By Jim Moyes
Local Sports Journal

A major contributor to the success for many of our area high school football programs has been the outstanding work provided by many of those who often remain anonymous in the background — the assistant coaches.

During my enjoyable tenure as a broadcaster of high school football in this area, I can recall a number of outstanding assistants who have made major contributions to their respective school’s success.

Mike Ribecky has been a behind the scenes leader at Muskegon Catholic as a football assistant coach for decades. Photo/Tim Reilly

Mike Ribecky has been a behind the scenes leader at Muskegon Catholic as a football assistant coach for decades. Photo/Tim Reilly

Among those who quickly come to mind are coaches like Larry Reuger, Steve Wilson’s long time right-hand man at Fruitport.

Mike Henry had many productive years while working with a number of head coaches at Orchard View.

Ed Schroeder at North Muskegon was paired with Dave Cooke for many years when the Norsemen experienced a great deal of success.

Dusty Fairfield would be quick to give plaudits to his longtime defensive coordinator, Randy Helsen, during the glory days at Ravenna.

Oakridge Hall of Fame coach Jack Schugars had a couple of right hand men who played a major role for the Eagles’ dominance over the years, first with Barney Goodrich and later with Joe Coletta.

But perhaps the one who tops this list of notable assistants would be long-time Muskegon Catholic line coach Mike Ribecky.

Muskegon Catholic has won a whopping total of eight state championships in football since the advent of the playoffs in 1975.

Two former Crusader coaches are already enshrined in the Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame, Roger Chiaverini and Pete Kutches, with recently retired Mike Holmes a sure bet to become the third Hall of Famer with ties to the Crusaders.

However, there is one common denominator during this magnificent Crusader era that leaps out at this ‘ole’ announcer — Mike Ribecky.

Ribecky has been a fixture on the Crusader sidelines since 1977.  Shortly after earning his degree from Western Michigan University, Mike teamed up with his high school mentor Roger Chiaverini, as a volunteer coach, while doing his student teaching at MCC.

With the exception of but one year, Ribecky has remained on the Crusader staff ever since.

“I did not coach in 1979 and, for whatever reason, I can’t remember why, but in 1980 Pete Kutches was hired as the head coach and I gave Pete a call,” recalled Ribecky.  “That was also the same year I started work at the Fire Department in Muskegon Heights.”

While in high school Ribecky was a mainstay of an outstanding Crusader team that won their first eight games of the 1972 season before losing their final game to the Muskegon Big Reds, the defending mythical Class A state champs from 1971.

Assistant coach Ribecky said his future coaching plans including taking it "year by year." Photo/Tim Riley

Assistant coach Ribecky said his future coaching plans including taking it “year at a time.” Photo/Tim Riley

Muskegon’s defeat of the Crusaders created a logjam at the top of the Lake Michigan Athletic Conference, with Muskegon, MCC and Traverse City sharing first place, each with but one defeat.

Ribecky would then take his football skills to WMU, where he was an All MAC player for the Broncos, before returning home to begin a career where he would help lead the Crusaders to an awesome run of success.

And what a run it has been!

Although not totally surprised, nevertheless I was overwhelmed when I reviewed MCC’s accomplishments since Ribecky climbed aboard the staff.

Including Friday’s Crusader lopsided victory Ribecky has been on the sidelines while MCC has won an imposing total of 298 games.  To put this in perspective, only nine head coaches in MHSAA history have won as many as 300 games, a mark Ribecky will surely pass in the next few weeks.

Over the 35 years Ribecky has served on the Crusader staff, his teams have made the playoffs in 23 of those years.  Eleven times MCC teams have played for a state championship, winning it all in eight of those encounters.

On six other occasions the Crusaders were but won win away from again advancing to the state final game, all in no small coincidence with Ribecky coaching the very heart of MCC’s trademark success:  their offense and defensive line.

When I prodded Ribecky to name someone who was especially influential in defining his career,  Mike was quick to point out Roger Chiaverini.

“Chev was the kind of guy, and Mike Holmes always said it as well, that he influenced the lives of a lot of our coaches over the years,” remarked Ribecky.

“It was just the way he went about things and how demanding he was, especially emphasizing the small, but very important things, that make things work towards the larger scale.”

When asked what is the most satisfying aspect of being an assistant coach, Ribecky responded,  “I just like to watch the kids progress over the years and through each season” added Mike.

“We like to run the ball, (and isn’t that an understatement), and we like to instill in our kids as to how much pride we have in running the ball.  We try to break the other team’s will and give our opponents the fear of not being able to stop us. I get even more satisfaction out of seeing the kids down the road long after they have left MCC to see how they are doing with their lives. “

With the enormous amount of success that Ribecky has incurred over the years there was little doubt he had to have been high on the list to take over a program as a head coach.  When I asked Mike if he had any desire to be a head coach he gave me a firm “nope” before I even came close to finishing my question.

