By Nick Worth
Richard Zalenski, former head coach of the Northland Pioneer College basketball team, passed away on Monday, Dec. 9, but it will be a long, long time before he is forgotten.
From 1990 until mid-season of the 1998-99 year, Coach Z compiled a string of winning seasons that was the envy of programs throughout the region and state. Competing in the Arizona Junior College Athletic Conference (AJCAC), the Golden Eagles played their first season under Coach Brien Crowder in 1988 and won the Arizona Division 1 championship.
Coach Zalenski took over in the 1990-91 season and started his NPC career off with an overall record of 24-9, with a 15-7 showing in conference play. The ensuing eight years saw Coach Z’s Golden Eagles post winning seasons, both overall and in their conference. The 1996-97 season was the only one in which they fell short of a winning conference record, with a 10-11 showing.
Coach Zalenski recruited players from throughout the Midwest and especially Michigan, where he grew up, and also recruited from area high schools.
Zalenski was intense on the sidelines and his basketball team drew capacity crowds to home games in the Tony Muñoz Gym at Holbrook High School. Then, during a game against Yavapai College in 1997, Coach Z collapsed on the sidelines and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Doctors found a leaking valve in his heart and put in a mechanical replacement.
He returned to the Eagles to finish out the season, but midway through the following season and already on track for another winning year with his record at 11-2 overall and 6-1 in conference, Coach Zalenski suffered a stroke in the early morning hours of Dec. 28, 1998.
Assistant Coach Mark Slessinger took over for the rest of that season and the next.
The program continued under two other coaches in the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons before the college shut the program down.
When it comes to talking about Coach Zalenski, though, the numbers and stats tell only a fraction of the story.
“He was a tremendous coach,” said HHS assistant boys’ basketball coach Delmar Johnson, who was recruited by Coach Crowder and then played for Coach Z when he took over the program in 1990.
“He was the best coach I ever played for,” Johnson said. “He was so focused and organized.”
Johnson said Coach Z also made his players feel special.
“Off the court, he treated us almost like we were his own kids,” Johnson said. “He made us feel comfortable.”
Johnson said Zalenski recruited players from Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Alabama and Antigua in the Virgin Islands, and made his players feel at home in Holbrook, even though some of them came from large cities.
“It was special,” Johnson said. “We had a special relationship. I will miss my coach and dear friend.
“I respect the man more than anyone in the world,” Johnson said.
Winslow head football coach B.J. Little was also a fan of Coach Z, even though he never played for him.
“I met Coach Z my senior year in high school,” said Little. “He offered to give me a place on his team, but I was more interested in football at that time.”
Little said Zalenski loved to help out in all aspects of the community.
“He gave local kids the chance to play here,” said Little.
“He was a good friend,” Little said. “I thought he was one of the finest men I knew. He had a very good character and he always kept his word.
“One thing he taught me was at the end of a conversation he’d ask ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’” said Little. “And he wasn’t just saying it. He was sincere.”
Little said Coach Zalenski was passionate.
“He was more passionate about life than about basketball, and he was really passionate about basketball,” said Little. “He always said ‘Do what you can for the kids first.’
“I have been very blessed and honored to be surrounded by good coaches,” said Little. “They all understood the art of touching young kids and helping them to develop as young men.”
Tom Heck, who served as the NPC women’s basketball coach under Zalenski recalls Coach Z’s weekly phone calls to talk about sports, especially Michigan sports.
“It didn’t matter if it was the Detroit Tigers, or the Lions, or the Wolverines,” Heck said. “He was a huge Michigan fan.
“He was a great coach because he had an outstanding work ethic and he was a great recruiter,” said Heck. “If not for his stroke, he would have been a Division 1 coach.”
Heck said Zalenski’s attitude was one of his most memorable traits.
“I’ll always remember him the most for his positive outlook on life after his stroke,” said Heck. “He never felt sorry for himself and always encouraged other people.
“It’s going to be a void for me not having him call to talk about sports,” Heck said.
For Hank Hare, a former NPC player under Zalenski, that void will also be felt.
“He is my favorite person on the planet. I played for him at Bristol University in 1989,” said Hare. “At Christmas break the school decided they could not fund the Bristol basketball program any longer, so they cut the season short. I was a freshman.”
Hare said Crowder recruited him for NPC and he finished his freshman year in Holbrook.
“Coach Z took a chance on a country boy from the Appalachian Mountains,” said Hare. “He not only made me a good basketball player, he gave me the confidence as a student.”
Hare is an assistant principal and girls’ basketball coach in Piney Flats, Tenn. Following his NPC years, Zalenski helped him get a full ride scholarship to Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville.
“He was instrumental in getting me in there,” Hare said. “I went on to get my master’s degree and become certified as an administrator.”
Hare, who was Johnson’s roommate at NPC, echoed Johnson’s statements about Zalenski’s relationship with his students.
“He was also our father figure,” Hare said. “Four years ago I drove my family 1,800 miles out there to Holbrook to meet him. It was a wonderful time. We went again just two years ago.
“He was like a member of our family,” Hare said. “When I told my daughter, ‘Coach Z has passed away,’ she cried.”
“I know in the Catholic faith, in order to be sainted you have to work two miracles,” said Hare. “Coach Z worked hundreds and I’m one of them. I would not be in this position today, as a professional and a father, without him.
“I feel like I can’t repay him enough for what he did for me,” Hare said.
Heck summed up Zalenski’s influence on those who knew him by remarking, “The great lesson that he leaves for us is to never give up, no matter what circumstances deal you.
“He was a remarkable guy,” said Heck. “He never complained.”
By Nick Worth