Written by Andrew Ottoson Wednesday, 21 March 2007 11:43
If it is important to note that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, it is probably important to note that career coaching basketball at Tabor college advances one day at a time—whether it spans 25 years or two weeks.
Even so, when the Tabor College men’s basketball program announced that Don Brubacher was stepping down as head coach, an era ended.
The decision came in the off-season following the 2006-07 season, a year in which the Bluejays went 12-18 and finished with a 9-9 record against conference teams.
What the records do not reflect is the degree to which the team transcended expectations in rising to fourth place in the KCAC.
It was not the first time in a Bluejays team over-achieved in Brubacher’s quarter-century at the helm.
Over the course of 25 years, Brubacher’s teams won 11 conference championships and qualified for post-season play 20 times.
“After 25 years, the memories kind of run together,” Brubacher said. “There have been a lot of big wins and exciting times, times when we’ve seen the lives of young men in the program change...not as a result of me, necessarily, but as a result of being at Tabor.”
Brubacher recalled the 1993-94 season as one of those exciting times.
“The first trip to the national tournament was a really exceptional experience.
“Some of the players on that team were John Kliewer, Chris LeFevre, Hal Penner, Chris Draftman, Jesse Herman, Brian Vincent, Mark Dick...
“I’ve had teams in five national tournaments, but that was an exceptional experience.”
Brubacher has turned the program over to Micah Ratzlaff, the team’s head assistant coach in 2006-07.
Brubacher cited burnout and the need for greater specialization in Tabor’s athletic department among his reasons for stepping down.
“In general, the primary reason is that it is unrealistic in this day and age to be an athletic director for the extensive kind of programs we have here, and at the same time coach a sport like basketball, and then also teach,”he said.
“It’s too many pressures, too many responsibilities to do things in any one area as well as they need to be done.”
Brubacher will continue to serve as athletic director and associate professor of physical education.
Ratzlaff is a Tabor alum, class of 2003, and played for Brubacher in 2001 and 2003.
Ratzlaff came to Tabor in 2001 and medically red-shirted in 2002, but earned first-team all-KCAC honors in both years he played.
He saw first-hand what takes to have a winning team at Tabor.
“My first year here, I got to play with my brother and we had a real solid team,” Ratzlaff said. “We went to the (NAIA tournament) Sweet 16 where we lost to the team that won the national championship.”
After he graduated Ratzlaff parlayed his experience into his first coaching job as an assistant at Union College in Kentucky, where he earned his master’s degree in physical education.
Describing the environment, Ratzlaff said: “If you can believe it, basketball is bigger in Kentucky than it is in Kansas—especially high school basketball.
“There are packed out gymnasiums, no matter where you go...and they only have one state champion out of all the classes— kind of like that movie ‘Hoosiers.’”
“You could have a team from a school of 200 play a team from a school of 2000.”
“Recruiting there was fun, and basketball is what people live for down there.”
The team enjoyed a bit of a turnaround during his time as an assistant.
“We did okay. We were middle-of-the-pack both years,” he said. “I went down there with a new coach, and we had a winning record both years i was there.”
There was one more stop before Ratzlaff returned to Hillsboro—East Central University, an NCAA division II school in Ada, Okla.
Family played a big part in his move.
“My step-brother is the head coach down there...he needed an assistant, and a dorm job opened up there at the same time,” Ratzlaff recalled. So as soon as i graduated with my masters from Union, we jumped in the U-Haul and jetted on down there.”
Ratzlaff and his wife arrived in time for the 2005-06 season.
“We went 17-10 or 17-11,” he said. “And that was really good...the year before that they had a losing record.”
The next season, Ratzlaff came back to Hillsboro with a chance to join Brubacher’s staff.
In four years as an assistant coach, Ratzlaff has worked with three different offensive systems and increased his knowledge of the game.
But having gained exposure to “quick-hitters” in Kentucky and a “high-low” system in Oklahoma, Ratzlaff favors a system that is well-known to the Bluejays and their fans:
“We ran a motion offense at Tabor last year, which is what I like and I’m most familiar with. That’s what we’ll run next year.”
But there is much more to running a basketball program than making decisions about strategies and tactics.
“One of the biggest challenges a basketball coach faces is to balance the demands of coaching with recruiting,” Brubacher said.
“And included in the coaching is scouting, film breakdown, practice preparation and organization, working with individual players and making decisions about team structure and strategy...”
Ratzlaff also cited Brubacher’s straight forward style among the ways he will try to emulate his mentor—especially in recruiting players who mesh with the Christian liberal arts education environment.
“I’ve seen Don tell guys ‘if you don’t want to go to class, that’s fine—you won’t be a part of our program’ and ‘if you don’t go to chapel, that’s fine— you won’t be part of our program,” Ratzlaff said.
“When you’re recruiting, you have to be honest with the players, so you lay it out there...and a lot of them actually want that kind of pressure, because it helps them do well.”
Brubacher spoke at length about the way Ratzlaff’s strengths will favor his success as a coach: “he has a very good command of the game and a very good understanding of the game...
“He relates very well with the players and communicates very well with the players.”
“So the bottom line is that i think he can be very effective in teaching the game.
“He also recruits very effectively, he presents himself very well, he meets people well, he develops relationships quickly, and I believe he will be very effective in recruiting.”
But the learning curve facing the young coach is a steep one.
“For Micah, I think the administrative aspects of the position will be the biggest stretch for him immediately,” Brubacher said.
“But that is true for anyone who is relatively young and does not have a lot of years of experience in coaching college basketball.”
“He simply needs to learn, Brubacher continued. “It is something you can work your way through as you go along if you have the personal characteristics that allow you to coach and recruit effectively.
“And I believe Micah does have those characteristics—that’s why he’s in the position.”
As far as the program itself is concerned, there is rebuilding to be done.
According to Brubacher the coaches “laid good groundwork for how the game is to be played among the returning players.
Brubacher also said that “there are still spots to be filled through recruitment...I think it’s fair to say that Micah has the task of rebuilding the basketball program.”
Ratzlaff’s take on the team’s status seems somewhat more optimistic early in the off-season.
“We are very young,” he said. “It’s a weakness to be young, but it can also be a positive...youth is part of the team’s character, and when it comes to character, I think we have a great team with a great attitude, strong commitment to doing the right thing and strong commitment to each other.”
While next season might be fairly called a rebuilding year for the Tabor College men’s basketball team, it might also be fairly called the beginning of a new era.
And as with all things that might be, only time will tell.