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Bill Fitch

Bill Fitch: It Takes a Great Coach To Lose 1,106 Games in the NBA

Born in Davenport, Iowa, and a graduate of Cedar Rapids' Wilson High School, Bill Fitch came to Coe as a student in 1950, where he had substantial success as a baseball and basketball player.  An all-state guard in high school, Fitch was originally recruited by the University of Kansas to play basketball, but he enlisted underage in the Marines after the outbreak of the Korean War.  His age–and his father’s intervention--kept him from the ranks, however, and instead he came to Coe.

Marv Levy, another alum who would have great success as a coach of professional athletes, was an assistant basketball coach at Coe when Fitch was a Kohawk.   He describes Fitch as "a great competitor, very fiery."  Another coach, Theron "Tommy" Thomsen, who coached Fitch during his junior and senior years at Coe, also recognized Fitch’s mental sharpness and felt he “had the makings of a coach right from the start.  He was a coach on the floor and he knew the game.  He was smart and he was always trying to figure out a better way to do something."  Thomsen called him game-wise, the playmaker.  "The only thing he couldn't do was shoot free throws.  He was terrible and we tried everything with him."  The team finished second in a regional NAIA Tournament in 1954, Fitch's senior year.  Fitch averaged 15.4 points that season and was selected for the All-Midwest Conference squad.

Fitch also excelled at baseball, playing catcher and hitting over .300 for the Kohawks.  After graduation from Coe in 1954, he was drafted by a major league baseball team, but Fitch never had the deep love for baseball that he felt for basketball.  Instead of pursuing a professional career, he served in the Army for two years and then went to graduate school at Creighton University, where he joined the coaching staff of Tommy Thomsen, his old Coe mentor.  In 1958 Fitch returned to Coe as Assistant Professor of Physical Education, coaching varsity men's basketball and acquiring a 44-40 won-loss record over the next four years.

Although a tough disciplinarian who demanded total commitment from his players (a character trait that he may have picked up from his father, who had been a Marine drill sergeant), Fitch was also blessed with a zany sense of humor.  For example, during the first half of a game on Coe’s home court, Fitch became extremely frustrated with the Kohawk players’ lack of intensity.  Fitch asked John (Jersey) Jermier, his assistant coach, to talk with the players during the intermission.  According to Jermier, “Bill always said I was the best assistant he ever had, because I didn’t know anything and couldn’t confuse him.”  Jermier entered the dressing room, but had no idea what to tell the players.  Suddenly, Fitch burst into the room, ran up to Jermier, and “shot” him twice in the chest with a starter’s gun used for track meets.  Fitch then told his players, “That should liven you up.”  During the half time of another game with St. Ambrose, Fitch said nothing to his players.  Instead he walked over to a toilet and flushed it five times.  "All right.  There go the starters.  Now give me the second five."

One reason for Fitch’s success as a coach was his belief that coaches need to understand the psychology of their players.  Playing basketball is as much mental as physical.  When he was coaching college players, he would often turn out the lights before a game and talk to his players in the dark.  Jermier also recalls a game when Coe was playing at Carleton and Fitch lined up his starters at halftime and slapped each of them in the face.  “He slapped ‘em hard, too.  One of the guys was an ex-Marine, and I thought Bill was going to get punched back.”

From Coe, Fitch went on to coach basketball teams at the University of North Dakota (where he coached Phil Jackson, who later won multiple NBA titles as player for the Knicks and coach for the Bulls and Lakers), Bowling Green, and Minnesota.  In 1970 Fitch began a long career as an NBA coach, eventually gaining the reputation as one of the greatest turnaround coaches in the history of the game.  His first attempt to pull together a professional team was with the Cleveland Cavaliers, a new expansion team so bad they were nicknamed the Cadavers.  When Fitch left Cleveland nine years later, they had made the playoffs three times. 

Fitch had an even more dramatic success when Red Auerbach hired him to coach the Celtics, a team that had won only 27 games the previous season.  In his first year with Celtics, the Celtics won 61 games, the biggest turnaround in NBA season.  Coaching a squad that included Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, Fitch led the Celtics to three consecutive 60-win seasons and an NBA Championship in 1981.  After Fitch left the Celtics in 1983, he was hired by the Rockets, a perennial loser (winning only 14 games in the 1983 season).  Under Fitch’s coaching the Houston team had four winning seasons in five years, reaching the NBA Finals in 1986 before losing to the Celtics.

After coaching in the NBA for 25 years, Bill Fitch holds the record for coaching the most games in the NBA: 2,050 regular season games.  He also holds the record for having lost more games–1,106 losses–than any other coach and is second in all-time coaching victories with his 944 wins.  Fitch was the first to be named NBA Coach of the Year twice.  Fitch was inducted to Coe's Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999.

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