COACHING TREE

The legacy of hall of fame basketball coach Irv Dieterle

Retired Coach Irv Dieterle, a member of the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame as well as the Michigan High School Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame, stays involved in the game. Here he is shown (standing) in the huddle with Head Coach Kurt Corcoran and the Westwood High School girls basketball team during a timeout at a recent game. (Photo by Michael Murray)

 

By Michael Murray

The Westwood High School girls basketball team leads Marquette in the fourth quarter of a game in mid-February, but its advantage is shrinking. Marquette’s half-court trap is causing problems for the Patriots, and Westwood coach Kurt Corcoran, pacing in front of his team’s bench, yells instructions to his players on the court and then turns to consult the most overqualified assistant coach in the state.
Irv Dieterle has seen it all. The 70-something Virginia native spent 28 years as the boys varsity head coach at Westwood, winning 10 district, nine conference and four regional titles. Two of his teams advanced to the state semifinals, and he is a member of two halls of fame. In a varsity coaching career that included six schools, he posted a 555-260 record.
But those numbers reveal only a part of Dieterle’s legacy. Behind the statistics and championships are the dozens of players whose lives he influenced both on and off the court, including at least 25 who followed him into coaching at the collegiate or high-school varsity levels.
When asked his thoughts on why so many of his former players became coaches, Dieterle emphasized the culture he created. “I was here for a long time,” he said, “and we were able to build a good program by doing things the right way. These guys got to experience a winning program, and when they left they had the same principles.
“We really worked hard on fundamentals, and we taught discipline. If you look at these coaches [who played at Westwood], they’ve all got great discipline. So I think they had a pretty good foundation. When I watch their teams, I see the discipline and fundamentals first of all. I can tell when I walk into a gym if a team has been taught good fundamentals—just by watching them shoot in warm-ups.”
Among Dieterle’s players currently coaching are two in the collegiate ranks—Kevin Luke, the Michigan Tech men’s head coach, and Troy Mattson, head coach of the Northern Michigan women’s team—along with four varsity coaches at Marquette County high schools: Dan Waterman (Negaunee boys), Brad Nelson (Marquette boys), Ryan Reichel (Ishpeming girls) and Corcoran, whose Westwood girls held off Marquette for a victory. As they prepare for March Madness, here are their thoughts on Dieterle and the lessons they learned playing for him:

Kevin Luke, WHS Class of 1977
Luke is in his 25th season leading the men’s program at Michigan Tech, where he played for three years. He has won a school-record 433 games as of mid-February along with five conference championships and eight trips to the NCAA tournament. Before moving to Tech as an assistant, Luke coached under Dieterle.
“He gave me a great foundation, both in fundamentals and how he thought about the game,” said Luke, who was a senior during Dieterle’s first Westwood team in 1976-77. “And he was a major influence on my coaching early on. We talked a lot of basketball. There were times when I would think, ‘How in the world would the big guy handle this?’ … The guys from Westwood who got into coaching love basketball, they have a respect for the sport, they wanted to get better as players—and Irv helped them advance in that effort.”
Over the years, Luke recruited a number of Westwood athletes to play for the Huskies. “You could tell those guys had been coached,” he said. “They were fundamentally sound coming in. They’d been taught how to defend, how to shoot, how to pay attention to detail. They could handle adversity and bounce back.”
After Dieterle retired in 2003, he worked for a year as an assistant under Luke, while still living in West Ishpeming. “The year Irv was here,” he said, “we were 22-8. He would tell people he was 22-0 that year and Luke was 0-8. When he had input, he said, we were undefeated; when he didn’t have input, we didn’t win any. It was fun to have him here.”

Troy Mattson, WHS Class of 1981
Mattson is in his 14th season as head coach of the women’s team at NMU, his alma mater. He picked up his 200th career victory on February 14.
“Irv was and still is extremely passionate about basketball,” Mattson said. “It was really important in his life, it was important in my family’s life, so that was the connection from the get-go. He was a great person to play high-school basketball for. His complete passion and love for the game of basketball was a draw for me to enhance my game even more.”
Mattson said some high-school coaches stick to one system regardless of their players’ abilities, but Dieterle matched his system to his personnel: “He was very adaptable to the teams he had and the players he had around him. Irv has always adapted to his players.”
Mattson added: “We haven’t talked much in the past couple of years, but he knows I love him and I know he loves me.”

