Prep Basketball

After 3 Metro high school basketball coaches quit in 2 days, time to examine demands of the job

Families strained by year-around aspect

Cedar Rapids Kennedy boys' basketball coach Jon McKowen. (The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids Kennedy boys' basketball coach Jon McKowen. (The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — When three Metro boys’ basketball head coaches stepped down from their positions in two days recently, it took a lot of people aback.

Took their coaching cohorts in town aback, too.

“Yeah, I was surprised by all of them, actually,” said Cedar Rapids Prairie’s Jeremy Rickertsen.

“A little surprised, especially with them all at once,” Linn-Mar’s Chris Robertson said. “If they were in isolation, maybe it wouldn’t have been as much of a surprise. Really quality programs, great guys who were doing great jobs.”

Cedar Rapids Jefferson’s Brandon Horman and Cedar Rapids Xavier’s Ryan Luehrsmann cited spending more time with their wives and children as their main reasons for leaving. Marion’s Mike Manderscheid said he simply needed a change.

Manderscheid led Marion to the state tournament the past two seasons, while Luehrsmann won back-to-back Class 3A championships at Xavier. Horman was an up-and-comer who got the most of a roster that never seemed to have much height.

They all were well liked. This was not a deal where any of them were pressured to go away.

There’s no question the demands on coaches in all sports are greater than ever. Nothing drives that point home more than this situation.

“We’ve always joked about it, but basketball, any coaching, is a second job,” said Cedar Rapids Kennedy’s Jon McKowen. “You spend almost as many hours, maybe more, with that than you do your first job: teaching or whatever your profession might be. You put in an eight-hour day, then, all of a sudden, you turn around for practice, you put in two to three hours for practice and film and meetings, traveling, the extras. It is draining and difficult.

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“There are so many extra things that maybe aren’t in the public spotlight. There is something every time you turn around. And that’s just to try and be competitive.”

The Metro “survivors,” if you will, quickly point out that maintaining a good basketball program, especially in high-quality leagues like the Mississippi Valley and Wamac Conferences is a year-around job. You might see these coaches only on Tuesday and Friday nights at games in the winter, but that only scratches the surface of the work they do.

“I would be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t thinking about or doing something basketball wise every day, even outside the season,” Rickertsen said. “Because you start thinking about camp, about spring open gyms, your postseason banquet. We started open gyms already this past week, two nights a week.”

Coaches can’t be around players right now in any sort of formal setting. Hence, the open gyms.

But that changes in the summer. It’s different than it used to be, when coaches had a week or so in the offseason to work with their teams, and that was it.

That’s the way McKowen remembers it as a kid growing up watching his father, hall of famer Marty McKowen, at Wapsie Valley.

“I remember him telling me they would take the nets off and put the baskets up, and they wouldn’t come down until the season started next year,” he said. “Now the demands of the kids ... our season gets over, and the next weekend it’s tryouts for summer teams. They play a spring (AAU) season, they take June off, then they play a July season. Then we start open gyms in August, then we get ready for a regular season. The trickle down of that is that we are coaching in June, we are making summer schedules, which is usually more difficult for coaches because our ADs make most of the regular-season schedules. In that aspect, things are really different.”

“We’re already gearing up for summer workouts, summer team camps, open gyms. That part of it,” Robertson said. “From my experience, that is the part that takes the biggest toll. I really enjoy the season, from November to March, the practice time where you are with your guys, your coaching staff every day. You are scouting. That stuff I still really enjoy. I love that. But to be honest, the offseason I don’t enjoy as much as I did when I was younger.”

They all wonder how much is too much.

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“I think that’s where we are sitting right now,” McKowen said. “Everyone is thinking more is better, but in the backs of our minds, we all know more is not better. You’ve got to find that balance. Things have changed a ton. If you were a kid who maybe shot two or three times a week in the offseason, they thought of you as a hard-working basketball player. Now it’s if you take a day off, you are a summer recreation player.”

The coaches all stressed that they couldn’t continue to do what they do without the support of their respective school administrations. And especially their wives, who are the unsung heroes.

Robertson has two sons still in school, McKowen three sons in elementary school or younger. Rickertsen has two children in eighth and 10th grades.

Horman has two sons 4 years old or younger. Luehrsmann has three children 12 and younger.

“I think it sounds cliche,” Robertson said. “But I don’t think you can do this job without a lot of support at home.”

“My wife, she travels with work. And I know a lot of our friends travel,” McKowen said. “Just balancing those schedules and getting kids to their practices ... it’s a nightmare. You have to rely on everybody in the neighborhood to help. You help out when you can.”

Kennedy Activities Director Aaron Stecker said fewer and fewer people are applying for coaching jobs today. The ones that do generally are younger and without families.

It has become a definite trend.

“It has been a while since I have had my doors blown off by the number of people applying at Kennedy,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen anymore. So anytime you are losing good people who are in coaching for the right reasons, who are hungry and excited and passionate ... You look at Brandon over at Jefferson. He loves basketball, he is a basketball sponge. He was going to continue growing and getting better and better and better as a coach. There are just less people who are willing to do it. To put in all that time and energy and have the passion for it for what you get paid at the high-school level.”

“The biggest payoff in coaching is when kids come back who are adults now and explain to you how you helped them change their lives,” McKowen said. “There is no amount of money to quantify that. To me, that’s extremely rewarding.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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