March 9, 2011
"That's just Stein"
By David Boyce
In the opening minutes of the MIAA Women's Basketball Tournament, Northwest Missouri State coach Gene Steinmeyer leans back in his seat in a carefree manner.
Unlike some coaches who are immediately on their feet, barking instructions at his players and yelling at the first whistle by the referee, Steinmeyer watches his Bearcats like a neutral fan.
His relaxed demeanor is different from most coaches who bring the top-seeded team to the conference tournament, feeling the pressure to win it.
The nervous energy is nowhere to found.
"That's just Stein," said junior guard Shelly Martin.
That's just Stein is the perfect way to sum up Coach Gene Steinmeyer.
Steinmeyer's unique brand of coaching has the Bearcats 25-4 heading into the South Central Regional in Tahlequah, Okla., as the No. 2 seed. The Bearcats will face No. 7 seed Texas Women's, 22-10, in the quarterfinals at 2:30 p.m. Friday.
It's been a magical season for the Bearcats. They finished first in the MIAA with a sparkling 18-4 record.
A few days ago they won the MIAA Tournament, beating Emporia State 79-63 in the championship game.
Awards have flooded them in recent weeks. Senior Gabby Curtis was selected MIAA Player of the Year, senior Kyla Roehrig was Defensive Player of the Year and was MVP of the MIAA Tournament.
Steinmeyer will tell you he's just along for the ride, conveniently leaving out that he earned MIAA Coach of the Year.
He will also tell you it has been one of his most enjoyable seasons coaching. He's watched the Bearcats, picked fourth and sixth by the coaches and media, rise to the top on more than just talent.
"This is the most unselfish team I've had," he said. "The truth of the matter is as I've coached over the years, one of the negative things I've noticed about players is how much more selfish they are compared to past years. But this team is the exception to that rule.
"Gentry Dietz has given up so much to win. Shelly Martin never complains whether she gets four shots or 14 shots. Abby Henry took a backseat to Gabby and never complained. Melissa Nyquist started 29 games last year and now she hardly plays. She's still a captain and one of our leaders.
"From the start, it was the way Kyla Roehrig approached her addition to the team. She made mention how she wanted to make other people look good. Along the way she looked good. The people she took playing time away from are now her best friends.
"It has been a refreshing year with the players."
For Steinmeyer, the unselfishness displayed by the players is every bit as important as the ball swishing through the nets.
"This is a good group of kids," said Northwest assistant athletic director Lori Hopkins, who was Steinmeyer's assistant coach for eight years. "Yes, they are good basketball players, but they are good kids and fun to be around. It has been quite the experience to be around this."
More than anything, Steinmeyer wants his players to enjoy the experience of playing Division II basketball and have the complete college experience.
His coaching style helps make it possible.
"He has a unique way of saying things and getting his message across," said MIAA commissioner Bob Boerigter, who was Northwest's athletic director. "He's very personable in so many ways. That comes out in his coaching both on and off the floor."
In 12 seasons at Northwest, Steinmeyer is 179-164. Steinmeyer is taking his fourth Northwest team to the NCAA Division II Tournament. He's done it his way.
"The first year we lost 18 conference games and went 0-18 and Mel Tjeerdsma took me to breakfast and said just do it the right way and don't worry about this year. That was good advice from Mel," Steinmeyer said.
His way is to make the game fun and to care about people and his fellow coaches.
It means a lot to him when an opposing coach shakes his hand after the game and says, "your team played well."
After victories in the first two MIAA Tournament games, Steinmeyer first praised the opposing coach before talking about his team.
He truly felt the anguish Pittsburg State coach Lane Lord and his team must have gone through. They recently lost an assistant coach in a tragic car accident.
"Lane is really sincere. He calls and texts more than any other coach in the league," Steinmeyer said.
In late January, Missouri Western women's basketball coach Lynn Plett had an emergency appendectomy because of a burst appendix.
Steinmeyer got the phone number of Plett's hospital room. At the urging of their coach, the Northwest players gathered around a speaker phone and called Plett.
