Mahler: Wielgus’ Impact Went Far Beyond Dartmouth

Dartmouth women's basketball head coach Chris Wielgus talks strategy in a time out during their home opener against St. John's in Nov. 2008. (Valley News - Jason Johns)

Dartmouth women's basketball head coach Chris Wielgus talks strategy in a time out during their home opener against St. John's in Nov. 2008. (Valley News - Jason Johns)

It was halftime at the basketball game and Chris Wielgus was walking off the court with her staff of Dartmouth assistants.

As she was heading toward the locker room, the game ball somehow squirted loose onto the court.

At that very moment, I was steering my 18-month-old daughter down to the floor to get her first taste of a basketball court — hopefully starting her on her way to a lifetime love affair with the sport.

Just as we got to the floor, Wielgus picked up the loose ball. Instead of rolling the ball back toward the managers in the bench area, she walked quickly over to where we stood and, with that ever obvious twinkle in her eye and sly New York grin, rolled the ball to my daughter.

It was the kind of assist that doesn’t show up in the box score, but it was the kind of move that showed the true quality of person that was Chris Wielgus.

It was announced Tuesday that after 28 years Wielgus had coached her last game at Dartmouth. But during her tenure, Wielgus was as much a part of the Upper Valley as she was involved with the Big Green.

She helped coach Norwich teens in an AAU program. She hosted clinics, signed autographs after games, made her players and her program open and available to the public and did it with a smile and an open heart.

Charlie Buttrey, of Thetford, saw that up close and personal. Buttrey has worked on the Dartmouth stat crew at the scorer’s table for years, while his daughter, Holly, was a Dartmouth ball girl.

On one occasion, Buttrey recalls a number of Dartmouth players volunteering to drive up to Thetford to run a practice for his daughter’s middle-school team. Another time, Holly invited a dozen of her friends for a basketball birthday party with pizza in Oberlander Lounge in Alumni Gym — complete with a birthday card signed by the team — followed by seats for the game.

Holly Buttrey recalls one night as a ball girl she was charged with throwing T-shirts to the crowd. “We were told to throw them as far as we could to distribute them better to a larger crowd. After our first round of tossing shirts to the eager audience, Chris recommended that we refold the shirts to get the best possible grip.

That was the first time we were able to get the T-shirts all the way to the back of the bleachers. It was incredibly exciting to have the coach come down to the very end of the bench to coach us in our throwing.

“One could say that that was the start of my collegiate throwing career!”

As you can see, the successes you may have witnessed on the court all these years were molded by Wielgus. The young women who wore the colors and represented the school so proudly grew up under Wielgus. The program, which started with a group of women thrown together for the first time as a team during the infancy of Title IX, became the preeminent women’s program in the Ivy League.

Everyone else’s success was measured against Dartmouth. Everyone else was playing for second place.

Meanwhile, Wielgus was having the time of her life. Sitting behind her bench, you could here her chirping away at her team and anyone else within earshot. Especially referees.

One night, so upset over the way the calls were going, and the cloudy responses offered by the officials, Wielgus gave it her best sarcastic shot. “Why don’t you just write it down? They’re Ivy kids. They can read.”

But don’t be misled by her humor. It was basketball first, and always in her life. And she made sure her teams respected that priority. From the 6 a.m. wake-up calls for team weight training, to the team-bonding pancake breakfasts, to the wind sprints, to the scathing looks after an untimely — and unforced — turnover, Wielgus was all about basketball and all about winning.

One of her former players said it best: “Coach tells it to you straight in order to get the best out of her athletes without reasons or excuses,” Sydney Scott said in the team media guide. “Most importantly, coach Wielgus knows how to win and get the best out of her athletes through teaching the game of basketball.”

She also knows about holidays away from home, hosting Thanksgiving dinner for her teams every year.

It is to her legacy that so many former players and then so many coaches in the building, around the league and the country have been in contact with Wielgus since the news of her departure on Tuesday.

You realize, that while the coaching fraternity was calling to commiserate with the departing Dartmouth coach, they were really calling because of the person Chris Wielgus is.

When she’s packing up her mementos off the Berry Center walls, Wielgus will be taking away her 393 Dartmouth victories. But Wielgus will be the first one to tell you that those victories belong to the young women who have passed through her program. She was merely the beacon that drew them to Dartmouth and helped point their talent toward those years of championship glory.

And just to let you know, there didn’t a visit go by — during the basketball season or just catching up at the Coop — that Wielgus didn’t forget to inquire about my daughter.

A few years ago, when my daughter’s Hanover High team won the state field hockey, the girls got a number of congratulatory messages and comments.

One of the special ones that my daughter still cherishes today was a very nice and thoughtful congratulatory note from an Upper Valley sports fan who understood the kind of hard work that went into making a champion. It was signed: “with warmest regards, Chris Wielgus.”

While there will be another person sitting in the head coach’s chair in the Leede Arena next year, there won’t be another Chris Wielgus.

That position has already been filled.

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.

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