For Orlich, 25 years is more special than 500 wins
No one should ever question Tom Orlich’s loyalty to the South Tahoe High boys basketball program.
After all, when the onetime California-Berkeley graduate assistant started his 25 years of service to the program in 1975, he pulled a week’s worth of all-nighters in the gym where few teams now care to venture.
Orlich turned a downtrodden program that had never posted a winning season or more than nine wins in any campaign into one of the elite programs on the West Coast. His regal program serves as a model for Northern Nevada basketball coaches, showing them how around-the-year coaching and fund-raising translate into zone and state championships.
How quickly the wins have piled up as the king of Nevada basketball coaches has amassed nearly 21 wins per season. That remarkable consistency has brought Orlich close to a milestone few coaches can ever dream of – 500 wins at one school.
Only six wins separate Orlich from No. 500, and with the talented team that he’ll send onto the court Tuesday, it’s only a matter of weeks before he’ll reach that magic number.
To Orlich, the 500 wins don’t carry as much as significance as his longevity directing the program.
“Actually, the biggest feat I’ve had is being in one place for 25 years as a head coach,” Orlich said. “That’s a long time, and we’ve accomplished a lot of things in that time, like averaging 21 wins a year for the past 24 years. We’ve had some great kids come through here. It’s certainly a testament to them, more than anything else.”
Looking at the Vikings’ 1999-2000 schedule, there’s little doubt Orlich’s 500 victory should happen before the new millennium. But the expediency of the victory will likely come at a price – the milestone will be reached on the road, probably during the second week of December at the Gridley Tournament.
“It would be nice if it were at home, but you never know what will happen,” Orlich said. “In a lot of respects it’s just a number, and it’s just one of those things that goes with the territory when you’re at one place for as long as I’ve been.”
Some of Orlich’s players didn’t know he was so close to the milestone, but their coach’s humility deepens when so much has been accomplished.
“I had it in the back of my mind, but he hasn’t said anything about it,” said Viking senior guard John Giannoni III. “He’s a great coach and he’s done some great things in this program, so he deserves it as a soon as possible.”
And to think Orlich’s original plan was to remain at STHS only long enough to rent a home.
“I thought I’d be here three years,” he said. “I came from Cal and I almost went to Pacific with Stan Morrison. It didn’t work out, and I came up here and took the job on the last day because I was given two weeks to make the decision, and I decided on the 14th day to send in my contract.”
He inherited a program in ruins. The Vikings were 31-83 over the five years preceding Orlich’s arrival.
“It wasn’t in very good shape,” Orlich said. “Jerry Hart was trying to turn it around, and he worked very hard it. They never had a .500 record. That kind of puts things in perspective right there.”
His last-minute decision to take the job left Orlich without a place to stay. Consequently, he spent the next week where he’d been most comfortable before starting a family 15 years later.
“I lived in the gym for a week before I got my cabin. But I’d hate to have them come back and charge me rent now, because I was opening up a gym seven days a week,” Orlich said.
Even though South Tahoe became more competitive than it ever had in basketball, the 21-win seasons didn’t magically appear overnight. In fact, Orlich suffered through two losing seasons in his first four years – the last of which occurred in 1978-79.
“It’s always hard to start winning, and to believe you should always win,” Orlich said. “I wasn’t the best coach at the time and they weren’t the best players, but we all worked hard and tried to get the program started. We started out 11-11 and that was quite an achievement. The more you coach, you find out the less you know as the years go by.”
Orlich said the turning point in the program transpired during a tempestuous 1981 game at Rio Linda and was triggered by a Sacramento Bee preseason poll that forecasted the Vikings would finish last in the Golden Empire League.
“We were 1-3 at the time, and it was a pretty packed crowd,” Orlich said. “One of their kids got into a fight with one of our kids. Everybody came down and the security guards ran, and I had Cory Calder and Marvin Smith left standing back-to-back swinging.
“We lost the game, but after that our kids starting playing mad and never backed off people. We won our next eight out of nine to win our first championship. When you look at it, it may not seem the most impressive, but the beginnings are always the toughest.”
From there, the program soared. Orlich’s teams have never finished lower than third place in league since 1978-79. Along the way, they have won 15 conference titles, eight zone championships and two states. In addition, the 1991-92 squad compiled a 30-1 record, including the school’s second state title, and finished with a lofty No. 19 national ranking.
