It was a story that unfolded like something out of a Hollywood movie.
Amid intense public outrage, the St. Catherine’s High School school board reinstated legendary boys basketball coach Bob Letsch Tuesday, just four days after he was shockingly dismissed by school president Christopher Olley.
The 70-year old Letsch has been a fixture at the Racine school for decades, having coached or taught there for the past 49 years. Letsch has compiled a remarkable 633-230 in his 35 seasons as the Angels’ head coach, making him the second-winningest coach in Wisconsin prep basketball history (behind only Cuba City’s Jerry Petitgoue).
After a tremendous playing career at St. Catherine’s, Letsch graduated from the school in 1961, going on to play both basketball and baseball at St. Mary’s University in Texas. He would later return to his alma mater, teaching social studies and physical education while also serving as an assistant basketball coach.
When legendary coach John McGuire (who went 541-158 and won six state titles in his 25 years with the Angels) retired in 1979, Letsch had the daunting task of being tapped as his successor.
However, he proved to be more than up to the task, winning eight state titles during his tenure. This includes three through the Wisconsin Independent Schools Athletic Association (1985, 1992, 1993) and a remarkable five in six years through the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010).
Letsch, who has also won six state titles as the Angels’ baseball coach, was recognized for his outstanding accomplishments by being inducted into the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2010, and into the Racine County Sports Hall of Fame in 2013.
Considering all he’s done for the school, it’s no surprise that students and fans alike were stunned when the school announced his dismissal. School administrators remained mostly silent after the announcement was made, only releasing the following brief, vague statement Saturday night that raised more questions than it answered:
St. Catherine’s President Christopher Olley has announced that the school and longtime boys’ varsity basketball coach Bob Letsch have parted ways. The importance of Bob’s contributions to SCHS as both a coach and former teacher cannot be overstated. The school thanks him for his thirty-plus years of service to thousands of students and players. As with all personnel matters, St. Catherine’s cannot disclose any details no matter the situation.
Letsch offered some insight into the situation, stating that he had a fairly shaky relationship with both President Olley and athletic director Corey Scheel, which finally came to a head last Friday.
“The president of our school (Christopher Olley) wanted me to retire and I said I wanted to keep on coaching,” Letsch said. “So then he said he would non-renew me as coach so I said you go ahead and non-renew me as coach.”
The announcement caused an immediate uproar from the community, with fans, alumni, and students voicing their support for Letsch, while multiple former players expressed their disbelief and disappointment in his firing.
Union Grove head coach Dave Pettit, who played at St. Catherine’s from 1985 to 1987, expressed his disappointment with the school, noting Letsch’s accomplishments as a role model in addition to his coaching.
“It’s a shame,” Pettit said. “He’s done a lot of things for that school and not just with basketball. I don’t know the details of what happened, but he’s been an ideal role model whether he was coaching or teaching. A lot of people looked up to him.”
Jim McIlvaine, who played with the Angels from 1987 to 1990, was Letsch’s most notable player, having played at Marquette, followed by a seven-year career in the NBA. He also voiced his sheer disbelief at the beloved coach’s dismissal.
“I guess my feelings are, if it’s possible, between shocked and stunned. He’s not just an icon at the school but an icon of the community,” McIlvaine said. “For as long as I can remember, it’s been coach Letsch and St. Catherine’s.”
Following a weekend of confusion and anger, the St. Catherine’s community decided to take action Monday, with roughly 85 students participating in a rally in the morning. This was followed with another rally that night, during which about 200 people braved thunderstorms and a tornado warning to protest the decision to fire Letsch.
Actions like that led to the school board calling an emergency meeting Monday night to address the tense situation surrounding St. Catherine’s. When reached by email late Monday night, Olley insisted that nothing had changed, but that turned out to be false.
The Racine Journal Times reported Tuesday afternoon that the school board unanimously decided to reinstate Letsch as coach, releasing the following statement to the paper:
While the Corporate Board of St. Catherine’s does not typically participate in personnel matters, we regret that the board was not involved in the administration’s decision not to renew the annual contract of Mr. Bob Letsch. In accordance with the board’s obligation to review and take action on certain personnel matters, and considering the best interests of St. Catherine’s, the board directs that the administration offer Mr. Letsch a one year contract to coach the St. Catherine’s varsity boys basketball team for the 2014-2015 season.
Letsch immediately accepted the offer and expressed his excitement to continue to coach the Angels, but also noted that Olley and Scheel weren’t the only ones at fault in the entire situation.
“We got into arguments and our president told me not to do that anymore and I did it,” Letsch said. “I hope that people realize that there’s mistakes made on both ends, mostly mine, that forced them into doing what they had to do.”
Now that the ordeal is over, it will be interesting to see if school administrators can check their egos at the door now that their decision has been overturned by the school board. Whether or not they do remains to be seen, but this much is clear:
Bob Letsch is still the head basketball coach at St. Catherine’s, and that’s bad news for the rest of the Metro Classic Conference.