GREENCASTLE — There he was, pacing the sideline of the basketball court, just like the old days.
It’s funny, sometimes, how people you remember from important moments never seem to change much.
So it is for this writer and Roger Fleetwood.
It’s been 22 years since he coached his last game at Southmont but that doesn’t seem possible, because this soon to be 71-year year old coach sure hasn’t changed much. He paces a little bit in front of his players, gets up off the bench to applaud a player or compliment an official on a call.
There are barely any gray hairs, and that says a lot about a guy who has coached boys basketball continuously since 1972, one of the best gray-hair producing jobs on the planet.
He looks just like he did two decades ago when he coached the Mounties to 119 wins, which is still the most-ever at South.
But these are the last games.
Roger Fleetwood is retiring.
“I love the game as much as I did when I started coaching in 1972,” he said. “It’s been my passion – it’s never been a job. Basketball has been my life. But it is time.”
That decision, as it has been his entire life, is based on his family.
“My wife (Carol) has Parkinson’s, he said. “She needs me more. I have four wonderful grandkids all involved in sports. I need to see them more. My daughter Julie told me that God made it very clear. Both Carol and I got Covid. We lost three of the first four weeks of practice (at Owen Valley where he is the head coach) and now the snow. It’s time.”
Coach Fleetwood was on the Patriots sideline Monday, but it could just as easily have been at Bob Tandy Gymnasium in 1991, the same guy I remember from 20-some years ago, and the radio interviews we did beore and after nearly every game we put on the air. He was one of the easiest interviews ever, because all I needed to do was say 'Hello Coach Fleetwood, what are your thoughts?'
He would cover every facet of what the Mounties needed to do beforehand, and dissected what they did or didn't do afterwards.
It is easy for a solitary reporter or writer to remember a coach in a setting, and with the success that the Mounties had, the relationship with Coach Fleetwood was easily memorable.
What makes this coach continually memorable is that he remembers those nights, sitting on the top row of bleachers at Bob Tandy Gymnasium. He makes it sound and feel like we just finished talking about a game.
His mannerisms are the same, his outward demeanor is the same, so it begged me to find out just how much this coach has changed since he was in our community, is the only Southmont coach with over 100 wins, and is still the only South coach with that elusive sectional championship, captured in 1994, capping a 17-win season, which is also tied for the most wins in a season.
“I’ve adjusted to the times,” he said. “It’ different from (his first head coaching job in) 1978 to today. It’s our culture, our society. Kids are the same – it’s how they are brought up that is so different. I’m more patient now than I was when I was younger, and I have to coach softer. It’s just the way it is.”
“When I grew up, coaches were tougher on athletes, and then they built us up,” he continued. “We sure can’t do that any more, and I don’t know if we can make athletes as good as we used to. I have to bite my lip a lot – we have to be so careful now.”
In his 43rd season as a head coach, from the geographic realms of Indiana, to Florida, back to Indiana, to Georgia, and now back to Indiana, it’s a career that has produced a fair share of success. We mentioned the sectional at South, one of three titles in Indiana.
There was a hugely successful stint in Georgia, where his South Gwinnett team won the 5A state championship in 2004. His ace on that team was Lou Williams, who went on to play college ball at Georgia and then had a solid career in the NBA, being named 6th Man of the Year in 2015.
“I’ve coached 22 guys who have gone on to play college basketball,” Fleetwood knew off the top of his head. “Besides Lou, two others played pro ball in Europe. He is leaving the game that has been his for 49 years."
Because of coaching in other states, Fleetwood's career numbers won't raise eyebrows as much as they should.
He has 392 wins in Indiana, which has him 26th on the all-time list for active coaches.
He has 566 in his lifetime career, which would put him in the Top 10. His 43 years as a head coach is 4th-most of an active coach. He will retire with his name within sight of the top of those all-time lists, not just active coaches.
He retired from teaching seven years ago, but continued to coach.
“I got to stop grading papers,” he said with a smile under his mask.
But he says there is no temptation to maybe stay involved with coaching as a volunteer after he steps away from the top job.
“I've been in charge for 43 years,” he said. “It's time for other folks to be in charge.”
He has seen the game change, he has seen players change, he has seen coaches change.
He has seen himself change.
“There are kids that I could have made better a long time ago by being softer on them,” he noted, “and there are kids today that I could make better by being able to be tougher on them. It's just a different world. I have found that positive works lots better than negative though.”
But now it's on to new things.
Warmer winters, golf courses, and valuable time spent with family.
“I’m getting fitted for golf clubs,” he said of a first duty, “and I promised Carol that we will never spend another January in Indiana. We can take those walks that she needs. I will be able to coach her and keep track of the grandkids (two playing basketball and two in volleyball).”
He has 566 wins in all those years and no regrets.
“I’ve always kept my eyes and ears open,” he said. “I’ve been okay with the X’s and Os, but my relationships with my players is what makes me go. I’ve always asked the same questions – I just have to do things a little differently.”
And after this season, Roger Fleetwood will have more time to do different things, from patrolling fairways to bragging on those grandkids.