Their numbers are simply phenomenal, but their legacy goes far beyond mere wins and losses.
In a few months, Shenendehowa High School athletic director Chris Culnan will have completed the transition process and replaced three legendary coaches who announced their retirements in a frenzied five-month period.
Football coach Brent Steuerwald, girls’ basketball coach Ken Strube and boys’ soccer coach Mike Campisi all made their decisions official at press conferences in a Shenendehowa High School library that was filled with fellow coaches, former players and local media each time. Although word had leaked out about the announcements, the press conferences were still well attended, simply out of respect for some of the best coaches of all time.
Certainly, it will be a long time before any three area scholastic coaches from the same school can be this dominating — as role models and as ultimate winners — in the same era.
Steuerwald and Campisi won’t be able to add to their illustrious career victory totals any more, although Campisi will be staying around as an assistant coach and mentor. Strube is still in the process of coaching his final season, and his team is off to an 9-0 start.
You need a calculator to compute the statistics. Heading into Friday, the terrific trio had compiled an amazing 1,423 victories with 13 state championships, if you include the three Steuerwald’s teams won in state polls. Steuerwald (318-91-4) retired as Section II’s all-time leader in football victories. Strube (579-153) continues to add to his Section II-best total on the hardwood, while Campisi (534-91-63) finished his head coaching career No. 2 on the all-time boys’ soccer win list behind Maple Hill’s Dan Gillespie.
The 76-year-old Steuerwald, the former Shenendehowa athletic director who hired both Strube and Campisi, started the football program from scratch and coached the Plainsmen for 44 years. The football stadium is named after him, and for good reason. His teams won 11 sectional titles, and he belongs to numerous halls of fame, including the Shenendehowa High School and Capital Region branches. He was the National Coach of the Year in 1995, was selected the New York State Coach of the Year five times and was presented with the Power of Influence Award from the American Football Coaches Association and the American Football Coaches Foundation. He also played a major role in the current state high school playoff system.
“Three words come to mind when I think of Brent, and I put them in order of priority,” said Shenendehowa superintendent L. Oliver Robinson at Steuerwald’s retirement announcement last August. “Gentleman, scholar and coach. He’s been a role model for our student-athletes. He’s brought tremendous wisdom to our school community, and as a coach, he’s truly a living legend. An icon who we, quite frankly, cannot replace.”
“I will miss it,” said Steuerwald, who was reached by telephone while on vacation in Florida after attending the AFCA convention in San Antonio. “It will be a difficult personal time for me next fall. Football is a great game,
and I still love it. It was always a constant challenge and a constant reward. Plus, I always loved the kids. I didn’t want them to play for me in my final year, I wanted them to play for themselves, but I must admit that I enjoyed the ride.”
Steuerwald understands that the Shenendehowa landscape will never be the same.
“Certainly, this is a major change in Shenendehowa athletics,” he said. “I actually think that all three of our retirement announcements were independently decided. I had the honor of appointing both Ken and Mike to their jobs, and I had the honor of evaluating them, as well. They were and still are outstanding coaches. I realize that there are many changes both across the state and in this area, as well, where the teachers’ associations have been calling for their members to have the inside track on the extra curricular jobs, but I don’t believe that was ever enforced on myself, Ken or Mike, and that didn’t have any impact on why we announced our retirement.
“All I know is that it was time for me to retire, and I’m glad I left the program with a solid nucleus. I will miss coaching, and I will miss the players most of all.”
Steuerwald is not the only coaching icon saying farewell.
Campisi, whose teams won six state championships, 14 regional crowns and 22 Suburban Council titles in his 32 seasons, guided his program to a pair of amazing winning streaks. From 1990 to 1992, his Plainsmen won 69 straight games and were unbeaten in 70 consecutive matches. In the 1988 and 1989 seasons, his clubs won 42 straight games.
“I want to thank Brent Steuerwald, who hired me in 1980. He saw something in me and gave me the job,” said Campisi, also a Shenendehowa High School Hall of Fame member who coached two Olympians and numerous pro and Division I players. “I just love the game. I played it, and I’ve coached it for a long time. I’m not ready to step away from the game completely, but it’s time to step down as head coach.”
“Mike’s had an amazing run,” said Culnan. “He went out on a good note.”
Strube, a 58-year-old former math teacher who was inducted into the Capital District Basketball Hall of Fame last year, is also a member of the New York State Basketball and Shenendehowa Athletic Hall of Fame. His teams captured 21 Suburban Council and nine regional championships.
But although relatively young to leave the bench, Strube said it important to devote more time to his family life.
