When Al DeMott took the Sandusky girls basketball coaching job in 1979, he wasn’t planning on it being a long-term gig.
A few losing seasons motivated him to turn the program around, however – and nearly 40 years later he’s not only succeeded in doing so, he’s become one of the most successful coaches in state history.
DeMott hit the 700-win mark on Dec. 5, joining Detroit Country Day’s Frank Orlando as the only girls basketball coaches in Michigan to reach the milestone.
“I’ve been coaching for a long time, and I know I’ve been blessed,” DeMott said. “I’ve had a lot of good kids and parents and assistant coaches who have been part of it. I’ve been blessed with great kids that work hard, and want to work hard.”
DeMott is 703-187 in his time at Sandusky, with 19 league titles, 25 District titles, seven Regional titles and one MHSAA Finals runner-up finish (1999). He’s also had the joy of coaching his three daughters, Marissa, Allison and Desiree.
“They have all actually helped me in my program,” he said of his daughters. “It’s been a lot of fun. I planned on getting out a few years ago, but I’m still having a lot of fun. I’ve got kids that are so fun to work with, and it’s hard to walk away from that. Thank God my wife has always been supporting me, too.”
It did take about five years for him to get things moving in that positive direction, though.
“We got a piece of the league title for the first time in 1984, then in 1985 we upset Flint Academy in the Regional,” he said. “That really sparked these younger kids, and we had pretty good success ever since.”
Starting a youth program in the early 1980s was a key cog in the turnaround, but also a sign of Sandusky and DeMott adjusting to the changing climate of girls basketball at the time.
“When I started, the level of play compared to what it is now is night and day,” he said. “Girls basketball has come a long way. Nobody did anything in the summer, but now they’re as active as the boys, or more active.”
As the game has changed, DeMott has, too. He’s won games with teams that lit it up from outside, he’s won games with teams that pounded the ball down low, and most recently, he’s won games with suffocating defense.
“Year by year it can change,” he said. “Depending on the personnel.”
What doesn’t change is DeMott’s commitment to the game and his team.
“There are so many secrets to his success,” Sandusky senior Haley Nelson said. “But he prepares us so well. He does his research. We know the other team’s plays just as well as they know them sometimes. He’s always scouting and he watches so much tape.”
Nelson is a four-year player for DeMott, and recently committed to continue her career at Saginaw Valley State University. She said playing for DeMott is something players in Sandusky look forward to from a young age.
“Coach DeMott is known by everyone in Sandusky,” she said. “If you say, ‘Al DeMott,’ everyone knows who he is. If you go other places, everyone knows who Al DeMott is. He’s very well respected.”
It’s partly because DeMott has coached so many members of the community, including those who eventually watched their daughters play for their former coach.
“I personally think it’s pretty awesome,” said Nelson – whose mother didn’t play for DeMott, but her older sister Keegan did. “If you could talk to your mom about your coach and it would be the exact same coach, that would be pretty awesome.”
Although, Nelson said, she’s heard he’s not exactly the same as he was back in the day.
“I hear back in the day he was a screamer,” Nelson said. “Clearly, he’s not like that anymore. He’s the calmest coach in America.”
This season’s Sandusky team is 7-1, and DeMott thinks it has potential to finish strong, despite a recent injury to a key player.
No matter how the rest of the winter goes, however, this year’s team will always be able to look back on the 53-26 win against Unionville-Sebewaing that put its coach into elite company.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Nelson said. “I felt like we just needed to do it for him, because he’s done so much for us.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTO: Sandusky girls basketball coach Al DeMott stands with his team as they celebrate his 700th career win last month. (Photo courtesy of the Sandusky girls basketball program.)
Traverse City has had a few head football coaches named Kanitz.
But Mike Kanitz has no interest in becoming a head football coach. In fact, no interest in being a head coach of any sport.
So far he’s worked for nine head coaches. He’s seen what it takes to be a head varsity coach and he’ll stay where he is, which is pretty much anywhere there is a high school sporting event.
Kanitz spends his days and nights dedicated to the Traverse City St. Francis student-athletes, staff, administration and Gladiators community. He is the junior varsity girls basketball coach, volleyball game manager, volleyball announcer and volleyball scorekeeper, football press box manager, and the Glads’ soccer game manager. Additionally, as director of basketball operations at St. Francis, he finds himself at the scorer’s table for boys basketball games.
The volleyball, soccer and football duties are performed at every home game. He doesn’t take a paycheck for any of it. If the school does pay for his services, he promptly donates the funds to the source.
The soft-spoken and renowned St. Francis supporter is not the slightest bit interested in getting any recognition for his efforts.
Tonight he’ll run the Thirlby Field press box as the Gladiators host Ogemaw Heights. And, he’s ready for the Glads’ first home volleyball match Sept. 8.
