For the second year in a row, men’s basketball loyalists filled the Tommie Room on a glorious spring day to hear an announcement about the future of their team. Last May, the news was that Steve Fritz would step down, national title comfortably in hand, after 31 years as head coach and that Johnny Tauer would be the interim head coach for the 2011-12 season. On Monday, the news would be that . . .
“I’m coming back,” Fritz whispered to me as he headed to the podium.
“How did Johnny take the news?” I asked.
“Pretty well,” Steve replied. “He’s a good guy.”
“Are you hiring him as an assistant?”
A few moments later, Fritz announced, in his role as athletic director, that the “interim” had been dropped from Tauer’s title and that he finally could be called “Coach Tauer.” Ah, so much for a little drama, even if it is tongue in cheek.
John Tauer at Monday's news conference
“It’s not much of a surprise to anybody,” Fritz said of Tauer’s selection as the 22nd head coach in 106 years but only the third since 1954.
Or to use a basketball metaphor, this appointment was a “slam dunk.” Just as Chris Olean was a “can of corn” to shed the interim tag as baseball coach two years ago and Duke Boeser hit the “open netter” in becoming men’s hockey coach last season.
But until the basketball deed was done, a modicum of mystery surrounded Tauer. He remained remarkably patient throughout the process, telling everyone from diehard fans to players to recruits that the search was important and that he was confident the right person would be selected.
Right, indeed. Tauer beamed at the podium as he shook hands with Fritz and spoke about how “it’s a true dream to be here today.”
He reminisced about his long ties to St. Thomas basketball, starting when John and Michele Tauer brought their six-year-old son to games in old O’Shaughnessy Hall and later returned to campus, first to watch him star on teams from 1991 to 1995 and then serve as Fritz’s assistant for 11 years.
He thanked Fritz for serving as a “tremendous role model and mentor” and pointed out that the players on his MIAC title team this year have done the same thing for his sons, nine-year-old Jack and seven-year-old Adam.
And he emphasized that his priorities – faith, family, academics and athletics – would be the same as those that were the foundation of Fritz’s teams. “We encourage our players to honor the first two,” Tauer said, “and excel in the last two.”
Tauer’s sons and parents attended the news conference, which gave the boys a chance to get out of school for an hour, “but I don’t think they’re missing much,” said grandpa John Tauer. “I asked them what they learned today and they said, ‘Nothing.’ ”
Mom and dad are pretty proud of their son. Dad graduated from St. Thomas Academy and the College of St. Thomas (1964) on this campus and later coached teams at Nativity School as well as the junior varsity here. He has a keen eye for the game and can offer a crisp assessment of a win or a loss, but on Monday, as he fingered his 2011 NCAA Division III championship cap, he had only a few words when asked his reaction.
“This is great,” he said. “This is just wonderful.”
John Tauer talked with his team in the locker room last November before a home game against St. Olaf. The Tommies won 72-56.