Varsity Kansas

Heights’ athletic director ‘graduates’ and ‘signs’ into retirement after 30 years

For years, Rick Wheeler has introduced some of the best student-athletes in the Wichita area as they signed their National Letters of Intent.

On Monday morning, he signed his own — into the next chapter of his life.

After spending 30 years as a Kansas high school coach and athletic director, Wheeler was surprised with a celebration of his work surrounded by some of his coworkers and fellow City League athletic directors. He said he is grateful for everyone who has been part of his journey and honored for such a special day.

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Wheeler, a Kansas City Washington alumnus, arrived at Heights in 1989 as an assistant football coach and head wrestling coach. He spent six years with the Falcons, but when the head football job came available and he didn’t get it, he left.

He went to Lincoln, Kansas, for his first head-coaching gig in football. Coaching in Class 2-1A football, he thought he would tear it up. He quickly learned the caliber of coaches and players was better than he’d expected, and it prepared him for his return to Wichita.

In 1999, he came back to Heights as coach of the Falcons. He was named athletic director in 2004, a position he will hold until the end of the 2018-19 school year.

During Wheeler’s time as athletic director, Heights has won 17 state championships, including six in girls basketball, five in boys basketball and three in boys swimming.

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Wichita Heights hoists its third state championship trophy in five years at the 2019 Kansas high school swimming and diving meet in Topeka on Saturday. (Feb. 16, 2019) Hayden Barber The Wichita Eagle

“The relationships that you build with those kids, you don’t realize in the day-to-day interactions that you’re having with them just the impact you really have,” Wheeler said. “Kids come back and tell me stories that I don’t remember fully, but it meant something to them. It stuck with them. I remember the same things about my coaches, and that’s one of the reasons I got into this.”

Wheeler said that in his time at Heights, he has coached athletes and gone on to coach their children. He has coached against the kids of former players. He has seen high school All-Americans like Perry Ellis and worked alongside of the most recognized coaches in Kansas, such as Joe Auer.

With more than 20 years of experience in Wichita, Wheeler said it was time for a change. He knows plenty of people in the business who need something new after four to six years, he said, but this just felt like time.

“Legacy isn’t something that we determine; it is something that just happens,” Wheeler said. “I hope people realize I put my heart and soul into it. I hope they know I cared a great deal about the kids, the programs and the institution that we were representing. It has been a good ride.”

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Wichita Eagle preps reporter Hayden Barber brings the area updates on all high school sports while adding those hard-to-find human-interest stories on Wichita’s student-athletes.