Steve Fritz coached basketball at St. Thomas for 40 seasons, the first nine as an assistant to Tom Feely and the next 31 as the head coach. Fritz’s mother, Ellen Spoo, was a constant presence at Tommies games, driving or riding from Rochester to games on the home court in St. Paul and throughout the Midwest.
“You could detect that many of the qualities that have carried Steve came from his mom,’’ John Tauer said. “For one thing, she had the same stare. When I was a freshman and would throw the ball away, I got the same look from Steve and his mom — one that said, ‘You keep doing that, you may never play again.’”
It was announced by St. Thomas on Tuesday morning that Fritz, 69, will retire as the school’s athletic director next spring. He came to the campus on the corner of Summit and Cretin in September 1967 and never left — basketball star, graduate, administrator and coach.
There are endless co-workers and athletes and students from the general population and rivals from the MIAC for whom Steve Fritz has gained high admiration, but when it comes to a hero, one stands alone.
“My mother, without a doubt,’’ Fritz said. “My dad Sylvester was the basketball coach in Blooming Prairie before he died of cancer in 1954. I was 5, the middle of five kids.’’
Fritz’s voice caught briefly and he said: “She was 33 and widowed with five kids from age 9 [years] to 6 months. She was a tough lady, a determined lady. She was a registered nurse, went to work every day for the town doctor in Blooming Prairie, and got all five of us through college.’’
Twelve years after his father’s death, Steve Fritz was a junior standout on the 1965-66 team that gave the Blooming Prairie Blossoms a grand winter — a district upset of Austin, a regional upset of Red Wing, and a trip to the one-class state tournament as the Region 1 champion.
And then as a senior, the 6-foot-5 Fritz was playing for a Rochester Lourdes team that went 26-0 and won the state Catholic school championship for a second consecutive year.
How was Fritz lured the 40 miles from Blooming Prairie to Rochester and Lourdes for his senior year?
“The doctor in Blooming Prairie decided to close his office,’’ Fritz said. “My mom needed a job and was able to find one at the Mayo Clinic. We moved to Rochester, and that became her home.’’
Steve went with St. Thomas over his other options — St. John’s, St. Mary’s and Winona State — and moved into a dormitory with a Rochester pal, Bernie Nigon, in the fall.
“Right at this time,’’ said Fritz, glancing toward an office window. “The quad’s a bit different with these great facilities, for athletics and the student union, but the excitement you see in the freshmen walking around a campus for the first time hasn’t changed.’’
This conversation took place last week, as the 2018-19 school year was starting. There were 1,980 undergrads when Fritz arrived as a Tommie. Today, there are over 6,000, as well as enough grad students here and in Minneapolis (as well as the Bernardi Campus in Rome) to swell the total enrollment to nearly 10,000.
Fritz was named as Mr. Tommy — an all-campus award voted by students — for 1971. The school was all-male at the time, and would not become coeducational for six years.
“I had a degree in mathematics and my original plan was to coach and teach math,’’ Fritz said. “Then, I was given a chance after graduation to work in the admissions department.
“There was no internet communication, obviously. You would talk with high school counselors, try to find candidates for a school like St. Thomas, and then make home visits. You got a lot of ‘yesses’ on those visits, but you were never sure until the deposit check arrived from the parents.
“After that, I was the assistant to the President, and then I was director of admissions.’’
Head men’s basketball coach and director of admissions of a growing institution such as St. Thomas. That would make for some long days of work.
“It did, but it was a great job,’’ Fritz said. “And I had exceptional people helping me, just as I’ve had as the athletic director.’’
Fritz replaced his college coach and basketball boss, Tom Feely, as the head coach for the 1980-81 season. He became the athletic director in 1992. A strong program has turned into a national power in Division III athletics, including in football with the hiring of Glenn Caruso a decade ago.
As a basketball coach, Fritz’s record was filled with conference titles and playoff appearances, and in his final season, there was the ultimate: a run to the 2011 national title that ended with a blowout of Wooster (Ohio) in Salem. Va.
Steve and his wife Bev went into that season knowing it would be his last as coach. Tauer knew as an assistant that this was likely to occur, but it was never brought up to the players — not in the regular season or the tournament run.
Tauer has coached seven seasons as Frtiz’s successor and added a 2016 national title to the first one in 2011.
“You were never going to get a ‘win one for me’ speech from Steve Fritz,’’ Tauer said. “He’s a man of simple pleasures in life — family — and also in basketball. Play tenacious defense, don’t turn over the ball, and make free throws.
“If you wanted to get him worked up, miss free throws. One night when I was a player, we missed a bunch in the first half, and at halftime he took us to another gym on campus and had everyone shoot free throws.’’
Tauer did recall one Fritz pregame message to the players before a big game vs. St. John’s (aren’t they all?):
“Steve said, ‘Don’t make it complicated. Do what my mom has been telling me for a long time: ‘Go out there and win the game.’
“And we did.’’
Steve’s mother, Ellen Spoo, died in 2014 at age 93. She was not able physically to make the trip to Salem in 2011 for the D-III Final Four.
Fritz was asked last week if Mom got a call that night?
“Oh, yeah,’’ he said, with a smile.
He was 5 when Dad, the basketball coach, died. And 57 years later, Steve Fritz was calling the person who got him through that, calling his hero, to tell her about a national championship.
That call had to be more emotional than cutting down the nets.