Kee baseball coach Gene Schultz brings legendary career to completion

Legendary Kee baseball coach Gene Schultz stands beside a case in his home that holds the baseballs representing each of his 100-milestone victories prior to career win number 1,700 recorded early in the 2013 season. Schultz announced his retirement from his legendary 45-year career at the helm of the Hawk diamond program last week, completing a career record of 1,754-398.

It's been labeled the "end of an era." But the man it means the most to calls it "the beginning of a new chapter."
Gene Schultz, the legendary coach of Kee High School baseball for the past 45 years and the nation's all-time winningest high school baseball coach, had his retirement from that long-time helm made official Monday, August 18 with the acceptance of his letter of resignation by the Eastern Allamakee Community School District Board of Directors at its regular monthly meeting. That retirement brings to a close a coaching career likely never to be rivaled with an overall record of 1,754 wins against just 398 losses, but also opens the door to a number of other possibilities for Schultz and his family.
"It was time to come to this decision," Schultz said. "And it's not because I don't want to coach baseball anymore, but more because there are so many other things that I want to do and will now have more time to do. I'm going to just relax for a while, get settled into our new home in La Crescent (MN), our first grandchild is coming along in the near future, and I just plan to enjoy some quality time with the years I have left. I'm also going to try to figure out what this game of golf is all about, and that should certainly keep me on my toes."
That move to La Crescent, MN within this past year has allowed for his wife, Julie, to have her drive time to work dwindled significantly, something Schultz says is long overdue for her and well-deserved. "For 37 years my wife drove from Lansing to Gundersen where she works, and with our move to La Crescent this past year I've gotten a small taste of what she's had to go through with that drive for the past 37 years," Schultz said. "That drive for me this summer back to New Albin, and even all the way back to Lansing early in the season because we played our home games in Lansing until the field in New Albin was ready, certainly wears on you. And it's probably time for someone else to take over and enjoy the program that has given so much to me. They say all good things must come to an end. Well, it's time for someone else to experience more good things with this program."
Although Coach Schultz did not want to speculate on who might have that opportunity, he did say that a likely place to start looking would be within the existing coaching staff. "It's not going to be up to me, that's a decision the school district will be making," he said, adding that he'd be glad to provide any input into that decision if asked.
Bob Wellendorf, a former assistant coach under Schultz and Kee High School Athletic Director, as well as a long-time friend, says replacement of a coach like Schultz is not an enviable position. "That's a huge role to try and fill," Wellendorf said. "It could be a great opportunity for the right individual, but it will be difficult to find a replacement with as much dedication and knowledge of the game. They threw away that mold after they made Gene."
Wellendorf said he initially met the eventual legendary coach when Schultz first came to Lansing in 1969, and then first coached under him in the early 1980s as a baseball and basketball assistant before becoming Kee's athletic director prior to his own retirement. "What an amazing opportunity for me," Wellendorf said. "I know I would not have ended up where I did if not for him. He taught me so much, his knowledge of baseball, basketball - all sports, really - is just incredible."
Wellendorf said his initial reaction to Schultz's retirement decision was one of surprise. "I thought maybe he would hang in there at least one more year, I know he wanted to try and see the (Shooky Fink) field project to completion," he said. "But I also know that there are other things he wants to do in life, and now he'll have more time to do those things."

