’s a big blow,” Rietzke said. “But the rest of our players have stepped up and responded.”
A Rietzke-coached team has never won a state championship, something people remind him off too often.
“We’ve finished second, third, fourth and got to within three points of winning in 1991,” he said. “In 2011, we were third. I think we’ve had six or seven state-tournament teams, but we’ve never been fortunate enough to win it. I don’t consider that a regret, but I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t want to win one. But moreso than the wins, it’s the relationships that are the most important to me.”
When Rietzke took over the girls program at Coldwater, which consolidated with Protection in 2000 to make South Central, there was only rock bottom. The coach at the time, Rietzke said, had no interest in being there. What was he supposed to do? He decided he would coach both boys and girls.
He made the same decision in 2000, the year of consolidation. This time, the boys program was in terrible shape and the administration was struggling to find a coach.
“It got to be October and, reluctantly, I told them I would coach both teams again until they found somebody,” Rietzke said. “That lasted seven years.”
By then, the rigors of coaching two teams and trying to run a ranch had become too much for Rietzke.
There were times along his coaching journey when he pondered coaching at the college level, or at a larger high school. Rietzke said every coach dreams about bigger and what they perceive to be better.
The pull of what he knew and where he’s comfortable was always strong enough to keep him home, though.
“People who can coach can coach at any level,” he said. “The best way for me to put it would be that I only really cared about the opinions of two groups of people when it came to my coaching. One is my players and the other is my peers.”
Rietzke is slowing down. He’s sure his wife thinks there has to be something better for them to do in the winter than plan around a basketball season.
“I know there’s not a whole lot of sand in the hourglass as far as coaching,” he said. “I just hope that I’m smart enough or wise enough to pick the right time.”