“I always thought that I would stop coaching when I stopped teaching,” he said. “If it wasn’t that I promised Emily Weber that I would stick around until she graduates, I probably would have retired last year.
“Mike and I are of a similar philosophy. Brent was an administrator for much of his career, and when he retired from that, he could devote a ton more time to football. His sidekicks were a little younger or the same age as him, so he kept going as head coach.
“I know I met Mike at a retirement seminar last year, and he was 80 to 90 percent sure this would be his last year. He just wasn’t ready to walk away completely.”
Why was Strube ready to call it quits after this year?
“Both Brent and Mike lost their life partners fairly recently, and they put their extra energy into their sports. My wife [Joanne], knock on wood, is still around. It would be really selfish for me to continue coaching after I retired from teaching. I want to spend more time with my wife.
“You’ve got to remember that when you coach a winter sport, you don’t get any vacations or holidays. We couldn’t get away much because I always had practice or a game.”
Strube, said he would love to go out on top, but he’s not counting on it.
“It would be a dream come true for this team to win another sectional championship. I’d be disappointed for the kids if they don’t get another sectional title, but I wouldn’t be that disappointed for myself. My coaching career was a fairy tale.”
NOT A SURPRISE
Although the retirement announcements appeared to be spontaneous, Culnan said plans were in the works to transition to a younger coaching staff as long as two years ago.
“This is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime situation,” said Culnan, who is in his fifth season as only the third athletic director in Shenendehowa history.
“I knew when I took over the position five years ago that one of the things I had was a veteran coaching staff. I knew we would be in a transition period. I did not expect three coaches of this stature to step down within a few months of each other. However, these conversations started two years ago about their long-term plans
“Two years go, Brent and I came to an agreement that he wanted to coach the 2010 and 2011 seasons. That would be where his career would end, and he wanted to leave with a good team. He also wanted to leave with a good team left for the next coach, and I think that is definitely the case.”
Culnan said that Strube also wanted to go out a winner and to coach one of his top players through the end of her career.
“Kenny’s situation was that he wanted to stay one year after retiring from teaching. He definitely wanted to coach Emily Weber again.”
Culnan said that Campisi’s scenario was a little different than the other two legendary coaches.
“Mike had talked about wanting to transition out of his coaching role and that he wanted to do something within the program. He came to me and said he wanted to step aside as head coach but to remain in the program as an assistant. We took the varsity assistant position and crafted it into a program assistant so that Mike can help out and do some mentoring of the younger players.”
No high school in the area can match Shenendehowa’s retiring threesome, in terms of total victories and championships, but Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake athletic director Bob McGuire, whose Spartans won a handful of league and sectional championships last fall, tries to model his programs after the Big Green Machine. He said he appreciates Culnan’s dilemma trying to replace three once-in-a-lifetime coaches.
“In my opinion, playing Shenendehowa makes us better,” said McGuire. “We have to play Shenendehowa all the time. They are a lot larger than us, but we usually have very competitive games. It’s a good, healthy rivalry, and it helps our teams once we get to sectionals.
“But you’ve got to remember that Shenendehowa is going to replace three legends. Those three people have done a fantastic job of developing their programs, but they’ve also developed young men and women to be tremendous people. That’s really a compliment to all three individuals. What they do for their kids and their sports is tremendous, and we have a lot of respect for all three.”
According to Culnan, a new head football coach and a new boys’ varsity soccer coach could be in place by mid-February. It will take longer for the girls’ basketball position because Strube should still be coaching talented club into March.
“I think about replacing the three of these men all the time. It will be a challenge for me to find the right people for these positions and to continue their success,” Culnan said. “My job is to find the right people, but success is not just about winning and losing.”
Culnan said he would rather hire from within, but that’s not a mandatory criteria.
“I had ample notice from all three of these coaches about their plans, so it gave me an opportunity over two years to evaluate all of our people internally,” he said. “The question is, what is a good fit for our program?”
Culnan admitted that he’s heard the rumors — especially concerning the football program — that some “big name” people were interested in the job, including a pro football player without previous coaching experience.
“If you look around Section II and asked what are the most desirable positions available, I would say that our three coaching positions are in the top 10 on anyone’s short list,” he said.
“I’m not looking to find a clone of Brent Steuerwald, Ken Strube and Mike Campisi, but I’m looking to find people who are passionate about helping to make good student-athletes and to be their own person. We want whoever gets these jobs to lead their respective program their own way.
“We know there will be a challenge from our community because of what these coaches have done for such a long time. The challenge for me is to build the next generation of our programs.
“We have great support from our community, great student-athletes and great coaches. You put those together and we can be successful,” Culnan said. “That’s why we’ve been so successful so far.”