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Comparing Two Legends

In my line of work, cool things happen. And, often times, I have a front row seat.

The latest instance came last Friday night (Dec. 16) in Chamberlain, S.D., where longtime Parkston coach Rob Van Laecken recorded his 552nd career victory over the hometown Cubs. With that win, Van Laecken supplanted the late/great Fred Tibbetts as the winningest coach in South Dakota girls basketball.

It's a mark that seemed untouchable, if for no other reason than the name it was attached to. Tibbetts, after all, is the epitome of success. He won 551 games--including 111 straight at Sioux Falls Roosevelt from 1997-2002--11 state championships (6 at Roosevelt, 5 at Jefferson), and was named national girls basketball coach of the year in 1999.

"As we got closer, I had mixed emotions about breaking his record because when you talk about girls basketball now, you talk Fred Tibbetts," an emotional Van Laecken confessed afterward. "I don't know if I belong in the same place or ahead of him because Fred was very good."

On the surface, Van Laecken's own questions seem valid. While his career record (553-196; .738) is outstanding, it's impossible to overlook the championship discrepency between the two legends. Van Laecken has none. And he's actually okay with that.

"Somebody says, ‘would you trade these for a state championship?’ No. I’d like to have one, yes. My kids would like to have one. But because of what’s happened and where we’re at today, I wouldn’t trade them. There’s a day maybe I thought I might because as a coach, and as athletes, that’s the ultimate, to win a state championship. But as you get older you start to think, it’s not the only thing. It's not that important. It’s the kids."

Comments like that help explain why Van Laecken's run to the record is equally impressive.

Van Laecken, unlike Tibbetts, has spent his entire head coaching career with one program. All 552 wins coming for the blue and orange. He's built Parkston into a perennial contender, and sustained that success for 35 years.

That's something not even the Tibbetts family could ignore.

He spoke of a surpise phone call he received prior to his record-setting win, "Phone call was from Nate Tibbetts," Van Laecken said with a slight smile. "He told me how proud his dad would be of me and said, ‘Enjoy the moment. We’re proud of you. We think it’s a great deal. You’ve earned it. Your program has been outstanding.’ And to get that from the Tibbetts family, that means a whole lot."

The relationship between Tibbetts and Van Laecken stretched all the way back to their college days at Dakota State University, and the two talked regularly until Tibbetts' death 2008.

That relationship is precisely what makes this "passing of the torch" so special. Van Laecken is not replacing Tibbetts, he's picking up where he left off. And it's tough to imagine a better guy to do it.

The future is the biggest question going forward. Van Laecken, 59, is still very committed to bringing Parkston its first state championship. He sees no concrete end in sight, though he admits the clock is starting to tick.

"Games are easy, but if you’re not having fun at practice it’s time to get out. I’ve got to be fair to the kids," Van Laecken explained.

"I will know when the time is, I think. It won’t be as long as Gary Munsen or Larry Luitjens, I’ll guarantee you that. It’s not even going to be close. I’m enjoying the ride and, like I said, when I don’t want to go to practice it’s time to get out."

When that day finally arrives, Van Laecken and Tibbetts will both be great. Period.

{Author's Note: Van Laecken's record-setting win will be featured on the Dec. 22 and Dec. 29 episodes of "Varsity Sports Now!" Show is schedule for 7 pm and can only be seen on Midco Sports Network.}

Filed Under Basketball | Varsity Sports