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Friedrichs blends faith, hoops and education

Sat., Oct. 8, 2011

Warren Friedrichs was one semester into the Lutheran seminary when the sound of a bouncing basketball started to drown out the lessons in liturgics and elementary Greek – and he wasn’t even on a team at the time.

“I’m not sure my abilities were best fit for the ministry,” he said. “I have faith and it’s pretty strong, but for me to be the person they come to in crisis, I’m not sure I was equipped for that.”

Funny he would put it that way.

Crisis is sometimes revealed with a shrug. This was more or less the case when Friedrichs was hired to coach at what is now Whitworth University 26 years ago. What he inherited wasn’t so much a debacle as it was indifference; Miracles weren’t needed as much as ministering. That he once got his program to within a jostled jump shot of a national championship wound up being secondary to the 16 years he kept the faith, even through the odd 10-16 hiccup or a team that didn’t quite grasp the homily.

It’s the hall of fame season here, when colleges and communities recognize the best of their athletic selves. Often as not, an inductee is said to be a representative of a “golden era,” though that’s not really possible for the Heritage Gallery at Whitworth.

The Pirates’ athletic golden era is actually right now.

But in Warren Friedrichs, they’re honoring one of the guys who midwifed it.

His remarks at the ceremony this morning may set a school record for names dropped. Friedrichs’ affection for his teams and players is deep, born of fun, struggle, achievement and heartbreak. The 1996 Pirates of Nate Dunham and Roman Wickers that came within a whisper of the NAIA championship (“they had trust – and almost too much confidence”) are not necessarily any more revered than the ’91 team which made a one-and-out breakthrough trip to Kansas City.

“We played Athens State, last game of the session,” he said, the memory eliciting a laugh, “and the game before us went triple overtime. They’re running 45 minutes behind and the referees weren’t going to call anything. People back here said they could hear the slaps over the radio when they were pressing.”

Likewise, rugged Randy Smith – lost last summer to cancer – was recalled as Friedrichs’ over-the-hump program player. But remembered no less fondly was 12th man Chad Reeves, inserted into the lineup late one disappointing year to help the Bucs win five of their last seven.

And to hand the baton to Jim Hayford and watch him make winning the Northwest Conference almost routine has been no less gratifying.

“Now coaches come and stay and have a nice career here,” Friedrichs said.

Consider this: In the 16 seasons prior to his run, Whitworth had seven basketball coaches. Ready to leave Concordia College in Portland after six years, Friedrichs applied for jobs at Western Oregon and Western Washington, too, but landed here – and discovered a department “piecing it together on a shoestring” with ill-cared-for facilities and a school administration that mostly didn’t know how sports fit on its campus.

But he also found some like-minded coaching colleagues – Scott McQuilkin, Einar Thorarinsson, Tom Dodd.

“We sort of gave each other pep talks,” Friedrichs said. “We’d tell each other, ‘It can happen here, we can do this thing. You can win. It doesn’t have to be just OK.’ ”

McQuilkin’s elevation to athletic director and the arrival of president Bill Robinson crystallized the vision. Still, you need to win a few ballgames, too.

A wannabe pastor might have seemed an unlikely candidate for that kind of success. From tiny Bremen, Kan., Friedrichs went off to a Lutheran boarding school to take his languages and then a series of Concordias – college in Fort Wayne, Ind., the seminary in St. Louis, back to a teachers college in Seward, Neb. His first job was at Lutheran West High School in Detroit, where he had a few players recruited by colleges and got curious himself.

“I’d ask these guys coming through, ‘What’s your job like?’ ” he said. “They’d say, ‘I’ve got two classes, three days a week.’ That’s it? I’m doing seven periods of English and religion.”

But he’s never left the classroom. He did leave basketball so he wouldn’t miss his son’s high school games, but he resurrected the school’s golf programs eight years ago and watched them become almost as successful as his hoop teams.

“I tell my coaching class, ‘If you take a job with some potential and stay with it and build it right, it’ll be a really good job when you’re done,’ ” he said.

“Longevity has its own rewards. I’m sure there were better coaches who if they’d stayed the same length of time would be in the same position I am.”

Then again, maybe they didn’t have the constitution for crisis.

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