Dan Waterman, WHS Class of 1994
Waterman is in his 12th year as a varsity head coach and his fifth at Negaunee. He played for Luke at Tech and coached under Dieterle at Westwood and under Dean Ellis at NMU.
“Irv’s ability to relate things in basketball to the rest of life struck a chord with a lot of us,” Waterman said. “That ability, along with his knowledge about the game, helped him build a culture at Westwood where little kids looked forward to playing for him.”
Dieterle’s emphasis on fundamentals and discipline have stayed with Waterman. “He’s the best teacher of fundamentals I’ve ever seen, in any sport,” he said. “I learned so much playing for him, and my formative years as a coach were under him.”
Waterman was the point guard on the first Westwood team to qualify for the state semifinals, in 1994. Preparing for a game against Iron Mountain that year, Dieterle warned his unbeaten team not to try to run with the Mountaineers. Waterman said, “Well, we thought we could run with them, and we tried to run, and we got blown out at home. Irv said, ‘I told you.’”
The Patriots learned the lesson. The biggest win of the season was a shocker over nationally ranked Saginaw Buena Vista in the state quarterfinals. “We didn’t beat them by running up and down the court,” Waterman said. “It was slow and methodical.”
Westwood had a history of excellent point guards under Dieterle—Mattson (NMU), Tony Koski (Lake Superior State) and Mike Bjorne (MTU) all played collegiately—and Waterman heard about them often in practice. He said, “It was always, ‘Troy Mattson would have done this,’ or ‘Mike Bjorne wouldn’t have done that.’ When I went to Tech, I called my brother Ben a week into practice to see how it was going. He said, ‘I don’t know what you did, but you’ve sure got better since you left.’ Irv was telling him, ‘Dan Waterman would have had you guys by the jersey if he saw you playing this way.’”

Brad Nelson, WHS Class of 1999
“I can summarize Irv with one statement: You work hard,” said Nelson, who is in his 11th season as the boys varsity head coach at Marquette. “Whether in life or basketball, you work hard for everything you’ve got. If you work hard, you can achieve it. That’s something I preach to my guys, and I’m sure Dan and Kevin Luke and Troy Mattson preach the same thing. If you want something, you’ve got to earn it, and that’s what Irv taught.
“I got into coaching and … all of the stuff Irv always talked about came back to me, and I found myself saying the same things.”
Nelson said the offensive game has changed since he played for Dieterle, but he still employs some of the same concepts he learned as a player. The aspect that translates most easily is defense. “The number that Irv always talked about was 45,” he said. “If you hold a team to 45 points, you’ll probably win—and I still say the same thing.”
He added, “Irv is a legend. He’s done so much for basketball in the U.P. I can’t say enough about him. He’s still in the gym, still helping with teams—which shows how much he loves the game.”

Kurt Corcoran, WHS Class of 2002
“Irv created a basketball culture here that people would be envious of,” said Corcoran, who is in his seventh year as girls varsity head coach at Westwood. “When we were kids, we were down at the [Ishpeming Township] courts every day. We could not wait to play for Irv Dieterle. He would drive by the courts, and we would pick up a ball and make sure he saw us shooting.”
Corcoran said Dieterle was a perfectionist who prepared his teams well and demanded their best. When Corcoran was playing, the Patriots had four-page scouting reports for every opponent. “There was a paragraph of tendencies for every starter plus their first three off the bench,” he said. “And we had two pages of diagrammed plays. Was it overkill? Probably, but we studied those things like it was our algebra test.”
Corcoran remembers one game when Westwood’s players knew the opposing team’s offense better than the opponents: “They had the ball, and some of their guys didn’t know what they were doing. We said, ‘You gotta screen down,’ and they were like, ‘How do you know that?’ … How can you not learn the game in that system?”
The former Westwood players, Corcoran said, are not trying to be Irv Dieterle: “We try to be ourselves and take the best parts of what we learned playing for him.”
Now Dieterle is his most trusted adviser, the most overqualified assistant basketball coach in Michigan. “Irv is one of my very best friends in life now,” Corcoran said. “I love sitting with him, having a cup of coffee, talking basketball, talking about life. I love having him to bounce ideas off. I love the guy.”

Ryan Reichel, WHS Class of 2003
Reichel is in his eighth year as a varsity head coach and his fourth as the girls varsity coach at Ishpeming. He was a leader on the second Westwood team to advance to the state semifinals, in 2003, and later played at NMU.
“Irv didn’t coach basketball, he taught it,” Reichel said. “And one of the great things he taught is the passion for basketball, the commitment to basketball. If you are passionate and committed, you can be successful. I think a lot of the guys who played for him had a great experience, and he taught them so much about the game and life, and they wanted to keep competing and give back to the game.”
One element of Dieterle’s philosophy that Reichel has adopted in his own coaching is an emphasis on scouting. “If you expect your players to give their best,” he said, “then you as a coach have to give your best. So that comes out in film study, in being in the gym watching other games, in dissecting what the other team is trying to do, being as prepared as you can be. … By the end of the season, my girls know the other teams’ blood types.”
Reichel also pointed out an overlooked contributor to Dieterle’s success: his wife, Nancy. “Without a strong, supportive wife, it’s very difficult to build a successful program,” he said. “Nancy took care of Irv’s players when they were upset and provided a lot of support behind the scenes. … Nancy gave up her husband a lot of winters. She deserves a lot of credit. Without her support, Irv wouldn’t be the legend that he is.”

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