Steamboat Springs Mike Luppes said the credit should go to the players, and he underscored that sentiment Friday morning as he discussed his decision to resign as the Hayden High School boys basketball coach.
Asked how long he’d been coaching the Tigers varsity team, he didn’t use a calendar to arrive at his answer. He didn’t gauge time by seasons’ results, either.
“Hold on,” he said. “Let me count my seniors.”
Six classes of seniors was the final tally — six seasons in Hayden that were defined by talented players, consistent postseason appearances and dominating stretches in the Western Slope League.
The Tigers were 89-46 during Luppes’ tenure and made the regional tournament in five of his six seasons and the state tournament once, during the 2009-10 season.
The teams went undefeated through the conference twice, in the 2010-11 season and again during the 2012-13 season.
What lingered for Luppes about those great runs weren't lopsided scores or league championships, however.
It was the players.
“We’ve had a stretch with some really, really good athletes here,” Luppes said. “That makes the coaching job pretty easy. Even in the years we didn’t have a great record, we had pretty good athletes.”
That proved true to this season, his last, when the Tigers were so wracked by injuries they played without a substitute for the final stretch. That group, led by a trio of seniors, pieced together four consecutive wins — four of the five games the team won all season — before finally losing against Rangely, 37-36, in the district tournament.
“This year wasn’t our best record, but boy we had a team with a lot of heart,” Luppes said. “They could have thrown in the towel at any time, but they hung in there through a lot of adversity. But to say they were my favorite, that’d be hard to do. I’ve been so proud of all these kids through the years.”
Luppes got his start coaching early in his career in tiny Green Mountain, Iowa, where in addition to coaching the basketball team for four years, he guided the track and cross country programs.
He spent 14 years coaching boys and girls middle school basketball, starting when he was a teacher and hanging on to the post when he graduated to principal. He stepped back when he took on the job of superintendent, but once he retired from his first stint in that position after four years, he jumped at the chance to be the varsity boys coach.
He re-enlisted as superintendent later, but only with the condition that he stay on as boys basketball coach.
“I wanted to coach varsity basketball for a long time,” he said.
He and wife, Connie, bought a summer fishing resort in northern Minnesota upon his first retirement, after the 2007-08 school year, and that’s gradually eaten into their time in Routt County. It keeps her out of Hayden from April to October.
When he finally retired as superintendent a second time after this school year, he plans to spend more time during the spring and fall in Minnesota. All that time away helped make his decision regarding the basketball job.
“There’s so much summer work that needs to be done in basketball,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to have had assistant coaches who could do a lot of that, but it’s time for someone who can be here for the whole summer, to run summer programs, to do that. That’s what it takes to be successful in basketball anymore. Hayden needs to find that person who can devote the time.”
He turned in a letter of resignation and it will be accepted by the Hayden School Board next week. He’ll still spend winters in Hayden, surely still attending basketball games when he can. And he’ll gladly hang on to the memories, not just of the games, but the players.
“We had a bunch of kids who loved playing basketball,” he said. “That makes all the difference in the world. They were willing to work hard. There were a lot of pieces to the puzzle that came together and I was luck enough to be the coach during that time.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9