CUSTER -- Above all else, Larry Luitjens is a believer.
The 69-year-old Custer High School boys basketball coach unfailingly trusts his players and is unshakably confident in his disciplined defensive system. It is hard to question those tenets as Luitjens has amassed a South Dakota record 721 wins to go with 30 district titles and seven state championships in his 44 seasons as a high school head coach in three schools.
There is an unwavering response, too, when he is asked how much longer he thinks he will bark orders, fidget with his trusty bifocals and mentor young men.
When the time comes to step away, Luitjens said his gut will let him know.
But it is not talking yet.
The competitive fire still burns inside the Britton native. It has since the age of 5, when Luitjens would run down the street and play with the neighborhood kids on a gravel driveway at the nearest basketball hoop.
It stayed with him throughout his college years in the early 1960s at Northern State University under legendary coach Bob Wachs. His love for defense blossomed at De Smet High School in eastern South Dakota when his teams played in three consecutive state title games from 1969 to 1971, winning two of them.
“No, no, I probably didn’t like it really well back in college,” Luitjens said of defensive schemes. “I realized the importance of it, though, when I began coaching. I’ve been fortunate to have plenty of athletic kids, even when I was first a JV coach at Webster. They all got after it. Pressing, running, working on defense, they’ve all liked it.
“At least they told me they did.”
That passion will be on display tonight at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center when Custer (15-6) takes on Red Cloud (14-7) in a bid to give Luitjens his 31st district crown.
For all of his well-known energy, though, Luitjens is at his best when he is calm, said assistant coach Paul Kelley.
“He teaches them to be disciplined and to handle pressure situations,” said Kelley, who played under Luitjens from 1985 until 1988. “They’re still mainstays of his today. If you notice on the bench, he’s not the type to lose his temper too often with the officials. He stays calm because he wants the kids to be calm. He’s big, too, on making sure you can’t display any type of negative body language.”
Now the important conversations are quiet ones. Take Tuesday’s practice at the Custer High School gym, for example. Luitjens was not pleased with his group’s first-half effort – the team was up by 15 points – in its 77-40 district-opening win against Hot Springs on Monday night. But instead of lambasting his Wildcats, Luitjens called over each of his seven primary varsity players and had individual conversations with them.
Seated in a rolling chair — Luitjens occasionally battles flare-ups of lupus and tries to avoid constantly standing — he instructs, advises and then pats each of his players on the back while sharing lessons learned over a lifetime.
“They’ve gotten the message,” he said, after scooting over to a corner of the court and smiling wryly. What passed for an easy victory Monday night wouldn’t work from here on out.
Senior guard Chad Bryant received Luitjens’ general message a long time ago.
“He’ll let you know. He’ll look right at you. It’s hard to look at him when you know you’re in trouble,” said Bryant, referencing a transgression from a freshman summer camp that still is etched in his memory. But he quickly recalled an instance where Luitjens picked up his spirit in a key moment.
“In last year’s district game against Pine Ridge, I was like 0-for-8 at halftime. And he talked to me, gave me a few words and I scored several baskets to start the second half,” Bryant recalled. “… His experiences make you a believer.”
Luitjens’ experiences also helped him remain open to new ideas. Lance Luitjens, who was a South Dakota Mr. Basketball in 1992 and helped the Wildcats to four consecutive Class A state championship games, said his father is always willing to devise a new winning strategy.
“He’s still a student of the game,” said Lance, who is a girls’ assistant coach and an assistant principal at Legend High School in Parker, Colo. “He knows the game is changing just as much as anybody else. If he can steal an idea from someone, whether they’re 25 or 75, he’s gonna do it if it gives him an edge.”
Luitjens’ .715 career winning percentage, among the best in the state for active coaches with 200 or more victories, would indicate that he has maintained that edge for much of his career. He will probably still have it until he decides to give up the position and move into full retirement; he stepped down as Custer High School principal several years ago.
Luitjens doesn’t know when he will step away, but he likely knows how. If health isn’t the deciding factor, then wanting to see more of his two growing Colorado granddaughters — seventh-grader Brooke and fifth-grader Summer — will be.
“I know that I’m very fortunate to have been here for a long time and have had success over the years,” he said. “We haven’t had all that much success, relatively speaking, over the past eight or nine years. But the kids believe. They believe in me and believe in what I say.”
And Luitjens will remain a firm believer, in both himself and his program, until the last.