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He's seen it all: Cubs coach's career includes mentor's death

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Jerry Bomholt has a longstanding practice of speaking to his former mentor every time one of his teams is about to take the basketball court.

The dialogue, though decidedly one-sided, is important to the first-year boys coach at Franklin Community High School.

It’s why Bomholt takes a moment to go off by himself to chat with Bob Fuller, who, come January, will have been gone 33 years.

An assistant coach at Anderson Highland during the 1979-80 season, Bomholt was walking behind the Scots’ head coach when Fuller died of a heart attack at age 46. It was halftime of a game at Lapel, and the men had just entered the visitors’ locker room.

For a man capable of recalling names, skill sets and scoring averages of players at all junctures of his 32-year coaching career, this is the memory least likely to go away.

“I lost, when I look at it selfishly, the best friend I ever had in coaching,” said Bomholt, 59. “And it showed me what can happen to you with all the stress in this profession if you don’t take care of yourself.”

The tearful aftermath of Fuller’s passing included a promise from Bomholt to his then-new bride, Dee Dee. He would not allow coaching to consume him to the point where it endangered his health.

Thirty-three years, 432 victories and seven varsity jobs later, Bomholt has stuck to his word. This isn’t to say his passion for the game or pursuit of triumph has waned since his head coaching career in effect began that horrific night in Lapel.

Playing for Bomholt isn’t a walk in the park. He’s a perfectionist and self-admittedly demanding. These traits, along with a 1-2-2 zone defense and three-guard offense, are the common threads of every squad he coaches, including the 2012-13 version of the Grizzly Cubs.

“It’s difficult for them, and they’ve done an unbelievable job of trying to please me. The thing these kids need to learn is how to practice. I have said for years our team plays like it practices. They’re still not consistent, but they’re getting better,” said Bomholt, whose squad lost its season-opener at Center Grove 62-53.

“It’s learning how to play defense and the value of a possession. But we have great team chemistry, and all these kids want to do is win. Right now we’re a lot better than we were the first day of practice, and we’ll be better two weeks from now than we are now. And we’ll be better two weeks after that.”

Having a team heat up as outside temperatures grow colder is another Bomholt characteristic. His 1997-98 Southwestern (Hanover) group, for instance, rebounded from a 2-5 start to venture all the way to the Class 2A title game at the RCA Dome before losing to Alexandria 57-43.

Bomholt-coached teams average nearly 14 victories per season, a stat that might be more impressive than the 11 sectional championship squads he’s coached.

From Southwestern, a school oddly located in the state’s southeastern corner, Bomholt in 2002 went on to coach basketball at nearby Madison Shawe High School while also serving as its principal. Bomholt averaged 15 wins in nine seasons and captured four Class A sectionals. He cited burnout, no doubt remembering what happened to Fuller, and chose not to lead the Hilltoppers during the 2011-12 season.

Truth be known, Bomholt figured the gut-wrenching 64-61 regional loss to University — decided on a 60-foot heave at the buzzer — to conclude the 2010-11 season would be it for him. At least when it came to coaching basketball.

Then a not-so-strange thing happened last winter. Bomholt discovered he’s not the spectator type. He badly missed practices, games and the interaction sewn into both.

“I thought Shawe was my last stop. But (Franklin athletics director) Kip (Staggs) and (his assistant) Scott Knapp talked me into it,” Bomholt said, laughing. “I’m glad they did. The facilities and dedication we have here at every level, (basketball) is important here.

“If I was going to resurface somewhere, it had to be where basketball is important. But this is it.”

Translation: Bomholt will be coaching Franklin, or not at all.

Whenever he decides to hang up the practice whistle for good, it’s difficult not to be impressed by what Bomholt has accomplished since graduating from Ball State University in 1975.

“My first job was at Peru High School. I got hired as a math teacher, head cross-country coach, freshman basketball coach and assistant track coach. I made $8,000 a year and thought I was rich. I was single, and my rent was $75 a month,” Bomholt said. “I was really fortunate, because the first guy I work for is Bob Macy. Two years later, I’m an assistant for coach Fuller, who was one of the best defensive coaches around.

“The guys I was associated with back then allowed me to ask a lot of questions, and they would give me their insight.”

The pupil is all grown up now, a man experiencing the twilight of a successful coaching career.

Somewhere Bob Fuller is watching. And smiling.

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