Loss of a legend, the legacy of Larry Luitjens
The state of South Dakota lost a coaching legend this weekend. On Saturday morning, Larry Luitjens, the winningest boys basketball coach in state history, passed away at the age of 81.
When most people talk about Luitjens, they usually talk about the 748 career wins, the seven championships, and about his 45 years of coaching experience. But there’s more to what defines one of South Dakota’s winningest coaches in history.
‘It goes back to when I figured out I wasn't going to play in the NBA, I probably should coach at the high school level,” said Larry Luijens in a 2021interview on ‘In Play with Craig Mattick.' “I didn't want to get away from it. I wanted to stay with the game, so that's why I started coaching. I loved it.”
Luitjens played high school ball himself at Britton. From there, he went to Northern State to play college ball for Bob Wachs.
“I mean, he was intense. People would ask me, "Well, how could you handle that?" I said, "Well, it was easy to handle it, because when he was yelling at me, I knew I'd done something wrong and I just listened,” Luitjens said. “I didn't argue, I didn't say, oh, no, you're wrong." If he said something to me about, "Got to get it on the boards," I knew I had to get it on the boards. He really influenced my defense. He played all man to man back then and that's the way I started out, playing all man to man and playing a lot of pressure. I got all that from Bob Wachs.”
Luitjens got his first head coaching job in De Smet with the Bulldogs, where he would win two state championships in just four seasons at the helm – ’70 and ’71.
“I was thinking, "Boy, this is pretty easy,” Luitjens chuckled. “No. I knew I had talent and I did. I had a lot of talent. The longer I was away from those kids, the more I realized how good they were.”
Before making his way west to Custer, Luitjens did spend one season at St. Mary’s in New England, North Dakota. This was the one year that Luitjens was farming as well. Some pressure from the school’s priest resulted in him parting ways after a loss in districts.
“The priest told me. He said, "You either change and play a zone and walk the ball down the floor, or you win the state tournament, or you get fired." Well, we got upset,” Luitjens told. “We got upset on Saturday night and I got fired on Monday morning. He was a man of his word.”
Luitjens journey to Custer came as a result of a friendship with his neighbor in Britton. Dick Vonsen, who was also a pastor in Britton, had stopped in Custer at the filling station a couple times and told Luitjens he should go out there to take the job. From there, his legacy in Custer began.
Throughout his time with the Wildcats, he led Custer to fourteen state tournament appearances and five state championship victories. His first state title with Custer came in 1990 in a showdown with Red Cloud.
“It was a big game. We had a good team. I still have a picture of Lance (son) and I embracing after that game. I mean, I was excited and I was excited for him. He had a great tournament. It was fun,” Luitjens exclaimed. “There was no doubt about it. You love to win the tournament, you love to win all of them, but that was a big one for me and for the Custer Wildcats.”
Along with having state tournament success, Luitjens and his Custer team were the first non-reservation school to receive an invite, and attend, the Lakota Nation Invitational tournament. This came at a time when there was a lot of tension in Custer.
In 1973, there was a murder of a Native American in Custer, which led to the courthouse being set ablaze during a protest at the hearing. This happened in Luitjens first year of being coach for the Wildcats.
“My superintendent told me, 'You don't have to go down.' We had a game with [a tribal school]. "You don't have to go down and play that game, you know, if you're concerned about that." I said, 'Listen, you want to play the best teams that you can. If you want to get better, if you want to be a good basketball team, you got to play the best teams and they're one of the best teams in the state of South Dakota,'” Luitjens explained. “Of course, we want to play them. That was the big thing. Nobody else, no other non-native team would go down to the reservation and play. We were the only one that would. So Bryan Brewer and Chuck Cooney got me on the phone, on a conference call there one day, and said, 'You know, we'd like to have you play in the LNI.' I said, 'I would love to do that. I would love to do it.' That was how we got started. It was great. I got a lot of really good friends from the reservation because of the LNI. There's a lot of really, really good Native American basketball coaches, too. Dusty was probably one of the best coaches in the state, Dusty LeBeaux.”
There was a mutual line of respect between Luitjens and the native schools of South Dakota. In fact, for portions of his coaching career, he would wear a necklace around his neck that depicted his support.
“Those were gifts and I'd gotten one from Bryan Brewer and one from the Crow Creek coach. They were just pretty special to me that they would make these, they made them themselves, and then give them to me,” said Luitjens. “I felt real proud to wear that and wear it in LNI tournament.”
From 1988 to 2003, the Custer boys basketball team made it to the state tournament ten times. In that 16-year span, they won five state titles and were runner-up three times. This is one of the most impressive runs in state history for boys hoops.
“I think we were doing it because we had great kids and basically coached the same way. I think my coaching probably changed more in the last six, seven years I coached because of the Lupus,” said Luitjens. “It's probably best that I did get out of it, because I know I wasn't doing a good job. I just, I knew that, but I guess when you're in a lot of pain, sometimes it's hard to stay focused on what you should be focused on.”
Luitjens retired from coaching officially in 2014, after 45-years on the job. And while he’s now gone – the legacy of who he was, both on and off the court, will live on in the state of South Dakota forever.
Click here to listen to Larry Luitjens' 2021 interview with SDPB on the program ‘In Play with Craig Mattick.’