When it comes to high-school basketball, Roger Mueller can’t get enough.
Mueller is enjoying his 40th year as a coach at Belleville West, which will celebrate its 100th season of basketball Friday when it plays host to Alton.
For Mueller, being in a gymnasium feels as natural as passing time at his home in Millstadt, where he lives on a five-acre plot with his wife of 51 years, Betty.
“Do I enjoy it? Yes. Do I want to continue doing it? Yes,” Mueller said of his long coaching career, which includes two stints as an assistant (1967-73, 1998-present) and another as head coach (1973-88). “As long as the school is good enough to me to let me do it, I’ll try.”
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From 1967-2000, Mueller was an English teacher at West. Basketball provided him an opportunity to link the classroom and the court. He could have moved to an administrative position, but being around students was, and still is, what makes Mueller tick.
“When I think of my identity ... I think of myself first and foremost as an English teacher,” Mueller said. “I think more of that (than basketball). I liked being in the classroom, being face-to-face with the students. I wanted to be with the kids. I feel the same way in athletics. I loved to go to practice.”
Bill Schmidt can attest to that. Schmidt played at West, served under Mueller as an assistant and was Mueller’s eventual successor. He said the slender man who looks much younger than his 71 years never hesitated to show a player how it was done.
“One of the things I remember most about Roger, even when he was an assistant for me, was seeing him get out on the floor, drop down into a defensive stance and shuffle his feet,” Schmidt said. “When I played ... he could always get out there and move his feet and play defense probably better than any of us.”
Schmidt has had a unique connection with Mueller. Schmidt played for Mueller during his first season as head coach in 1973-74 and later became an assistant on Mueller’s staff. Schmidt replaced Mueller as head coach when he resigned in 1988 with an overall record of 221-173. Ten years later, Schmidt hired Mueller as an assistant.
When Schmidt resigned in 2004, Mueller was enthusiastically retained by new coach Joe Muniz, now in his 13th season. Mueller hasn’t missed a dribble or dunk since 1998.
I liked being in the classroom, being face-to-face with the students. I wanted to be with the kids. I feel the same way in athletics. I loved to go to practice.
“One of Roger’s strengths as a coach was his knowledge of the game and his ability to teach the game and strategize the game of basketball,” Schmidt said. “We were always prepared and always knew what we wanted to do against the individual teams we played against.
“Roger was a fair coach, an honorable coach, great to play for. His true strengths were preparing game plans and figuring out the best way to compete against the people we were going to have to play that night. He was probably one of the best Xs and Os guy I’ve been associated with.”
Mueller takes special pride in the relationships that formed between the coaches at West, which has had just nine head coaches in a century.
Mueller played for Jerry Turner, who succeeded Ray Freeark in 1959. Turner coached until 1966, when he was replaced by Dave Shannahan.
When Shannahan in 1973 took the coaching position at Belleville Area College (now Southwestern Illinois College), Mueller was promoted to head coach from his role as assistant.
All the coaches, Mueller said, had at least one thing in common.
“They’ve all been serious teachers,” he said. “Ray in business and business law, Jerry in history, Dave Shannahan in physics, I was an English teacher, Bill Schmidt in social studies and history and Joe in math. That’s important.”
Mueller credited Shannahan for aiding his development as a coach.
“Dave Shannahan was really good to his assistants,” said Mueller, adding that he always tried to extend the same courtesy to a pair of his longtime assistants, Woody Burnett and Gary Weshinsky. “Dave gave us responsibility. We had to get the job done, but he was real generous in letting us do things and develop as coaches.
“I was fortunate to have people like that who were behind me. They were interested in the program and keeping it successful. I’ve tried to keep that idea alive.”
Mueller played at West from 1959-63, when Turner was coach.
He chuckles when he discusses his athletic ability, or the lack of it. But he discovered a way to work around it and eventually became a key player for the Maroons in 1962-63.
“I was an individual with rather modest athletic talents,” Mueller said. “I wasn’t fast, I didn’t jump high, I didn’t have great skills. I worked extremely hard at playing defense.
“We had some real good teams. I played on a very successful team my senior year. We were 25-4 and won the Centralia Tournament. We won all those games because there were some other really good players on that team. I could take care of the basketball, get it to the right person and guard.”
He knew when to give advice and knew when to sit back and let me make my own mistakes or do my own thing.
Mueller said Turner was “ahead of his time.” He remembered his former coach tirelessly working to improve his craft, reaching out on many occasions to college coaches.
The approach paid off, as Turner was 155-54 in seven seasons, with six regional championships and a third-place finish in the Class AA state tournament in 1966 when the Maroons finished 27-5.
“He was a real student of the game. I learned a lot from him,” Mueller said. “I understood from him that there was a lot to this coaching business. He was an inspiration to me.”
Mueller’s first three teams were 61-24 and won regional championships each season. The Maroons were 20-10 in 1973-74, losing 66-60 to Mater Dei in the super-sectional.
“We had a pretty nice squad,” said Schmidt, a senior on the team. “Milton Wiley and Rusty Lisch were juniors and we had a good senior group of guys. We went all the way to the super-sectional. It was quite an accomplishment.”
West was 21-7 in 1974-75, 20-7 in 1975-76, 24-5 in 1981-82 and 20-9 in 1987-88, Mueller’s final season as head coach.