“He is one of those unique people that shies away from the spotlight — he is a pure servant, said Aaron Biggar, St. Francis’ athletic director. “He doesn’t want any accolades or anything like that.”
Kanitz’ father, Hugo Kanitz – who also went by Mike all his life – was the head football coach of Traverse City St. Francis during the 1960s. Another Kanitz, Dutch — not related to the father-son combo —was at the helm of the Traverse City Central High School football program.
Mike Kanitz finds himself regularly receiving phone calls and letters from former players intended for the Kanitz coaches. He has to explain he’s not the deceased Central coach, nor his father. And he’s glad he gets to pass on positive feedback to his father, also a former athletic director for St. Francis.
“My grandmother said, ‘Never call him Hugo – his name is Mike,’” Kanitz said. “Don’t ask me where it came from, but he was Mike his whole life.
“I am junior in most people’s minds,” Kanitz went on. “Traverse City was a small town back then; to have two Coach Kanitz was confusing.”
His father now lives in Traverse City after retiring as a teacher and professor. The son enjoys picking his brain.
“I am blessed to still be able to run stuff by him (because) that’s really where I got my coaching start,” he said. “I used to get calls after coming back to Traverse City and the callers would say, ‘Is this Coach Kanitz?’ and I started to catch on that these were his former students.
“I don’t think my dad ever knew the impact he was having on kids,” Kanitz continued. “I don’t think coaches really know what an impact they have on kids.”
Hearing from his father’s former players helped shape his coaching.
“It made me realize as a coach you have the ability every time you open your mouth to either hurt a kid or help a kid,” he said. “So helping a kid is my desire.”
Officials, media and visiting coaches for many sports have noted Kanitz’ demeanor and contributions. They also know he’ll do anything to make sure they have a good experience at St. Francis.
Among other things, Mike reportedly once became a makeshift tailor when a basketball official showed up without his referee pants. Mostly using safety pins, a borrowed pair of pants went from 2XL to large in time for tip-off.
“Mike Kanitz should have a name tag that says, ‘Nicest Man on the Planet,’” said former St. Francis AD Tom Hardy. “Mike is the perfect representative that you can have for any event at school.
“He greets every team, official, and spectator with such grace and compassion, which leads to a very positive experience for all involved,” Hardy continued. “Mike has volunteered too many hours to count at basketball and soccer games as a game manager and coach.”
Hardy believes all sports fans need to follow Kanitz’ lead.
“Mike Kanitz is the example of how people should treat each other at any athletic event,” he said. “You truly would have to look long and hard to find a more compassionate and caring individual, and I would challenge anyone to find a person that has a negative thing to say about him.”
Barb Becket, a longtime MHSAA official and assignor, has similar views of Kanitz. She’s worked with him while he’s served as a coach, game manager and during community activities through her role with the Grand Traverse YMCA.
“Mike is the go-to guy,” she said. “He is a servant in the true sense of the word.
“Besides being the go-to guy for coaches, admin, and players, Mike also acts as the liaison between the sports officials and the sports participants,” she continued. “Mike handles his responsibilities with grace, humility, common sense, and accountability.”
Kanitz’ favorite sport to play is baseball, but his favorite sport to coach is basketball. After graduating from Alma College where he competed in track & field, he was thrilled to move back to Traverse City to start a family with his wife Marcy, a Traverse City obstetrician.
The couple’s three children graduated from St. Francis, and Kanitz first focused on elementary baseball. He was able to step away from his pharmaceutical career to step in and fill pretty much any need the St. Francis community had.
Kanitz points to his wife’s passion for caring for women as a motivator for him to get more girls involved in sports and receiving the benefits they provide.
“Marcy spent her whole life taking care of women,” he said. “So she sees the side effects of women not being given opportunities.
“So we’ve got to correct that stuff.”
Kanitz’s first job was as a water boy, along with his siblings born to Hugo and Margo Kanitz. If he ever can’t coach or serve in other capacities for the Gladiators, he hopes to return to the very first job he had as a preschooler.
“I am sincere when I say I started as a water boy, and I am going to finish as a water boy,” Kanitz said. “I am very blessed and I am thankful for the life I’ve had here in Traverse City.
“I am thankful for the school allowing me to be a part of it.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Mike Kanitz fills many roles for Traverse City St. Francis including girls junior varsity basketball coach and game manager for a variety of sports including volleyball. (Middle) Kanitz walks the sideline during one of his games leading the JV Gladiators. (Below) Mike Kanitz enjoys his daughter Delin’s Senior Night game with wife Marcy Verplank-Kanitz. (Top photo by Mike Spencer; middle and below photos by Julie English.)