After more than 20 years as a track coach, Steve Fritz is ready to return to his first love — the hardwood.
While the former Olympian made a name for himself nationally as a decathlete, it was basketball that occupied much of his time as a youth.
“I’ve played enough basketball,” Fritz said. “That’s the sport I grew up playing all the time and my main sport up until I was just better at track than I was at basketball.”
Fritz accepted the head boys’ basketball coaching position at Riley County High School this week, filling the vacancy created by longtime coach Kelly Hammel’s retirement. While most all of his coaching experience comes from his time with the Kansas State track and field team, Fritz expects the transition to be a smooth one.
“I’m excited about the opportunity, and I love being in the gym and working with kids, so those are all good things,” he said. “I’ve done some coaching at the youth level. To a degree, coaching is coaching. Can you connect with the kids? Can you identify what they need to learn? Can you organize a time so they can learn efficiently?”
Fritz isn’t expecting it to be easy. But after winning a national title at Hutchinson Community College and transferring to K-State to play two more years, it goes without saying that he knows his basketball.
“You never know everything you need to know, you always try to keep learning more,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have had a lot of great coaches in basketball throughout my time playing. So my knowledge base there is pretty solid. I’ve been coaching a long time so being able to work with people — that comes pretty easy for me at this point.”
The main reason for Fritz’s decision to make the switch to the high school ranks was to increase time spent with his family. His wife Suzie, head volleyball coach at K-State stays busy, and he has two boys, 12-year-old Thomas Jon and 9-year-old Jacob.
“Coaching in college, you’re gone a lot for track from January through June,” he said. “I’ve got two boys and they’re getting more involved in sports all the time. I just don’t want to miss a lot of those things as they get older, and when they get to high school there will be even more things.”
As for the timing on his decision, the coach was ready to get back to basketball and wasn’t sure if an opportunity like the one at Riley County would present itself again in another three years when his oldest child gets to high school.
“The reason for the switch right now was the opportunity in basketball,” Fritz said. “To get back into basketball and be at a school with good tradition that’s enthusiastic about their sports like Riley County is, I didn’t know if I passed on the opportunity, if another would come along very soon.
“A lot of times, good schools hire those positions and they stay for 25 years. That one happened to open up, I took a look at it and it came down to I just didn’t feel like it was something I could let pass by without looking back in three or four years with boys in high school and wishing I’d gone for it.”
Fritz said he doesn’t yet have an assistant coach, but the Falcon administrators were starting the hiring process. His duties with K-State are still ongoing until July, so the team will miss some of the summer workouts that other teams will take advantage of. Fritz said not having year-round access to his team will be an adjustment.
“The biggest change I think is in college, you have them all year round,” he said. “So you have a lot of time to prepare for the first meet. In high school, you don’t. I’m missing out on a large chunk of the summer prep time this year because of the timing of the transition, and so we’ll be a little bit behind to start. I’ll do what I can in the fall to get them up to speed, and it’ll be a work in progress here early on. And going forward we won’t have that issue.”
Fritz will initially work for Riley County as a Rule-10 coach, meaning he will not teach in the district. He said if the right teaching job opened up, however, that could change.
When asked if he’d be interested in the other vacant coaching position at Riley County — head track coach — Fritz neither denied nor affirmed the possibility of him taking on both sports.
“As far as I know, (Riley County administrators) haven’t started addressing that,” Fritz said. “At this time, I’ll stay out of that conversation until they go to address it. I’m more focused on the basketball thing right now and when they get down to addressing that, then we’ll look at it or talk about it.”
Fritz as track coach makes sense for a variety of reasons, especially considering the level of success the Falcons sustained under former coach Garry Sigle, who hung up his whistle in 2011 after more than 30 years at the school. With performance dipping under Travis Havenstein, who coached the last two seasons, Fritz could re-energize the program and bring coaching expertise not normally seen in the high-school ranks, should the Falcon administration offer him the job.