Luitjens’ final chapter
Legendary Custer High School coach Larry Luitjens to retire at season’s end
Published: Thursday, December 12th, 2013
The numbers are staggering.
Forty-four full seasons. Seven hundred fifty two (and counting) wins. Aâ��seventy percent winning percentage. Seven state titles. Over 30 district titles. Numerous regional titles.
On the Mount Rushmore of South Dakota High School coaching, Larry Luitjens is front and center.
Luitjens, a head basketball coach for almost half a century, 39 of which have been spent in Custer, has announced the 2013-14 season will be his final as a basketball coach. The man who has done it all and seen it all on a high school basketball court said he had been thinking about retiring for some time. When he saw his granddaughter, Brooke, play her first varsity minutes as a freshman over the summer in Colorado, that sealed the deal.
“I said, ‘Man, I have to see this.â��Iâ��can’t miss this,’” he said.
Luitjens said his health is also a factor in the decision. He took a one-year hiatus from coaching in 2004-05 as he dealt with the effects of both prostate cancer and being hit by an RVâ��while riding his bike on the side of the road. More recently, he has dealt with Lupus and said there are days where he just “doesn’t feel good at all.”
In fact, Luitjens considering retiring at the end of last year, but his bond with seniors Chase Glazier and Kenneth Myers—both of whom he has coached since eighth grade—helped bring him back for one final season.
“I thought if there is ever a good time—and Iâ��don’t know that there is—this is probably it,”â��he said.
Luitjens is the winningest boys basketball coach in the history of the State of South Dakota. He has coached one unbeaten team (Custer, 25-0, 1990) and five others that had only one loss. Seventeen times he has guided his team to the state tournament. Thirteen of those times his teams have reached the finals. Seven times his teams have won state titles.
The 1960 Britton High and 1965 Northern State grad began his coaching career at De Smet. He coached De Smet for four seasons, guiding the Bulldogs to a 90-16 record and three state tourney appearances, including a runner-up finish in 1969 and Class B titles in ’70 and ’71. He coached one year at New England (N.D.) St. Mary’s, going 19-4. His team lost in the district tourney on a Saturday night and he was relieved of his coaching duties the following Monday.
Luitjens, who played for Coach Bob Wachs at Northern, sat out a year and never wanted to coach again, but Britton coach John Bruce got him to do some scouting and he was hooked again. A pastor in Custer who had officiated his wedding urged Luitjens to apply for the open position at Custer. He has been at Custer since 1973, leading the Wildcats to 14 state tournament appearances and five state titles in 39 seasons.
In a 16-year stretch from 1988-2003, Luitjens’ Wildcats reached the state Class A tourney 10 times, winning the championship five times (1990, ’92, ’93, ’98 and ’02) and finishing second three times (’89, ’91 and ’03). He was a finalist for national coach of the year in 1998. He was a nominee for the national award in 1982, ’89 and ’90.
Luitjens was inducted into the South Dakota High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1988. He received Northern State’s first Jim Kretchman Award for excellence in athletics in 2002.
The coach the locals refer to as “Larry Legend” developed an early love for basketball, picking up the sport at the age of 5, playing with older boys in his neighborhood. Basketball continued to be a love as he grew up, and after he “figured out he wasn’t going to play in the NBA,”â��he began to take an interest in coaching.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“I have been very fortunate in two respects. Iâ��have had great kids who were great basketball players and an unbelieveable run of assistant coaches,”â��he said.â��“It has been fun.”
Despite knowing it’s the right time to retire, Luitjens said the decision has not been an easy one. He is hopeful that by announcing his retirement, he will stick to the plan, which will allow him to watch Brooke and his other granddaughter, Somer, play the sport he has lived and loved for half a century.
“I’m not going to miss that girl. She reminds me of her father,”â��Luitjens said of Brooke. “She doesn’t shoot it as much, but she is as good of a shot.”
Ah yes, Brooke’s father.
Ask Larry Luitjens about his favorite players to coach over the years, and many players come to mind. Terry Long. Randy Jencks. Kurt and Kenna Venekamp. Jay Steele. Trevor Long. Derek and Paige Paulsen. Travis Meyer. Chad Bryant. Luke Roddy. Glazier.
“There are too many to name,”â��Luitjens says.
None, however, compare to the thrill of coaching his son, Lance, and watching Lance lead his Custer teams to a streak of dominance in the early ’90s that ranks among the most impressive stretches of basketball in state history.
“What a thrill it was coaching Lance,”â��Luitjens said.â��“Iâ��can’t tell you how much I enjoyed coaching him.”
Luitjens’ favorite photo to this day is a black and white photo snapped in 1990 when he and Lance embraced after winning the Class A State championship to cap a perfect season.
Lance also remembers that 1990 team well, as well as the photo.
“It was redemption from the year before,” he said. “I remember ending the game hugging my dad. That picture created a life-long memory.”
Lance said his father was driven like no coach he has ever been around, saying he ate, breathed and slept basketball.
“He loved strategizing for upcoming opponents. He had a knack for taking out the other team’s best player or strength as a team,”â��he said. “Defense was his speciality in that regard. We would switch defenses on the fly and run every junk set you could think of.”
Despite his father living basketball, when he and Lance left practice, they never talked basketball unless Lance wanted to.
“That was our rule and he upheld it,”â��Lance said. “Iâ��had a great relationship with him playing ball.”