Likewise surprised was another area baseball coach of legendary status who sits just behind Schultz on the nation's all-time career coaching victories list for high school baseball. Fifty-plus-year Decorah High School baseball coach Dennis Olejniczak said of Schultz's decision to retire, "I was somewhat surprised when I first heard and read that Coach Schultz had announced his retirement, knowing how much he loves the game. But he has certainly earned his retirement from coaching baseball. I am honored to extend my congratulations to Gene on his retirement."
With Olejniczak's 1,341 career coaching victories second only to Schultz at the national level, and likely to never overtake that record, the long-time Decorah skipper has developed a tremendous amount of respect for his veteran colleague. "Without a doubt, Gene has had a tremendous impact on the quality of baseball in the state of Iowa at the high school level," Olejniczak commented. "He had a way of preparing his teams in such a manner that they would never beat themselves. You always had to play some of your best baseball in order to beat Kee High because they were always confident in what they were capable of doing. I always enjoyed the opportunity to coach against Coach Schultz, and we truly enjoy the rivalry that's been created between the two teams because it's always meant good baseball."
With recent tradition being Kee and Decorah opening their respective seasons facing off against one another, Olenjiczak says it will "certainly be different" looking across the diamond in next summer's season opener and not seeing "#10" standing in the third base coaching box. But he certainly expects the rivalry and the tradition of good baseball in the Kee High School communities to continue.
"I expect that the Lansing and New Albin communities will continue to want to carry on the tradition of Kee High baseball," he said. "It's been a long-standing tradition in those communities, and Coach Schultz has certainly done his share in establishing that tradition and keeping it foremost in the community. When I think of the communities of Lansing and New Albin, I think of two things - fishing and baseball!"
When asked what it is that allows for coaches like himself and Schultz to not only remain in their respective positions for so many years, but to also experience the kind of success that has lofted them to the nation's top two coaching victory totals, Olenjiczak replied, "First and foremost, a love of the game, and within that the challenge that the game of baseball provides. It's not an easy game to play, skill-wise, but coaches like Gene and myself know that it's probably even tougher mentally to play the game of baseball, than physically.
"Secondly, an appreciation for the kids who play the game for you. If you haven't loved the kids who take the field for you, then you'll never stay at it. What a treat it is for coaches like us to be able to coach the sons of fathers who also played for us, and to be rewarded for all the hard work these kids have put in with the kind of success a program like Kee High has had. I'm sure Gene is just like me in that he never anticipated staying in the game, and especially in one place, for so long, but, again, that goes back to the love of the game, the players who take the field for you, and the communities that support you."
In reflecting just over a year ago as he was approaching the 1,700th coaching victory of his career at the start of the 2013 season, Schultz gave a great deal of credit for the success he has experienced to the baseball foundation laid out by his "unofficial assistant coach," Harris "Shooky" Fink, within the little league and school-aged kids in New Albin. "He'd throw batting practice or hit ground balls to kids as soon as they were big enough to keep a glove on their hand or lift a bat," Schultz remarked in his pre-1,700 wins reflection.
Schultz further declared that New Albin's baseball success also fueled a rivalry-like similar result in nearby Lansing, further enhancing the resources he has drawn from during his 45-year tenure at the Kee baseball helm. Schultz has admitted that it's that perceived rivalry, along with the combining of St. George and Kee high schools in Lansing, that helped jump start his career early on, beginning with his greatest memory of his 1973 team that won him his first-ever state championship with an undefeated season record of 48-0 in the first season that both the St. George and Kee students were combined into one school and on one team.
That 1973 state title was the first of a still existing state of Iowa record nine summer state championships for Schultz, a number that no other coach has equaled and that only Davenport Assumption has equaled as a program, that happening at the end of this recently completed 2014 season. Additional Iowa high school baseball records still intact for Coach Schultz include 19 summer state tournament appearances resulting in a 32-10 state tournament record, with 16 of those trips resulting in the Hawks playing their way into the state championship game, including their most recent Class 1A State Runner-Up finish in 2011 and their most recent state championship in 2005. Schultz also coached Kee to four state championship game appearances during Iowa's fall baseball season, winning two more titles in 1977 and 1978 before the fall season was halted.
Nearly half of those summer state championships make for another of Schultz's greatest highlights, as his Hawks won four consecutive titles from 1989-1992, with Kee pitcher Kip Peters still being the only Iowa high school player to ever record four state championship pitching victories. "I don't think that's something that will ever be equaled, and I doubt that it ever has in the nation and maybe even the world," Schultz said of Peters' four consecutive state championship pitching triumphs.
When reflecting on their own experiences just over a year ago when Coach Schultz was approaching his 1,700-win milestone, Peters is among the many former Kee players who used such phrases as "mentally ready", "fundamentals" and "teamwork" when describing what they felt was Coach Schultz's keys to the success that he has experienced with his teams over the years. But, beyond their playing experiences, most all also turned similar phrases, such as "he believed in me", "he treated you with the respect you earned", and "he was strict, but he was fair," when asked how their former coach impacted their lives beyond baseball.
Wellendorf echoed those same sentiments as something he witnessed between Schultz and his players while serving as his assistant and then as Kee's athletic director. "They respected him for who he was and what he expected from them," Wellendorf said of how Schultz's players often responded to him. "They understood that he demanded discipline, but he did it in a way that always seemed to bring the best out of each player. In many cases, he seemed like a god to them."
Additionally, from both his former assistant coaching and athletic director positions, Wellendorf also recalls Schultz's demanding but fair adherence to scheduling games for his team. "Gene always liked to play a 40-game schedule," Wellendorf recalls. "I remember one year we qualified for the State Tournament, but we had only been able to play 38 games during the regular season because of weather cancellations. Well, on the way to the State Tournament, we had to stop in Oelwein just to play another game. But, he was always easy to work with because he would play pretty much any team pretty much any time, especially when it came to making up games or replacing games that had been cancelled."
Wellendorf also remembers, with a chuckle, one of the most humorous conversations he ever had with Schultz. "I think it was the late 80s, we had to play St. Ansgar in a substate game," Wellendorf relayed with a smile in his voice. "Gene was going on about how he hated playing 'these parochial schools,' and I looked at him and said, 'Gene, St. Ansgar is the name of the town, it's not a Catholic school'."
No matter the opponent, parochial school or public school, large or small, Wellendorf says Schultz was always known for having his teams ready to play against anyone. "They may get beat by a better team, but they were never going to beat themselves with errors or because they couldn't throw strikes," Wellendorf said. "That's how Gene always prepared his teams, being fundamentally sound and mentally ready to face whatever situation was thrown at them."
In his reflective/deflective manner, Schultz is always quick to point the success finger right back at the players who took the field for him. "I've been fortunate to have a tremendous number of kids who have made the commitment to play the great game of baseball like I thought it should be played," he shared. "One of the most gratifying things for me is when I see my former players and they make comments like 'I sure wish I could put the uniform on and play for you again.' That is the greatest success I could ever hope to accomplish."
"It's been a great 45 years, and I would like to thank everyone who has ever been involved that has helped our baseball program realize the kind of success that we've had," Schultz finalized. "That's everyone from the school system, the parents, the players, the community, it's all been instrumental in making Kee High baseball what it's become. I'm very thankful for having been along for the ride!"