RACINE — After 661 career wins and eight state titles, Bob Letsch, decided it was time to end a 37-year career as the boys’ varsity head coach for Racine St. Catherine High School. Letsch, 73, has been a member of the school for 55 years as a student, teacher and coach.
Letsch who was inducted into the Wisconsin State Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010 has the second highest record for career victories in Wisconsin history.
“Every year before the season starts, he takes the team into a classroom and writes on the chalkboard ‘Here are your priorities in life,’ God comes first, then your family, your school work, then basketball and your social life; if you ever get those things mixed up or turned around, you’re probably going to have a lot of trouble. That perspective rings true whether it’s the high school-level, college-level or the NBA-level,” said Jim McIlvaine, a former player for Letsch who went on to play for Marquette University and in the NBA for seven seasons. “It’s great to have a coach, even if you’ve been on his team for two to three years, he still sits you down and reminds you this is the priority and order you should have in your life.”
After graduating from St. Catherine in 1961, Letsch attended St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, where he studied education and played baseball and basketball. He also met his wife, Karen, with whom he had three boys.
“She was a cheerleader, a couple of guys got me a date with her because I was thinking about leaving and going to Whitewater,” said Letsch. “We went out, had a good time and started dating and then we got married in June of 1964.”
In 1965, Letsch returned to St. Catherine to teach physical education and history and coach freshman football, basketball and baseball. From 1972 to 1980, he was the head varsity football coach with a 50-16 record and three conference titles. He also managed varsity baseball from 1970 to 1976 and 1983 to 1989, winning six state titles with a career record of 175-76-1. In 1979, Letsch became the head varsity basketball coach after his former coach and mentor, John McGuire, retired.
“If you asked me what my favorite sport to coach is you’d be surprised but I’m not going to tell you,” said Letsch. “I loved all three (sports) but I couldn’t coach all the sports and teach.”
Letsch credits his successful coaching career to his former high school coaches, including basketball coach McGuire, football coach Ed Race and baseball manager Pat Long.
“Each guy was successful in the sports that they coached and I took the lessons they taught to heart,” said Letsch. “People won’t believe this but I was doing some of the same things that John McGuire was doing as a coach. I tweaked a few things but the philosophy was the same.”
Letsch also cites the importance of having mature and dependable players, most notably when his wife was dying of breast cancer in 2004.
“After Karen died, I was going to quit teaching and coaching and sell my house because there were too many memories. My doctor said don’t do anything for a year,” said Letsch. “Then my players came to me and said ‘Coach don’t leave, we’ll be good for you, we’ll work hard and win,’ we went 26-1 and won our first state title in the WIAA in 2005. If I didn’t have my faith, I don’t know.”
Letsch retired from teaching in 2010 but continued to coach basketball. In spring 2014, Letsch needed his players and his faith when his coaching contract wasn’t renewed.
“On Monday, the students were marching outside the school before class, then that night there were about 300 people marching in the rain, the school board had an emergency meeting and on Tuesday I was offered a new contract,” said Letsch. “I accepted it, I would’ve been done but the players and students wanted me back to coach.”
Letsch decided it was time to retire after the 2016 season due to health related issues.
“I don’t think I could really do justice because of my health. I got a bad back and had surgery, my legs and feet are numb and my balance isn’t good. I said you got a nice young guy there now (to coach), Nick Bennett, three of my former players are on the staff. So I was OK with retiring,” said Letsch.
Letsch reflected that he was never interested in coaching at the college-level because he didn’t want to be far away from his family due to the rigorous travel schedule for recruiting. He also cited that he never wanted to work anywhere else other than St. Catherine.
“I love St. Cat’s, I really miss that relationship and association with the students and faculty,” said Letsch. “I had fun working with the kids all my life, they called me the big teddy bear because I was strict and stern but I also had that soft side.”
In commemoration for Letsch’s successful career, the Racine County Board issued a proclamation that declared Nov. 26, 2016, to be “Bob Letsch Day,” where he was honored at the St. Catherine varsity basketball game that evening.
While Letsch adjusts to his new life in retirement, he helps take care of his mother, 98, who lives two miles from his home in Racine. He attends Mass at his parish, St. Paul the Apostle. All of the basketball games that he coached are recorded to DVDs, but he only watches the state title games. He also enjoys seeing his grandchildren play sports, four of whom currently play for St. Catherine.
“I really enjoyed what I did my whole life,” said Letsch. “God was really good to me, he kept me in a place where I loved to go to work every day.”