St. Thomas basketball coach found a home in St. Paul 44 years ago.
Steve Fritz's suitcase waited by the door to his office on Wednesday afternoon. It looked new, although it might be 40 years old and merely unused. Fritz hasn't done much long-distance traveling in his professional life.
Fritz, the coach of the St. Thomas basketball team, was preparing to leave for Salem, Va. His Tommies (28-3 and ranked eighth) had qualified for the Division III Final Four for the first time in 17 years.
They'll face No. 2 Middlebury in the national semifinals Friday, marking Fritz's 1,198th consecutive game on the Tommies' sideline.
Fritz was making his final preparations for the trip when he turned toward the door to reveal a sling on his left arm.
"I tore the biceps off, so they had to repair that on Monday,'' Fritz said. "You can't wait, or it rolls right up and you lose it. But I'm having too much fun to worry about that.''
When you reside at one institution for 44 years, you eventually show up in all manner of dress and disrepair. Fritz, a native of Rochester, chose to attend St. Thomas over St. John's and St. Mary's 44 years ago and never left.
"If I would have left, it would have been real early,'' Fritz said. "After you realize it's a great place to work, it would be hard to go anywhere else.''
He worked in admissions and as an assistant to the president, and his coach at St. Thomas, Tom Feely, hired him as an assistant basketball coach. Fritz became head basketball coach in 1980, and athletic director in 1992.
As a student-athlete, Fritz became St. Thomas' "Mr. Tommy'' and that never really changed.
"I'm not really a basketball addict,'' he said. "My assistant coaches are much more likely to sit up watching ESPN late at night, looking for a new inbounds play. I just think the best way to spend your time at 4 o'clock in the afternoon is with 18-to-22 year-olds.''
That has proved to be time well spent this season.
"You can see in his eyes how much this means to him,'' said John Tauer, Fritz's top assistant coach and a player on the '94 Tommies. "You know, you just don't see people in this business staying in the same place for 44 years the way he has."
Fritz is enjoying the fruits of his labors in many ways. His new office is in the sparkling new Anderson Athletic Center, which holds a state-of-the-art basketball arena. The man he hired to coach the football team, Glenn Caruso, has resurrected the program.
Fritz's team isn't too shabby, either. The Tommies will take an eight-game winning streak into Friday's game.
Since succeeding Feely, Fritz is 592-246. His career winning percentage (.708) ranks first among current D-III coaches.
Tauer said that what he appreciates most is Fritz's perseverance and perspective. He said Fritz once called a timeout before the opening tip. "He didn't like the look on the kids' faces,'' Tauer said.
Fritz becomes most animated when talking about Feely, his coach and predecessor. Fritz calls him a "leprechaun of a man'' who was nicknamed "Tipper'' because he walked on the tips of his toes.
Feely was known for obsessively coaching baseball and basketball, and bringing an entourage of friends everywhere he went. Fritz remembered Feely popping open an umbrella on the way to visit a pitcher after St. Thomas took a lead, so the umpire would notice the rain and call the game.
Once, Feely sent a manager out to the umpire with fresh baseballs -- and a message.
"Coach Feely wanted me to tell you he doesn't think you're doing too good a job today,'' the manager said.
The umpire sent back a message: "Tell Mr. Feely he's out of the game.''
Fritz hasn't matched Feely as a character, just as a coach. Today, he gets another shot at a national championship that would alter his résumé but not his mien.
"I thought when we went in '94 that we'd be back often,'' Fritz said. "Now I realize how hard it is. It really is special to take a group of kids to Salem.''
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org
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