NAPPANEE — What began as a favor has turned into nearly four decades full of victories and hardwood memories.
Steve Neff, who coached gymnastics for one season at NorthWood High School, had only planned to coach girls basketball at NorthWood for a year or two when he took over the program from Jan Schrock in 1977-78. The team went 11-6 that first year. Neff’s team won the first of many sectional and regional titles in his second season and he just kept coming back for more.
But after this season, there will be no more.
When the ball goes up Tuesday, Nov. 12, for the 2013-14 season opener against Mishawaka in The Pit, it will mark the beginning of the 37th and final season for the Hall of Famer on the “Black Swish” bench.
“I was probably going to get out earlier than this,” says Neff, 62. “But I kept prolonging it many times.
“I just had to set a date.”
Neff, who retired from the classroom at the end of 2012-13, decided to come back for one more basketball go-around with a solid senior class (Morgan Olson, Taylor Fielstra, Inger Yoder and Tiffanie Alexander), talented younger players and Adam Yoder as head coach-in-waiting.
“I remember when I played,” says Neff. “Ted Wesolek was my coach (at Wakarusa High School) and I thought he was old. It turns out, he was 35.”
Yoder was elevated from freshmen and junior varsity coach a couple years ago and has been groomed to take over for Neff.
“He’s been very patient,” says Neff of the young coach.
Coaching teenagers and then — in many cases — the daughters of those players has kept Neff young.
“Being around kids helps you feel young whether you are or not,” says Neff. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t still fun.
“I’m still having a good time and, I think, the girls are, too.”
Neff goes into the season tied with Scottsburg’s Donna Cheatham atop the all-time coaching win list at 634. Though he wouldn’t mind ending the season with one more win than her, he says that is not what motivates him.
“Some people want me to chase the lady down south,” says Neff. “It never has been my goal to chase her. It’s no big deal.”
As always, Neff has a goal of winning sectional — something NorthWood did even in his only sub-.500 season.
“We got better,” says Neff of the 1982-83 squad that went 9-12 but hoisted a sectional trophy.
“We’ve got good, smart kids and they work hard,” says Neff. “We’re not going to win every game, but we’re usually ready for the tournament by the end of the year.”
Neff has excelled for years with the support of his family (wife Becca is a retired Wa-Nee teacher and their daughters — Stephanie at NorthWood and Cori in Indianapolis — are current teachers). His father — Veloris — is his “biggest fan” and attends every game.
The support of coaches, including long-time current assistants such as Gene Zercher and Brad Newcomer plus junior high coaches Jim Hess and Brad Eby, have provided continuity for a program known as “Black Swish” since Neff coined the phrase in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
Neff says he is grateful for the relationship with the many administrators he’s worked with over the years.
“The administration has been very good to me,” says Neff, who was able to go on a cruise in October and often goes straight from the golf course to practice. “To coach one more year without teaching was nice. They didn’t have to do that. I’m sort of seeing the best of both worlds here right now. I can handle that. I can handle stepping away, too.”
Neff has always had high expectations for his players, but he never believed in driving them too hard.
“We have been able to keep this thing going because I am a little humane in what I ask them to do in the off-season,” says Neff. “Summer used to be more fun and less intense. Now, it’s a full-time job. I pity these girls in June because they have volleyball, basketball, soccer, softball. They’re busy everyday.
“We’re getting more and more people not playing multiple sports. Two is about the max. It used to be that we had three-sport athletes all the time.
“We’re killing these kids. We need to shut the summer down again and let them be kids.”
Harkening back to the old days, Neff liked it better when he had two junior highs to feed his freshmen program.
Will 2013-14 be like Neff’s going-away party?
“I hope not,” says Neff. “I don’t want that. I don’t want any fanfare.”
Neff says he does expect a little more effort from teams trying to beat him one last time, but that’s nothing new for the man who opted in for a year or two and stayed more than three dozen.
By The Numbers
A numerical look at the career of NorthWood High School Black Swish girls basketball coach Steve Neff, a 1969 Wakarusa High School and 1973 Manchester College graduate who retired as a teacher at the end of the 2012-13 school year and will retire as a coach at the end of the 2013-14 season:
Career victories (tied with Scottsburg’s Donna Cheatham for No. 1 all-time in Indiana history).
Year inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
Seasons completed as NorthWood head girls basketball coach.
Seasons as NorthWood assistant football coach (helped Panthers win 14 sectionals, eight regionals, four semistates, four state runner-up finishes).
Years as NorthWood science department chair.
Sectional team titles.
Seasons of 20 or more victories.
Regional team titles.
Northern Lakes Conference team titles.
Indiana All-Stars (Heather Smith, Natalie Will, Amy Zercher, Carol Duncan).
Semistate team titles.
Indiana Coaches of Girls Sports Association District 2 Coach of the Year (2011-12).
Final Four appearance in one-class system (1997).
State championship (Class 3A, 1999).