By BOB PADECKY
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Go ahead, try. Try to put Tom Fitchie in a box. Try to define him neatly. Try to make Fitchie fit into one sentence. You’ll hurt yourself, is what you’ll do. You’ll be screaming for simplicity, for a description nice and tidy. You got a better chance of drinking water with a fork.
On one hand Fitchie was a veritable dust bunny on the sideline when he coached Montgomery basketball for 31 years until his retirement this season. He was moving here and there, punctuating the air with words you don’t say in church.
The wooden floor was a trampoline for him. Fitchie bounced up and down so much, it seemed he only came down for halftime. Face red, veins extending, Fitchie was a throbbing mass; grateful we all were he made it through another game without medical care.
On the other hand, remove Fitchie from the court and you’d want to place a mirror under his nose, to see if he was still breathing. His face, once contorted in a knot, now is expressionless. His voice didn’t rise above a whisper; “monotone” is how he describes it. He looked and sounded like one of those people at the DMV window, totally worn out by another face and another problem, eager to finish talking and move on to silence.
Tom, you appear to be very complicated.
“Can I be simple and complicated at the same time?” said the man who finished with a 562-338 career record, 10 North Bay League titles, four NCS championships and one state title game appearance.
Yes, you can and yes you are. When it comes to a character study, Fitchie is a doctoral thesis for anyone wanting to be a clinical psychologist. As Exhibit A, I give you Tom Fitchie and his relationship with basketball officials or, as I like to say, gasoline’s relationship with a match.
On March 14, in his last game as Montgomery’s coach, Fitchie endured the Vikings’ 56-49 loss to Cosumnes Oaks in the CIF Division 2 state tournament. After the game, knowing this would be his last game, Fitchie walked up to an official.
“After 31 years,” Fitchie said, “I won’t miss crappy officials like you.”
As his longtime friend Tom Bonfigli, Cardinal Newman’s head coach, said about Fitchie, “Tom’s brutally honest.”
On the other hand — “on the other hand” is a phrase used quite frequently to describe Fitchie — he was asked if he had to do it all over again, what he would do differently as a high school basketball coach.
“I’d try to have a better relationship with the officials,” said Fitchie without pause.
Fitchie has standards, you see, and in his view basketball officials didn’t always live up to them. “For the first 20 years I did everything,” said Fitchie, cupping his hands together to emphasize the all-inconclusive statement. Without compromise, Fitchie demanded his kids play smart, play hard and play together. How he came to such a philosophy was simple in its origin.
It’s how he played and no one could question if that was a success.
“It’s been, what, 50 years since Tom Fitchie and Steve Tiedeman played?” said Russ Petrich, Fitchie’s coach at Montgomery. “It’s been that long and yet to this day players are still compared to them. It’s a shame there wasn’t a three-point line back then. Fitch would have had a great time with that. He was a great shooter.”
Fitchie was also a great competitor. He’s fairly strong in that regard. A point of pride, actually.
“You read about competitors would compete about anything, checkers, whatever?” he said. “That’s me.”
“OK,” I said. “Let’s roll up into balls two sheets of 8-by-11 paper. Then let’s try throwing into the trash can.”
I pointed to a trash can in his Montgomery office. Fitchie shook his head.
“Won’t do it,” he said. “You might win and then I’d have to read about in The Press Democrat.”
Fitchie wasn’t joking but he was laughing. Yes, Tom Fitchie was laughing. … away from the court. The monotone was gone. He was animated. It wasn’t because of my interviewing technique. It was because the subject was basketball.
Fitchie’s ears perk up like a dog’s ears when the sport is mentioned.
“I used to compete with my players when we played ‘Snapple’,” Fitchie said.
You mean, H-O-R-S-E, get a letter every time you miss a shot?
“No, S-N-A-P-P-L-E,” he said. “I drove a beer-soft drink truck for seven years and Snapple had just come out and was big.”
How long did that competition last?
“I quit about 15 years ago,” Fitchie said. “I couldn’t beat the kids all the time.”
Yes, there we go with those standards again. That’s why he retired after last season. He found he couldn’t give 100 percent of himself to the team as he once did. Not that it was necessary, but Fitchie reminded people his kids deserved the spotlight, not him. So when coaches at Casa Grande, Windsor and Cardinal Newman found out Fitchie was retiring, they called Montgomery athletic director Dean Haskins to ask if they could honor Fitchie when Monty played at their gyms. He declined the honor.
Fitchie is “old school” and old-school coaches put their team first. He takes the two words as a compliment. Along with this added Fitchie twist that doesn’t come from old-school coaches: He sees the beauty of individual play, the uniqueness of style, and to that end he much favors today’s basketball-playing kid having less structure in the offseason.
“I think the most important thing a parent can do for his kid is have him go to the playground in the summer with his buddies,” Fitchie said. “First off, it’s going to cost mom and dad less money. But it also does another thing. On the playground there’s no coach to correct you. So if you try something different with the ball, it might not work the first time. But it might work the 100th time and not be weird.”
Now THAT is the essence of Tom Fitchie and his two sides. He was a disciplined, structured coach who also believes in the artistic flair and creation the game can produce. It’s much the same as his close relationship with Bonfigli.
Bonfigli is one of those guys you can ask a question and then sit back and listen for the next five minutes as it is artfully and impassionedly explained. Fitchie, on the other hand, could wait five minutes before giving an answer. Yet, they are best friends because respect, not verbiage, connects them.
So Fitchie doesn’t break the mold as much as he creates one.
Extrovert or introvert?
“I don’t know which one is the real me,” said Fitchie, who will be 64 June 9. “I’m a Gemini. Maybe that helps explain it.”
Maybe. But I doubt it. That would be too simple.
To contact Bob Padecky email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.