“I know what kind of headaches these coaches go through and I want no part of that.  I just go, and I coach, and it’s enjoyable.  I don’t have to deal with equipment, reporters, parents” — quickly pausing for a moment to clarify, “but our parents have been pretty good.”

Ribecky further added “I’ve always enjoyed the training part in developing our program, I’ve always enjoyed working in the weight room in the off season with the kids but today’s era really calls for a coach to work nearly 365 days a year.

“Now it’s not only spending your summers in the weight room but it’s the weight room plus the seven on sevens.  All in all it’s just getting crazy,” lamented Ribecky.

Speaking of the weight room, where the muscular Ribecky, who still carries a waistline that I haven’t seen since the Eisenhower administration, is a part of Ribecky’s skills that are legendary.

When I asked him if he’s ever had a player who could lift more than him, Ribecky began to chuckle.  But, when I tried to nail him down, he modestly confessed, “Well not many, and well……….not many but I have one kid now that is very strong.”

However, the robust Ribecky never did fully answer my query.

There has been no question but the emphasis on work in the weight room has multiplied many times over the past few decades.  Going back 40 years when Ribecky was playing his prep football, there was very little weight training.

“It wasn’t until about my senior year (1972) that Chev began having us lifting.  That was the first time I was even introduced to weights,” said Ribecky.

Ribecky obviously has had numerous opportunities to move on to other schools but he has remained loyal to his beloved alma mater over the years.

“I would have loved to have had him to help me at Muskegon when I was coaching the Big Reds,” said Hall of fame coach Dave Taylor.  “But Mike would never leave Catholic Central.”

It was Taylor who passed along a story that perhaps best typifies the respect Mike has developed with his lineman over the years.

“I was once told that there was an incident when one of Ribecky’s players was seen with tears streaking down his cheeks after receiving some very constructive criticism from the popular coach,” remembered Taylor.

“When somebody approached the player and asked him if he was hurt by the admonishment he had just received, the players answered: ‘No, not at all, I just feel really bad that I let Coach Ribecky down.’”

When I pressed Ribecky a little further on overtures he may have received from other schools, he was hesitant to respond, but he did ultimately reply, “Well, maybe a few have asked.  But I think people from around town knew that I was firmly committed to MCC.

“My Dad and Mom were staunch Catholic Central fans and would not have wanted me to leave, and my sister Pat was the principal.”

When asked for the support he got from his very exuberant wife, Mike, with no hesitancy whatsoever, pointed out that “without the support from Nancy, this career never would have happened.  It certainly helps that she likes football, so much so that she is always at the games and cheering our teams on.”

Mike had initially wanted to work as a teacher following college, but it was in an era where teaching jobs were scarce. Mike made a last-moment decision to apply for a job with the local fire department, a position he held for nearly 30 years before his recent retirement.

At the time Mike had little knowledge of what his duties with the Department would entail but after passing all the necessary exams Mike was a member of the Heights Fire Department.

Mike was grateful for the support that he received with the Fire Department over the years, working in the city where he was raised.

“It was a job that allowed me to coach, as well as trade time with my co-workers so I could be free to coach the practices as well as the games, something I was very thankful for.”

When the football season is over Mike and his supportive wife Nancy will take a well-deserved vacation down to South Florida before heading back to Muskegon to watch their son Jason, the 2011 Muskegon Area Student Athlete of the Year, play baseball for the Muskegon Community College Jayhawk baseball team this spring.

Mike and Nancy are also very proud of their daughter Lisa, a former Crusader and MCC Jayhawk basketball whiz, who is now a local pharmacist after earning her degree from Ferris State University.

While on his way to Florida for a well-deserved vacation of his own, I caught up with recently retired Crusader head coach Mike Holmes.

“Mike meant everything to our program,” exclaimed the MCC coach who has won six state championships under his helm.

“Obviously he is a great football coach and tactician who just has a great rapport with the kids,” said Holmes.  “He is very dedicated to the game of football and has worked extremely well with all the coaches, dating all the way back to Coach ‘Chev’ to (current head coach) Steve Czerwon.”

Naturally Holmes and Ribecky became very close friends over the years despite, as Holmes pointed out, “Our differences in politics as well as personalities” joshed Holmes.

Before I ended my conversation, Holmes added,  “I read one of your recent articles saying that I should get my speech ready for the Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame.  Well, Mike Ribecky belongs in the Hall of Fame,” insisted Holmes, an opinion also shared by this former long-time board member.

For the foreseeable future, Crusader football fans can breath a sigh of relief.

When I asked Ribecky the obvious question as to ‘How many more years can we see Mike Ribecky on the sidelines, he was quick to respond, “I’m just taking it a year at a time.”

Good news indeed for the MCC faithful and all those aspiring lineman who want to wear the green and gold colors of the Crusaders.