By Greg Gielczyk

SHELBY – The game of basketball has been big in the Zoulek family, and in particular, Shelby basketball.

It started with Ted Zoulek, who played for the Tigers boys basketball team and once scored 46 points in a game. That the time, it was the school record.

Later on, his son Richard Zoulek played for the Tigers. After graduating from Shelby in 1976, the younger Zoulek attended Hope College where he played basketball and baseball.

He got married during his sophomore year at Hope and later received his degree in business and education. The couple returned to Shelby first and helped start McDonald’s restaurant in Whitehall. He was the first manager.

Later, he was hired in Gaylord and they lived there for 3 years.

Shelby’s principal then called him, asking if he was still interested in education because there was a position coming open. He got the job in the 1985-86 school year, after doing some substitute teaching in 1984-85.

“The gentleman who was going to retire decided to stay one more year,” Zoulek said. “So, I helped Jim Tate, who was my basketball coach my senior year.

“He was still coaching here at Shelby and I helped him for a year. Then, he resigned from coaching from here and I took the job. Right guy, at the right place, I guess.”

Zoulek is starting his 37th year as the boys’ basketball coach at Shelby.

But, things didn’t get off to a great start for him. In fact, it was awful as his first season at the helm saw the Tigers finish 0-21.

Rick Zoulek enters his 37th year running the Shelby boys basketball program (Photo/Leo Valdez)

It wasn’t a surprise, though.

“I kind of knew that things were not going to be real good,” Zoulek said. “When you have a first-year coach, plus a team that didn’t have many kids returning, it’s not a good combination.

“The writing was kind of on the wall. Nobody else was knocking down the door to apply at Shelby at that point because they had known it was going to be a struggle for a few years.

“But, when I took the job, the school board was very supportive,” Zoulek said. “I told them, ‘Give me at least 4 years before you can me, see if I get better, and see if things change, then decide if you like it or not like it.'”

Shelby won five games the following year, which only increased to seven in Zoulek’s third year. But the Tigers won 11 in year four and then won the conference title the next season.

“It was a lot of fun to try to build that program and get it back up to respectability like it was in the 60’s and 70’s,” Zoulek said. “I was just blessed and lucky to be called back. I had no plan to come back to Shelby to coach. I knew I wanted to coach and teach somewhere, but really didn’t expect it to be back at Shelby.

“But, the timing was right. It worked out for me. My first year I coached the girls JV at the same time,” he said. “I coached them for 10 years while I coached the boys because the girls were in the fall.”

Zoulek eventually was hired for the girls varsity job and did that for 11 years, coaching his daughter, Sarah, an All-Conference player. He resigned that position when the girls season was switched to the winter in 2007.

The Tigers had some very successful girls teams under Zoulek.

“I was lucky to be part of that girls program and help build that, too,” Zoulek said. “When you’re a basketball junkie, it’s heaven (coaching both boys and girls).

“I love to coach,” he said. “It was a good fit for me. But, yeah, it was long. We’d do summer stuff then go right into fall and winter and have a couple months off.

“It was easy having the good teams I had, so it made it a lot more pleasant.” He also coached baseball in the spring for a couple years.

His daughter, Sarah Wolting, is now the Tiger girls coach.

Coaching girls is a lot different than coaching boys and Zoulek said that’s part of the fun.

“I was lucky that we just had good players on both ends,” Zoulek said. “It just fit well. I learned a lot coaching the girls and that carried over to the boys.

“And, I learned a lot coaching the boys and that carried over to the girls. Every year, I had two more years of experience. It helped me as a coach.

“I feel it helped both programs, too, in that I expected the same thing out of the girls that I did the boys. The boys, each year I just pushed them a little harder than the year before. It was a lot of fun for me.”

Each program supported the other, with all the boys attending the girls games in the fall and all of the girls came to the boys games in the winter.

Of course, Zoulek helped encourage that.

In the years Zoulek coached the girls, Shelby posted more than 200 wins. One year, the Tigers made it to the state semifinals at Central Michigan University.

The Tigers boys teams have won more than 500 games, been to the state semifinals once and the quarterfinals several of times. That success also includes conference and district championships.

Zoulek also coached his son, Keith, who was an All-Conference player and was on Zoulek’s first conference championship team.

“I was lucky I had basketball junkies for kids, too,” Zoulek said. “I wasn’t the type of person or coach to drive them to be good at it. They were managers and they loved hanging around the gym shooting hoops.

“They just kind of grew up with it and caught the bug.”

Zoulek confessed that had his children not been interested in basketball, he probably would not have coached as long as he has.

If they had been into wrestling or volleyball, or something else, Zoulek would have wanted to be there to support them.

“I got to be at all their games and sit on the bench,” Zoulek said. “That was a big plus. I was very blessed to have that happen. And, my wife (Cathy) was cheerleading coach for several years.

“She was at games with us, too, whether it was riding the bus or sitting on the sideline,” he said. “I got to do summer stuff with my kids and didn’t have to be away from them.

It just worked out very well.”

Zoulek with his 2019 team. Photo/Leo Valdez

Zoulek with his 2019 team. Photo/Leo Valdez