Luitjens: ‘My biggest win was spiritual’

Ron Burtz

Retired Custer coach Larry Luitjens is the winningest basketball coach in South Dakota high school history. In 47 seasons as a coach—all but two of them as head coach—he racked up 748 wins, including seven state championships. However, Luitjens told a crowd in Rapid City last week his greatest win in life came the day he turned his life over to Jesus Christ.
Luitjens was the keynote speaker for the annual Faith and Hope Community Breakfast at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center Thursday. The event was attended by several hundred people from around the Black Hills, including a number of familiar faces from Custer.
During his half-hour presentation, accompanied by slides of some of the high point photos from his life and career, Luitjens spoke of what he called “the wins and losses of my life.”
Luitjens noted that an early experience that made an impression on him was having to serve as pallbearer three times in the space of five months at the funerals of young friends who had died tragically. He said the experience of losing those three friends was “really, really tough.”
“I didn’t have the Lord in my heart at that time, so I turned probably to drinking a little too much beer,” admitted Luitjens, calling the drinking his escape.
Luitjens said he was invited to apply for the coaching position in Custer by a former neighbor who was a Lutheran pastor. When he was offered the position he had to weigh it against a job offer in Arizona. He said choosing to move to Custer was one of the best decisions he ever made.
“Thank God I did,” said Luitjens. “I know that God had His hand in that decision.”
Following his move to the Black Hills, Luitjens said he made an even more momentous decision one year later when he took his family and a group of team members to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes retreat in Estes Park, Colo.
When the altar call was given, Luitjens went forward and committed his life to Jesus Christ.
“That was by far the most exciting and the best thing that I’ve ever done in my life,” he said, receiving a round of applause from the audience.
Immediately after that story was shared, a photo popped up on the screens of Luitjens’ son Lance, who appeared in grade school at the time, standing next to a tall man.
Luitjens explained, as the family was leaving the retreat, Lance came running up and said, “This man wants his picture taken with me.”
Following him, they found none other than legendary Dallas Cowboys football coach Tom Landry who was one of the speakers at the conference.
“He stood there and waited until we came,” said Luitjens, chuckling at the fact that Lance was wearing a Denver Broncos shirt in the photo.
Luitjens said his time of coaching his son in high school ball provided some of the highest highs and lowest lows of his career. He said the Wildcats went to the state tournament four times during those years, coming away with three state championships.
“My most painful loss was probably 1991 at the state championship against Lennox,” he said. “Lance had a terrible tournament...couldn’t make a basket.”
Coming home from that tournament, Luitjens said his son didn’t touch a basketball for two weeks. But then the team was going to an AAU tournament in Beach, N.D., and Lance’s mother said, because he had been sick he could go, but couldn’t play.
“I guess I didn’t hear her say he couldn’t play,” said Luitjens to laughs from audience, “because he got up there and he wanted to play.”
After averaging 30 points a game during the tourney, Luitjens said his son went home and posted this sign on his wall: “1992, Custer beats Lennox in state championship.”
“And you know what? We did,” exclaimed Luitjens.
Several other Custer personalities were featured at the event. Introducing his former coach was Doug Herrmann, an all-stater in both basketball and football for Custer in the 1970s. Now executive director of the Rapid City Club for Boys, Herrmann said he had the privilege of being coached by two hall of famers in Luitjens and former University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne. He applauded Luitjens for his career of “touching the lives of youth.”
Assisting Luitjens with his presentation was Midwest director of COIN Sports Outreach, Bob Parsons of Custer, who has co-written a book with Lance called “A Coach of Influence: Larry Luitjens.” Book order forms were distributed to attendees.
The closing prayer for the event was offered by Pastor Joel Ziolkowski of Custer’s Living Outreach Church. Ziolkowski said he had been Luitjens’ pastor for several years when he lived in Custer.
Another Custer face showing up in the slides was that of Custer School District superintendent Mark Naugle, who had been one of the referees at Luitjens’ last home game of his career in February 2014. Luitjens, who admitted he had a reputation for yelling at officials over the years, said he was touched that the three referees approached him after that game and asked to take a picture with him.
A survivor of cancer and a lupus sufferer, Luitjens also shows the after affects of a collision between his bicycle and an RV on Sylvan Lake Road several years ago that left him with multiple broken bones. However, his sense of humor remains intact, joking that Parsons who sat nearby on a stool during the speech, was there to catch him in case he fell down.
In keeping with the theme of the event, Luitjens concluded his remarks by reading from the Four Spiritual Laws gospel tract and speaking once again about his conversion experience.
“My biggest win—in all the games that we played—my biggest win was turning my life over to the Lord,” he said. “When I turned my life over to Jesus Christ and was born again, that was the big win for me. I hope all of you find the Lord because it’s been the greatest thing for me.”

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