"That's just how he is," Dietz said. "He's probably one of the most caring coaches in the conference.
"One time he tried to make us all happy by going to different places to eat. He wants to make everybody happy. He's a great guy."
Dietz appreciates how Steinmeyer returned her love for the game after her experience at Southern Illinois. She was tired of all the yelling she received from previous coaches.
"He's the most laid back coach I've had," Dietz said. "I've had a lot of intense coaches, who are in your face. He doesn't. He gets in your face every once in awhile, but after a game he never holds a grudge. He's there and pats me on the back.
"He made me love basketball again. I've had fun. I never thought I was going to play basketball again. Now, I'm having the time of my life."
Martin also said the game was no longer fun for her as she was winding down her high school career.
"Stein was like come here and we will have fun," Martin said. "We will play hard. I was sold because I was in the same spot as Gentry. I hated basketball. Now, I'm just having the time of my life."
Steinmeyer said it is all in the eye of the beholder. He knows there are former players and parents out there who think he yells too much.
"I have parents from other teams who say I don't yell at my players," he said. "I have parents from my own team who will say they don't like the way I yell at the players.
"I want to be perceived as a coach who didn't fail. Like most coaches, I'm motivated by the fear of failure and I just don't want to fail. I've always told my bosses if it is time to go I will take myself out of it."
Steinmeyer is simply comfortable in himself and that's the way he coaches.
"Sometimes we will look over there and he's standing at the water jug with his back to us and we are trying to figure out what defense we are in," Martin said. "It's a little crazy, but we eventually get the call and it works out.
"That's just Stein.
"He will talk to anyone who comes near the bench. It happened like four times in the semifinals."
Basketball is important to Steinmeyer. He's been a head coach for 28 seasons. He's one victory shy of 540. But basketball doesn't rule his life.
He's a family man. His wife, Michele, works as the athletic department office manager. His 10-year-old son, Sam, is usually close by after games.
Steinmeyer also enjoys reading novels on long bus rides and if you mention the Royals, he will quickly engage you in conversation about the season.
"My light at the end of the tunnel is spring training," he said. "Whether we have a good season or bad season, my light is spring training. I love baseball."
His well-rounded life gives him perspective to know when to push his team and when to pull back and have fun.
"We had a pool party and that's one thing we needed as a team to really bond," Curtis said. "It was during the season when we really needed it. We were tired and practices weren't going well. He saw it. We played basketball in the pool and just hung out. That's one thing that is great that if he sees the team is tired, he will sit down and talk to us."
One way to truly know players had a wonderful experience is years down the road they return to watch the school they played for.
Steinmeyer said members of his 2008 team and the 2004 team showed up for some of this year's MIAA Tournament games to watch the Bearcats.
"It's been a fun experience to hang around them," he said. "The bond never leaves you."
Players like Martin, Dietz and Curtis will remember this season forever and a lot of it is because of Steinmeyer.
"Stein is a person who trusts his players," Curtis said. "He trusts us to do the right thing. He's a laidback kind of coach. But he will have his moments when he pushes us. In practices we always go hard.
"He's a real nice guy. He's different from other coaches. Other coaches have their philosophy of coaching. He will get in your face if you are doing something wrong or pull you to the side, talk to you about what you need to do and how to do it."
"I haven't met a coach like him. He's a great coach."
David Boyce spent more than 20 years covering high school and small college athletics at the Kansas City Star newspaper in Missouri. He's covered six of Northwest Missouri State's seven national championship football games and recently served as a guest columnist for the MIAA.
Boyce was named KIAAA Sportswriter of the Year in 1994. He covered boxing at the Star from 1991-2004 including Tommy Morrison and worked both championship fights between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. His 1997 exclusive story on Morrison becoming HIV positive was named an Associated Press Sports Editor top 10 feature for papers serving more than 150,000.
Boyce was born in New York City and was raised in Kansas City, Kan. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1988 with a degree in journalism. He is currently one of three official scorers for the Kansas City Royals and is a contributing writer for the Royals Gameday magazine.
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