Whatever James “Jim” Nemetz did, he gave it his best shot.
Winning three state championships as head coach of St. Cecilia’s first girls basketball program in 1977 is just one example of how the husband and father of three never wavered in his commitment to excellence. The longtime coach, athletic director and activities director was remembered by co-workers, friends and members of his basketball team this week upon learning of his passing on April 16. He was 78.
“What a great man!” said Nancy Kindig Malone, one of several female athletes at St. Cecilia who petitioned the school to adopt a girls basketball program shortly after Title 9 federal legislation was introduced to eliminate sex-based funding discrimination in U.S. schools. A youth sports development specialist for an independent school district in Palestine, Texas, Malone remembers well the first recruiting meeting hosted by Nemetz at the school’s “gymtorium” prior to the 1976 season.
“Our very first meeting was with Mr. Nemetz and his assistant, Al Stout, and the goal was we were going to win state,” she said. “We were like, ‘Yes we are,’ and we did.”
Sucking on his signature sucker during games, Nemetz saw the potential in his highly athletic group of girls, most of whom were members of the school’s hugely successful track and field program. His leadership and calm demeanor brought out the best in his squad, which at one point amassed 66 straight victories without a loss.
“He didn’t treat us like girls,” Malone said. “I don’t think he’d ever coached girls before so that was the only way he knew. And it was exactly what we needed.
“He knew what he wanted to accomplish with us and he knew what his goal was, and that was inspiring.”
His commitment to his athletes and students was never in doubt, she said.
“You won’t hear a bad word about Jim Nemetz at St. Cecilia,” she said. “He was always supportive. People like Jim who commit their lives to it like he did are getting harder and harder to find.”
Malone’s teammate and cousin Ami Beiriger is a physical education teacher and athletic director at a private school in Phoenix, Arizona. She said it was Nemetz who pushed her to become the best player she could be at St. Cecilia. A point guard for the 1977 and 1978 championship teams, she went on to enjoy a highly successful collegiate basketball career at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, breaking a number of school records in assists and scoring during her career.
“He was a mentor and a very good friend,” Beiriger said. “Jim made me believe it (a college career) could happen. He contacted colleges and universities and sent them tapes. That helped me a lot.
“He was a good listener. When I talked to him and something wasn’t quite right, he always made me feel better.”
That he kept tabs on his former players was a true testament to his commitment to their collective well-being, she said.
“I always thought it was neat how proud he was of all of us,” she said. “I know he coached the boys at football too, but I think we were his pride and joy.
“He stayed in touch with all his athletes and knew what they were doing. I would come back to Hastings and play golf with him every once in a while and he knew where everybody was and what everybody was doing. He was up to date on everything.”
Marie Butler of Hastings worked closely with Nemetz as teacher and later principal during her 40-year career at St. Cecilia. Recalling his wearing of many hats, she likened his multitasking manner to that of the Energizer Bunny.
“He was athletic director and also taught classes and helped coach the football team when he began teaching,” Butler said. “When you’d talk to him, because his mind was going so fast, he would change subjects very fast. That was his way of operating.
“He was always a good guy. He never got too riled about things. Kids would pull pranks on him and he wouldn’t get too excited about it. He understood kids.”
A member of the Knights of Columbus golf team, Nemetz would play in the organization’s annual tournament with Butler’s husband, Mike, and their sons and grandson. His interest in trivia and attention to detail rubbed off on those around him, she said.
“I remember we were going to a Centennial Conference meeting and on the way back, I thought, ‘I think I can get him with this piece of trivia,’ ” she said. “I asked him, ‘Did you know every cornstalk only has one ear of corn on it?’ and he made me pull over so he could check out a cornstalk. I’ll never forget that.”
His commitment to his work made him a most reliable employee, Butler said. That same devotion made him a trusted friend as well.
“He was such a reliable person,” she said. “You could count on him to help you if you needed help. Just a great person all around.”
Vince Pelster befriended Nemetz upon his joining the staff at St. Cecilia in 1975 as a math and physics teacher and track and football coach. The two men and fellow St. Cecilia teacher and coach Alan VanCura painted houses together for years during summer vacation.
“Jim was just a fun-loving guy,” Pelster said. “He worked hard at what he did and took his job seriously.
“He was fun to work for when they made him athletic director. You never had to worry about whether he was watching your back. He may have been the hardest working activities director I’ve ever seen. The fact that he did such an outstanding job as a teacher and coach, you couldn’t ask for a more dedicated guy.”
Always a sharp dresser, his wardrobe included an extensive collection of Christmas-themed ties gifted to him by family and friends.
VanCura described Nemetz as great listener who worked tirelessly to ensure his students were privy to such learning essentials as memorizing all 93 counties and seats in Nebraska, being able to recite the Gettysburg address, and attending annual Close Up Foundation educational outings in Washington, D.C. His strong people skills made those around him better, he said.
“He ran a pretty tight ship,” VanCura said. “Discipline was one of his strong assets, not only in the classroom, but with his coaching. He had a way of making everyone feel wanted and able to contribute.
“He was a good friend, easy to talk to and always willing to offer his insights. Any kind of little job I needed done on the side he would always volunteer to help. He always wanted to help out.”
Nemetz’s extensive knowledge of trivia was impressive, he said.
“He was a trivia expert,” he said. “It seemed like if you had a topic to talk about he always knew something about it.”
The Rev. Tom Brouillette, St. Cecilia chief administrative officer, played football at St. Cecilia under Nemetz’s watchful eye. He remembers his one-time coach as possessing exceptional organizational skills and a genuine fondness for his students.
“He was more concerned about their character than their winning,” Brouillette said. “A lot of people remember him for how he did his work, which was always coordinated and on time.
“He was really a pillar of Hastings Catholic Schools. He’s one who gave his life to the school. We’re so grateful for his years of service to the school and being a witness for discipleship and generosity, as so many of his generation at St. Cecilia have been.”