Luitjens’ impact on the State of South Dakota isn’t limited solely to what happened on the hardwood, however.
Luitjens has been a key figure in reconciliation efforts between Native Americans and whites dating back to the mid 1970s. After The Wounded Knee Incident of 1973, in which approximately 200 Oglala Lakota and followers of the American Indian Movement seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee, distrust between whites and Indians festered. Oglala Sioux president Bryan Brewer, who was coaching at Pine Ridge High School at the time, said after the incident, white teams weren’t willing to play Indian schools.
Luitjens bucked that trend.
“He came to Pine Ridge to play us. He said, ‘I want my team to play the good teams,’” Brewer said. “That opened up the door for friendship. He has made many friends down here. All of the Indian coaches have a lot of respect for him.”
Luitjens was instrumental in the birth of what is now the Lakota Nation Invitational as well. At the time the tournament was called the “All-Indian” tournament, formed as a way to get Native American teams more games. Once Custer became a staple of the tournament, Chuck Cuny, co-director of the tournament, suggested the name change to further reconciliation efforts.
“Larry has been with us quite a while,”â��Brewer said. “I hate to see him leave. He is one of our greatest coaches.”
Two of Luitjens’ current assistants played for him when they were in high school. Paul Kelley is a class of 1988 graduate of Custer High School, while Rich Knuppe graduated in 2007. Both said they have learned a great deal from both playing, and now coaching, under Luitjens.
“The biggest thing he has taught me is how to motivate kids,” Kelley said. “That’s the thing he excels most at, getting kids to work hard and give everything they have. We might not always have the best talent, but we can be competitive, and that’s a credit to him.”
“He coaches in a way that doesn’t bring too much attention to the kids,”â��Knuppe said. “The only times Iâ��remember him really getting after kids is if they aren’t trying. That’s one thing I definitely have taken with me as a coach. If you can get a kid to give 100 percent effort when he plays, you can hide a lot of physical limitations.”
Luitjens admits he is much calmer as a coach than he used to be. Kelley concurs with that sentiment.
“He was a very demanding coach when I was a kid. He stressed the same things he stresses today, just in a different way,”â��Kelley said.â��“He is more laid back and has adapted more to the kids.”
“I’m calmer than Iâ��used to be. Iâ��don’t know why,”â��he said. “I’m older. That doesn’t mean I don’t get excited. There isn’t any difference in my enthusiasm. I’m as enthusiastic about this year as I have been for a long, long time. Probably because I know it’s the end.”
Luitjens has a host of games and teams he remembers fondly, from his first state championship as a head coach in De Smet and his first championship as an assistant in Webster to his less talented teams along the way that still gave everything they had, even if they weren’t state tournament bound. His last state championship, in 2002, also is a fond memory, obvious by the way in which he recalls Meyer sinking two clutch free throws with only seconds remaining to seal the win.
“Some things you just remember,”â��he said.
Kelley said when he was coaching in Hill City and Willow Lake, he always used Luitjens as a resource for ideas. He said Luitjens’ passion for the game is unrivaled.
“He loves talking basketball and he loves being around the kids. It’s something he truly enjoys,”â��he said.
Luitjens said it is the kids he will miss the most when basketball season rolls around again a year from now.
“It’s like in practice today. We got done with practice and Paul and I were talking afterwards that it was one of the best practices we had ever had,”â��Luitjens said. “There are some great young kids coming up. I’m going to miss that.”
Knuppe said as a student coming up through the Custer School District, he had looked forward to playing for Luitjens as far back as third grade, saying he and his teammates would put extra effort into drills they knew Luitjens put his high school team through, hoping to have it honed before running it in front of Luitjens for the first time.
Now, as a young coach, Knuppe relies on Luitjens on a different level, as he slowly realized how many things he hadn’t prepared for as he coached the sub-varsity players in his first year last season.
Knuppe said he knows he made mistakes, but said Luitjens never made a big deal about them. Instead, the two would sit down after the games Knuppe coached and discuss the game. Instead of telling Knuppe what he would have done, he asked him his rationale for certain situations, before offering his insights and possible alternatives.
“The guy has coached probably over 1,000 games. Odds are, he has been in about every situation imaginable,” Knuppe said. “It’s a great opportunity to pick his brain.”
Brewer said plans are in the works to honor Luitjens during a ceremony in what will be Luitjens’ final Lakota Nation Invitational next weekend. The exact time and day of that ceremony has not been set.
“He has really meant a lot to me and other coaches. He is more than just a good guy to coach against, he is very supportive of our children,” Brewer said.â��“He reaches out to our students, and is very encouraging to the reservation players. He is a real gentleman. Iâ��hate to see him leave, but all good things come to an end, I guess. He’ll always be our friend.”
“The passion that coach has for the game is instilled in his players. You look how many kids come back over Christmas break or summer break who want to play,” Knuppe said. “There is a sense of pride for anyone who has played boys basketball in Custer, a love of the game that has been passed on for generations, and it is directly correlated with Larry Luitjens.”
Luitjens said he is at peace with his decision to retire and hopes when people remember his career, he will be remembered more for teaching kids about life than teaching them how to make a layup or a free throw. He said when he walks off the court for the final time, whenever that is this season, he knows he will feel sadness, but that the sadness he feels won’t be a bad thing.
“Iâ��have really enjoyed it,” he said.â��“Iâ��can’t think of anything else I would have rather done than be a basketball coach.”
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