IRONWOOD — Jim Betchek, a former teacher and coach at Luther L. Wright High School, passed away Sept. 22 at the age of 85.
Many in this area may not know or remember Betchek; he lived in Ironwood from 1956-61.
But while he was here, he made quite an impression. Mostly, he left his mark in coaching high school sports such as football, basketball and track and field. And it was in basketball, where he was a head coach, that he left his biggest imprint.
Betchek was a star athlete at Berrien Springs High School in many sports during the 1940s.
He excelled and set records in basketball, but when he attended the University of Michigan, he said he “had the privilege” of playing football there.
After his father’s death, he transferred to Western Michigan University so he could be more of a help to his mother. He majored in education and was able to continue playing college basketball.
When he moved to Ironwood in 1956, Betchek was 28-years old. He taught history and math and was an assistant coach in football and track and field. And he was Ironwood’s varsity basketball coach.
In the 1950s, Ironwood was mainly a football school. Betchek also started making the school a basketball power. Former Ironwood Area Schools principal and superintendent, Percy Smith, played for Betchek and saw how he did it.
“He built the program up through the JV and freshmen teams,” Smith said. “And he really knew basketball.”
Smith remembers a time when the Harlem Globetrotters (including Wilt Chamberlain) were scheduled to play an exhibition game in the Ironwood High School Gym. They arrived early and were watching the Red Devils practice. After practice, Smith said some of the Globetrotters mentioned to the players that Betchek really knew his basketball.
When Wayne Melchiori arrived in Ironwood in 1959, he got to know Betchek well because when Melchiori was the head coach in football and track, Betchek was his assistant. It was just the opposite in basketball.
“He (Betchek) was just the best and we remained friends the rest of our lives,” Melchiori said. “And he was really a good guy to work with. He knew his stuff, but I think he was such a good coach because of his relationship with his players. There was not a lot of hollering and yelling, but the players respected and liked him and he liked and respected them back. He was a player’s coach, but the players also did what they were supposed to do.”
According to current Ironwood boys basketball coach, Pete Lewinski, Betchek’s first Ironwood team of 1956-57 had a 13-6 record and were co-champions of the old Michigan-Wisconsin Conference with Hurley. They also won the district title that season.
It was a down year in 1957-58 with four wins and 12 losses, but the Red Devils rebounded in 1958-59 with 12 wins and five losses. The following season was even better as Ironwood went 13-6, and the 1960-61 team had an impressive 16-5 record.
Lewinski’s research showed that Betchek’s teams won three Class B district titles in the five years he was in Ironwood (1957, 1960, 1961).
His teams also shared but never outright won three M-W Conference titles. Ironwood was co-champs with Hurley in 1956-57, tri-champions with Hurley and Wakefield in 1958-59 and co-champions again with Hurley in 1960-61.
The 1960-61 team was probably Betchek’s best. In postseason play, the Red Devils brought home the regional title (which was then called the Class B U.P. Championship) for the first time since 1937. Ironwood has only won four regional titles. The other three were in 1937 under coach Al Treado and the two others were in 1975 and 1976 under Harry Peterson.
Ironwood lost in the state quarterfinals when the Red Devils were narrowly defeated by Alpena Catholic Central, 66-64, on an off-shooting night.
Smith and the rest of Ironwood’s starting five (John Slavin, Pete Kopecko, John Tregembo and Bruce Hedstrom) all stayed in touch and visited their coach for the rest of his life. (Smith also said that Pete Kopecko received a letter from coach John Wooden in 1961 asking him if he would be interested in playing basketball at UCLA.)
Smith said that he phoned Betchek late in his life and the old coach became quite emotional when talking about Ironwood playing in the state tournament.
“He apologized for not winning the state championship for us,” Smith said. “I didn’t see it that way. I thought we did as good as we did because of him.”
Betchek left Ironwood in 1961 with an overall record of 58-34.
After a stint in the U.S. Army, Betchek returned to Berrien Springs to work in various businesses, most notably the Upjohn Company.
In 1971, he established his own company in the urethane foam industry, Jameson Chemical, Inc. Along with his son, Joe, the company grew from a small wholesaler and applicator supplier to what is now known as Jameson Company Ltd ., a highly established business in Niles, Mich.
But to Melchiori and Smith, Betchek will be remembered as a really good guy and a really good coach-the kind of coach you would want your son or daughter to play for.
“It was about respect and how you would like your kids to be treated,” Smith said.