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Schmitz's passion, wit will be missed

By Vickie Fulkerson

Publication: The Day

Published August 28. 2013 4:00AM   Updated August 28. 2013 4:35AM

Bill Schmitz was no longer the Coast Guard Academy football coach. He was the head coach at Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tenn., but we remained in touch.

I was debating whether to take the UConn women's basketball beat for the 2002-03 season - which would end in a national championship in Atlanta - but was hesitant to leave a high school beat which I also loved. I took the job, but not before soliciting Schmitz's opinion via email.

He responded, in part: "Thanks for thinking of me and asking me my opinion. To me it is a 'no-brainer.' Go and cover the Lady Huskies. ... You would have the opportunity to cover college athletics at the highest level. These experiences will make you a better reporter. They will be a foundation for your work for years to come.

"We all like our 'comfort zone,' but the great thing about this is you do not have to move to experience covering college athletics at that level. You will still be all around your friends and can still go to Mr. G's for a beer. Go for it!"

If only I had his advice now.

Schmitz, 59, took his own life Monday, jumping from a bridge near his home in Florida, where he was a history teacher and boys' track coach at Land O' Lakes High School.

Schmitz had a wife, Lynn, two children, Matt and Allison, who grew up on the home sideline at the Coast Guard Academy, and three grandchildren. Judging by photographs on his Facebook page, anytime he was near his grandchildren Schmitz's face radiated happiness. Matt, who played for Bill at Austin Peay, marked his first game as a head coach Friday night at Newport (Ky.) High School, near his dad's hometown of Cincinnati.

Now, including the young people at Land O' Lakes, whose messages filled Twitter - "RIP Schmitz. Hands down one of the best guys I've ever met. These tears suck man #InShock," wrote one student-athlete - that makes a lot of people left with only their memories of Schmitz.

Today, there are thoughts of a guy who had a confident air about him, a swagger. Schmitz once lost his academy driving privileges for violating just about every rule possible in the one minute it took to drive from the front gate to his office, then telling the officer who stopped him that the trouble with the Coast Guard is that no one has any "sense of urgency."

Yet his irreverence was matched by a loving heart.

Schmitz cared about his family and his players and students. He loved the Coast Guard Academy, from which he graduated in 1976, playing quarterback for legendary coach Otto Graham. He later led CGA to the first NCAA Division III tournament berth in program history in the final year of his four-season tenure as head coach (1993-96).

He was inducted into the academy's Athletic Hall of Fame in 2001, a festive night at the Officers' Club, followed, in fact, by a story-telling session long into the night at Mr. G's.

I remember the first game Schmitz coached at Coast Guard. It was a 53-14 loss at Rensselaer (N.Y.) Polytechnic Institute. He thanked me every time I saw him until the last time for being the only one to want to talk to him that day.

There was the last regular-season game he coached at the academy in 1996, a 23-13 victory over Merchant Marine, the one which secured the NCAA bid, giving the Bears an 8-2 record. And then there was the playoff game, a 17-16 loss at the College of New Jersey on a missed extra point with time running out. Schmitz wept both times, once with jubilance and once with regret.

I first met Schmitz the day he was hired at Coast Guard and had further opportunity to talk to him when he moved his family to East Lyme. It was he who suggested I cover the Coast Guard football team, something I've done now for 21 seasons.

I can't imagine my life without the people I've met at Cadet Memorial Field, without current head coach Bill George, without hearing present offensive coordinator Ray LaForte go ballistic into a headset upstairs in the press box, without seeing former quarterback Christian George score the game-winning touchdown, without the Saturday afternoons in the press box with my friends and colleagues.

Those are memories that all started with 53-14. They all started with a guy from Cincinnati with a sharp wit and a passion for football, friends and family. They started with you, Bill Schmitz.

Thank you for your advice.

Now, rest easy.

This is the opinion of Day sportswriter Vickie Fulkerson.

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