I have a handful of friends and acquaintances who I quietly call “Great Americans.”
They aren’t powerful politicians, brilliant business executives or thought-provoking writers, but salt-of-the-earth types who quietly distinguish themselves through hard work, humility, wisdom and a sense of humor. My dad, who just turned 90, is one of these Great Americans even though he never came close to making a million dollars in his lifetime and finds pleasure in simple tasks such as doing jigsaw puzzles, mowing the lawn and selling ads for the church bulletin.
Today, I am proud to talk about another person on my list of Great Americans: Steve Fritz.
This is a fitting day to do so, as Steve is with his St. Thomas men’s basketball team in Salem, Va., where they will play in the NCAA Division III Final Four tournament tonight. It will be my good fortune to write about the semifinal game against Middlebury and, I hope (and even expect!), the championship game on Saturday.
I am crossing my fingers that Steve wins that national title because, in my view, few if any coaches deserve it more.
Steve has been associated with St. Thomas basketball for 44 years, first as a star player, then as an assistant coach and for the last 31 years as head coach, plus he has served two decades as athletic director. That’s a lot of practices, long bus trips, visits with recruits, interviews and, of course, games: 1,197 games, in fact, with a head coaching record of 592-246 (.706 percent).
Yet as grueling as a season can become, Steve always maintains a remarkably positive attitude. Oh sure, he grumbles like the rest of us at a turnover, and his scowl when a player screws up can be downright scary. But afterwards – win or lose – he still throws his arm around players, bumps fists and forearms, and offers words of encouragement because he knows it’s just a game. There are more important things to worry about in life.
And that, perhaps, is what I appreciate the most about Steve: his perspective and his values. St. Thomas sports are important to him, but he knows the real reason young people enroll: to get a good education, prepare for a career, learn social skills, make lifelong friends and mature into adults who will be tomorrow’s leaders. If you can win a championship or two as a player – or 26, as Steve has done with MIAC regular season and playoff crowns as a coach – life is even a little more rewarding.
I met Steve nearly 40 years ago, a high school senior who heard a young St. Thomas admissions counselor talk about his alma mater and how I should go there. I took his advice and never regretted the decision. It has been a privilege to work with him for the last 20 years, to sit behind his bench and root for his team, and on occasions such as this magical playoff run to chronicle his successes.
Win or lose tonight, Steve will find the right words in the locker room to share with his players. He will congratulate them on a great effort and he will thank them for representing our university so well.
And that’s why, win or lose, I am proud to call him a Great American.