Gibault Catholic High School basketball coach Dennis Rueter began his career in 1980. Still coaching at the same small Catholic school in Waterloo 37 years later, Rueter is nearing his 700th career win.
Rueter and the Hawks (18-6) enter a 7:30 p.m. home game Friday against Mascoutah with a career record of 699-360 and his squad on a 10-game winning streak. Since 1980, his teams have won 14 regional titles and four sectionals. The Hawks were also runners-up at the 1999 Class A state tournament.
Rueter, 60, played basketball at Belleville East against the newest member of the 700-win club, Edwardsville coach and former Granite City North player Mike Waldo.
Among metro-east boys basketball coaches, only Collinsville’s Vergil Fletcher (792), Okawville’s Dave Luechtefeld (738) and Waldo (700) have won more games.
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Former Gibault and McKendree University standout Marc Derwort says Rueter’s ability to pair his solid fundamental teaching with changes in the game through the years has been a major reason for his success.
He’s always been in front of where basketball is going, and that’s what makes him so good. He uses the strengths of his players, but he’s always ahead of the game.
Marc Derwort on Gibault Hawks coach Dennis Rueter
“He’s always been in front of the trends,” said Derwort, the 42-year-old former basketball coach at New Athens and a teacher at Freeburg Junior High. “He’s always been in front of where basketball is going, and that’s what makes him so good. He uses the strengths of his players, but he’s always ahead of the game. He’s won in so many ways.
“I didn’t question him or ever doubt him. When someone works as hard as he worked and did as much as he did, you believed completely in what he could do.”
It’s not like Rueter has enjoyed a pipeline of Division I basketball players at Gibault, even though former Hawks stars include Lance Stemler (Indiana), Josh Toal (Idaho), Chris Braun (Saint Louis) and Dan Heimos (Nebraska).
Even the best Gibault players have gone on to smaller colleges or played other sports. Many never played the game again.
“I grew up watching Brent Kruse and Josh Toal and Steve Wightman ... you’d watch these guys you thought were larger than life,” former Gibault star John Thomas said. “But when Coach would speak, they would always stop and focus on what he was saying. He always had this larger than life presence — and we all wanted to win for him.”
Thomas was an all-state player on the 1998-99 Gibault team that came closest to winning a state championship. The Hawks battled some tough calls, couldn’t hold a late lead in the state title game and lost 45-43 to Rock Falls on a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“Obviously we couldn’t have been more shocked and disappointed. At that point in your life, that’s one of the lowest moments you’ll ever feel,” Thomas said. “Coach came in and let us know it was a great season. I think the way he handled it afterward taught me a lot. It’s OK to fail as long as you learn from it, pick yourself up and move on.”
He’s not going to let you settle if he knows you can do better. After 37 years you can see it in his eye, he still has the feel for it and the passion for it.
Steve Wightman on Gibault Hawks coach Dennis Rueter
Now 36, Thomas played basketball at John A. Logan junior college and Fontbonne University. The account executive for Siemens Medical based in Seattle, Wash., also was one of five Thomas brothers from Columbia who played basketball at Gibault.
Their mother died at a young age, so as teenagers the boys were raised by their father.
“To me, (Coach Rueter) didn’t know it, but he was like a second dad,” Thomas said. “I was around Coach more than I was around my dad at that point at times. My dad would work nights, and I wouldn’t see my dad sometimes for a week at a time, so Coach was that other dad.”
When Thomas was a freshman, he got to play in a varsity game with older brothers Charlie Thomas and Joe Thomas.
“It was a special moment for us,” John Thomas said. “We all looked up to Coach; we revered him. He didn’t have to put us all in at the same time, but those opportunities don’t come along very often.
“That picture still hangs at my dad’s house to this day.”
When Gibault won its first super-sectional during John Thomas’ senior season, sending the team to state, John Thomas recalled an emotional moment where he grabbed Rueter and hugged him.
“It was one of those times he loosened up a bit, because typically with Coach, he didn’t show his emotions,” said John Thomas, who cherished the memory. “After it was over it was surreal. I thought ‘Wow, I just got Coach Rueter to give me a hug.’ That was cool.’”
Wightman, 46, made varsity as a freshman when Gibault still played at the Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic School gym. The 1988 Gibault graduate played one season at Truman State (then Northeast Missouri State) before following his father’s path to eventual ownership of Wightman Pharmacy in Waterloo.
“I told a couple people recently that as a sophomore we beat Dupo, and that was his 100th win in 1986,” Wightman said. “It’s been Monroe County kids for the most part over the years, and the kids know what they’re coming into. He was in charge, you knew he was in charge and you were working your tail off.
“Outside of my family, he’s one of the people in my life who helped me become the person I am today.”
Derwort said Rueter is highly deserving to enter the 700-win club.
“It speaks to him doing the right thing day after day, month after month and year after year — and always doing it the right way,” Derwort said. “He doesn’t take short cuts.”
Like those before and after him, Wightman saw the benefits of the work ethic espoused by Rueter on a daily basis.
“He’s not going to let you settle if he knows you can do better,” Wightman sad. “After 37 years you can see it in his eye, he still has the feel for it and the passion for it.”