As a young coach, Mueller said he had a tendency to try to emulate Turner and Shannahan. Although he managed to adopt his own style, Mueller took bits and pieces from both.
In one of his first seasons, Mueller began talking to his players about the “PH Factor,” which could mean play hard, practice hard, play happy or practice happy.
“I think I first started using that about 1974 or 1975,” Mueller said. “We had to play hard. I said, ‘If we play hard, we’ll be successful.’ To learn to play hard, we had to do it in practice, and generally, that means playing happy. You have to be happy to be there. You have to like the process, enjoy the process. Practice happy, practice hard, play happy.”
Mueller also remembers another staple of West basketball.
“Some of the phrases I heard Jerry Turner say became part of my vocabulary,” Mueller said. “For example, you’re at the end of a game, a critical situation, in a last-minute timeout. When it’s time to go back on the floor, you clap your hands and say, ‘This is the kind we always win.’
“That’s part of Belleville West basketball. Deep inside of you, balloons are going off and everything’s going wrong. But that’s what you say, and you hope that most of the time, you’re going to be right.”
Roger was a fair coach, an honorable coach, great to play for. His true strengths were preparing game plans and figuring out the best way to compete against the people we were going to have to play that night. He was probably one of the best Xs and Os guy I’ve been associated with.
The competitive fire continues to burn inside Mueller despite his calm demeanor on the bench. Integrity, honesty and humility are the focal points of his personality, according to friends and colleagues.
Mueller never desired to be the center of attention. That’s one of the reasons he made such a smooth transition to being an assistant for Schmidt. Sure, Mueller had 10 years away from the game, but then and even now, he never had a need to feed his ego.
“I don’t mind being behind the scenes. I don’t mind being out of the spotlight,” Mueller said. “I find it very easy to observe, make judgments, make observations, make suggestions.
“When Bill became head coach ... it was easy for me to try to help him when I could. And then after a while, I was able to come back as (his) assistant. I enjoy doing it with Joe now. We recognize the importance of the program and we try to keep it successful.”
When Mueller – who also was an assistant coach in baseball for nearly 40 years and in cross country for nine years – expressed to Schmidt his desire to get back into basketball coaching, Schmidt said he “gobbled him up as quickly as I could.”
“Roger was great about that,” Schmidt said. “He knew he coached me and he knew I worked for him. Now he was working for me and he was nothing but class and professionalism about that, too. He knew when to give advice and knew when to sit back and let me make my own mistakes or do my own thing.”
Muniz recalled a time several years ago when he had decided not to start a player in a key game because of a rules infraction. Mueller, as only Mueller can do, gently discussed the situation with Muniz, who looked at the issue in a new light and changed his mind.
“Roger is the voice of reason,” Muniz said. “His advice and his tutelage is second to none. If anyone wants to call and talk to Roger, they would learn instantly from him. ... What I appreciate is he gives you an honest answer. If you ask him a question, you’re always going to get an honest answer.”
Maroons assistant Alex Schobert played for Muniz at West and the 2008 graduate is now picking Mueller’s brain on a regular basis.
“He knows so much about the game,” Schobert said. “Any situation we’re in during a game, or maybe it’s something we’re simulating in practice, he’s able to share experiences he’s had. I think that’s the biggest thing – his ability to teach through experience. Because that’s really how you learn anything.”
The game today
Mueller’s final season as head coach in 1987-88 was the first year of the 3-point shot. The rule has greatly changed the game, most agree for the better.
Mueller isn’t so happy about how other aspects of the game have changed.
I was fortunate to have people like that who were behind me. They were interested in the program and keeping it successful. I’ve tried to keep that idea alive.
“The game has gotten much rougher. There’s much more physical contact,” Mueller said. “Physical strength is a much bigger factor than it was before. The game is a little more loosely officiated, too. Let’s say, the details of footwork. You see more people kind of skating around and getting away with it than you did before.”
Mueller, who was inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame last spring, loves the sport for the way it galvanizes a school’s student body and the excitement it offers fans who come to watch games two, three or even four times a week.
“It’s hard to get a bad seat at a high-school game,” Mueller said. “There’s an emotional intensity that’s there. And there’s so many personalities involved. Coaches. Players. There’s a big show going on.
“It’s important to the cheerleaders, it’s important to the pep band, it’s important to the dance squads that perform at halftime. We create this environment to allow all these people, all of these different students, to perform and be a part of something bigger than themselves individually. That’s why it’s good.”
Grateful for wife, family
Mueller said nothing he’s accomplished would have been possible without his “wonderful, understanding wife and good kids.”
“You’ve got to be a special person to be a coach’s wife,” Roger Mueller said. “It takes strength. Sometimes they have to put up with an unhappy person and an unhappy coach at home. You’re so busy as a coach and a teacher that your wife has to pick up a lot of the burden and take maybe more responsibilities than she ought to in raising the kids and getting them every place. It can be tough.
“My three kids (daughters Elaine and Carol and son John) all went through West and sometimes it’s not easy to have your dad be the head coach or be your teacher at school. I was really lucky to have a wonderful wife and kids that enjoyed their high school experiences.”
Mueller can’t predict the future and doesn’t know how long he will remain in coaching.
“I sort of look at a year at a time,” Mueller said. “You have to be realistic and understand this could be your last go-around. Something might happen where you just can’t do it anymore, for one reason or another. You never know when this might end.”