Joe Muniz cares.
People who know Muniz understand this, even if they know nothing else about the 14th-year Belleville West boys basketball coach.
Muniz and I go back a few years. Well, OK, way back. I still remember the first time I interviewed him. I could usher you back to the exact spot in what used to be the Collinsville High School locker room.
Muniz was receiving his first real taste of varsity basketball as a sophomore at Collinsville. It was after a game in the 1990-91 season. Somebody else was with me. That person is lost to memory. But Muniz, as he always does, thoughtfully answered all inquiries.
We felt fortunate to talk to Muniz. Former Kahoks coach Bob Bone kept a keen eye on his younger players, always concerned they might say something ridiculous to the media.
With Muniz, Bone knew he had no worries.
There were other interviews with Muniz as he played out his career at Collinsville, in basketball and baseball, before he headed for the University of Iowa to play baseball.
Metro-east athletes come and go in rapid-fire fashion. You know them for one or two years, perhaps three, and off they run, never to be seen or heard from again.
Not Muniz. He came back, first as an assistant on Bone's staff at Collinsville from 1998-2003, then as an assistant under Bill Schmidt in Schmidt's final season at West in 2003-04.
Muniz replaced Schmidt in May 2004, two months after Schmidt's 16-year stint ended with a 28-2 record and a 81-72 loss to Carbondale in the sectional final.
There have been some rough patches for Muniz, which is standard for all coaches. The Maroons were a combined 12-38 in Muniz's second and third seasons.
But Muniz has evolved through the years. With legendary Mike Waldo having retired at Edwardsville, Muniz, 43, is the Southwestern Conference's senior statesman. It's remarkable, although I'm not sure how that makes me feel. Old, I suppose.
I can recall the first game I covered with Muniz as coach. The visiting Maroons got a free throw from Randy Gilmore and defeated East St. Louis 53-52 in overtime Dec. 17, 2004.
After the game, Muniz and I shared a brief laugh as we considered the occasion. It was our first in-person interview since his senior season with the Kahoks more than 11 years earlier. I was still the reporter, but this time, he was the coach. The dynamics had changed.
Schmidt led West to the Class AA state tournament in 2003. The Maroons were defeated by Evanston 58-50 in the quarterfinals, then jumped back on the bus and returned to Belleville.
This Maroons team, which advanced to the Class 4A state tournament with a rousing 81-43 victory over West Aurora on Tuesday in the Normal Super-Sectional, plans on bringing home the top trophy after play is completed Saturday at Carver Arena in Peoria.
West (30-2) opens with a game at 5:30 p.m. Friday against Elgin Larkin (24-8).
People always ask me, "Do you ever want one team to win over another?" The answer is no, although I once pulled for the Washington Generals to beat the Harlem Globetrotters.
Really, all you want as a sportswriter is a fast game, an outcome and something fun to write about that might be of interest to fans. Wishing for something in particular to happen is wasted energy. You can't control a game, so you just observe it.
But I felt good for Muniz on Tuesday. I saw the smile of satisfaction on his face as his giddy players celebrated the occasion on the floor at Redbird Arena.
He cared, just as he always has cared.
Muniz had plenty of others who cared as much.
The Muniz family is remarkable. Paul and Mary Lee Muniz have two other sons: Brian, the head basketball coach at O'Fallon High, and Jeff, who lives in Morton, a short drive from Peoria. Jeff is waiting for the party to arrive in town.
Paul's younger brother, Dave, has two sons, Kent and Kevin, who played sports at Collinsville. Four of the boys, Joe being the exception, attended Collinsville at the same time.
For one inning in a 1995 baseball game against East St. Louis, the Kahoks had an all-Muniz infield: Kevin at third base, Brian at shortstop, Jeff at second base and Kent at first base. I'm pretty sure that had never been done before or since.
You think sports aren't a big part of the family conversation during holidays?
Once in the 1990s, Jeff Muniz endured three days of hanging out with reporters at what was then the Collinsville-Schnucks Holiday Classic. Paul Muniz, a retired disc jockey at country station WIL-FM in St. Louis, used the name Paul Jeffries when he was on the air. Naturally, we started referring to Jeff as Jeff Jeffries. I'm not sure he's been back to the tournament since then.
Joe Muniz had lots of family support Tuesday, which added to his enthusiasm. Not only were his parents in the crowd, but so were his wife, Natale, and young daughters Addy and Ava. Brian and Jeff were there with their families, as were Natale's parents, Fred and Linda Kaspar.
Joe Muniz is living a coach's dream. He's come a long way. It couldn't happen to a better guy.