Some of Orlich’s other personal favorite triumphs include:
— A triple overtime victory over Sparks – fueled by Tom Fay and Drew Hibbs – for his first zone championship in 1984.
— In 1985 at the old UNR gym, Orlich’s boys overcame a 42-point scoring effort by Hug’s star to repeat as zone champs in an exciting finale featuring great shooting, blocked shots and slam dunks.
— His first state championship, an overtime win over Valley in the 1987 finals.
— The “Shot” in the 1989 zone finals. Steven Haase capped an improbable six-point comeback in the final 10 seconds, sinking a miraculous shot at the buzzer to beat Reed by one point in the zone finals. “Certainly that was something even Reed will think about today, how that one got away,” Orlich said.
— The 1992 overtime victory over Western in the 1992 state finals.
— The Vikings’ first game in the Northern Nevada League in 1983. South Tahoe beat a Carson club that included the Vikings’ 1981-82 all-Golden Empire League player Rob Vieira in Carson City. “We went down there and it was packed, and I think a lot of people didn’t know how good we were. We went down there and beat them by 10 and kind of set the league on notice that we were for real,” Orlich said.
But when you coach 666 games as Orlich has, you also experience some tough defeats. Orlich’s toughest was the last-second loss to Sparks in 1983. Sparks ripped a rebound out of a Viking player’s hands and laid the ball in at the buzzer to give the Railroaders a one-point win and wrap up the regular-season league title.
“That just ripped our hearts out, and we lost in one of the worst ways you can lose. Those kids, for sure, haven’t forgotten that one,” Orlich said.
Reed coach Paul Gray has experienced his share of heart-wrenching defeats in the 11 years he’s faced Orlich, but is one of the few local coaches to enjoy any kind of postseason success against the Viking mainstay.
“I think 500 wins by itself shows a success over a long period of time, but to do it at the same high school is pretty much unheard of,” said Gray, whose squad eliminated the Vikings from the zone tournament last year. “Tom’s done it through changes in administration, changes in personnel, changes in coaching staff and obviously players coming and going on a regular basis. It’s a tremendous accomplishment.”
Tim Jaureguito, who has vied with Orlich for some of the school’s best athletes during his 13 years as STHS football coach, also respects Orlich’s phenomenal achievements.
“It’s hard to coach for 25 years, let alone in one place for 25 years,” Jaureguito said. “When you’re talking about going out and doing the things needed to be done, he does it all: the fund-raising and the off-season work. That’s why he’s survived and that’s why he’s been as successful as he has.”
No one knows for sure if Orlich has another 500 victories in him at STHS, but if anything chases him away from coaching it may be his need to spend more time with his family, including Kelly, his wife of 11 years, and their four children: Ashley, 9; Brianna, 7; Ali, 6; and Michael, 3.
“Right now, I take it year by year,” Orlich said. “It’s tough not having as much help to run such a program. And certainly having a family, as much as I love it, my family is time-consuming.”
Having a family has changed the intensely competitive Orlich, his wife says.
“If anything has changed Tom, it’s having his children,” she said. “It has made him more able to relate and understand the parents of his players a little better.
“When he comes home, it’s a tremendous distraction for him. Once he gets in the door, the kids don’t care if they lost. They have needs he has to fill.”
Kelly, a former All-America softball player at Nevada who coached McQueen to a state softball title, met Tom in an off-season basketball clinic while she was coaching the girls varsity basketball team at Wooster. They share the love of coaching, but sometimes she believes her basketball knowledge is a disservice to her husband.
“Sometimes I think Tom wishes I didn’t know anything about basketball,” said Kelly, who is coaching Ashley’s fourth-grade basketball team. “Because if they win or lose, I’ll kind of put my two cents in, and my timing isn’t very good sometimes.”
Perhaps Orlich’s family has softened him somewhat, but don’t count on him easing off on the referees or allowing one of his players to relax on defense.
“People around school are kind of afraid of him, but I tell them he’s a great guy if you get to know him,” Giannoni said.
Hence, Giannoni and the Vikings just might do something other players have been afraid to do after realizing a big win: “I’m sure we could get away with dumping a bucket of water or something on him,” Giannoni said.
Orlich’s Road to 500
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