Joseph Hayes and his Shelby basketball teammates learned this lesson the hard way: Never bet against Rick Zoulek.
Regardless of the situation, the Tigers’ longtime coach is going to find a way to compete and, more often than not, he’s going to win.
In his 37th year at Shelby, including all 37 with the boys team and 11 with the girls, he’s amassed an all-time record of 715-374 as a head coach. He’s guided the Tigers to 23 district championships, 19 West Michigan Conference titles and four regional crowns between the boys and girls teams.
Zoulek, 64, grew up in Shelby and his passion for the community, its school and its children still burn bright. He’s still imparting lessons, such as earlier this season, when he was wrapping up practice with conditioning and he upped the ante to his players.
“We had a bunch of running to do and he told us that if he hits a 3, we’ve got double and it was already a lot,” Hayes recalled. “We’re like, ‘Oh, he hasn’t shot a basketball in a while, he’s not going to make it.’ No warm-up – just stretches and he hits the shot, so then we had to run a bunch.
“Then the next day, same thing and he makes it again. We fell for it again. We’re not going to fall for it (a third time),” Hayes added with a smile.
Zoulek, a 1976 Shelby High School alumnus, was a three-sport athlete for the Tigers. He played halfback, receiver and defensive secondary for the football team. In baseball, he pitched and played center field. On the basketball court, the three-year varsity performer distributed the ball from his point guard position and featured a left-handed shooting stroke, which he apparently still puts on display from time to time.
As Shelby’s basketball coach, he always seems to find ways to get the most out of his teams regardless of talent levels on those rosters. His players know their roles. The Tigers play hard and together. During a recent alumni open gym featuring 15 players from past Shelby teams, Zoulek said it was amazing for him and this year’s team to see the former players still setting screens and running the offense they learned under their coach.
Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark
This season, Shelby’s boys team is 5-3 overall and in the thick of the conference race at 3-2 after a thrilling 55-54 home win over title contender Whitehall Friday. Zoulek also sits on the bench for Shelby’s girls team (7-4, 4-2), which features daughter Sarah Wolting as head coach and granddaughter Kendall Zoulek as the star player.
Rick Zoulek retired from teaching five years ago, but he has no immediate plans to stop coaching. The tight-knit Shelby community is wound into the fabric of Zoulek, wife Cathy and their family.
“One day I’ll feel like, ‘Everything’s ready, everything’s in good hands, I can walk away,’” he said. “The hard part for me is, I see so much value in a coach being a teacher at the school, a coach living in the community, a coach going to church in the community — all of those things that I’ve been a part of for 37 years that have helped me and helped, I think, build the loyalty for the program and loyalty for Shelby.
“I see how important that is. To me, it’s not been a sacrifice or anything; it’s just been something I’ve felt strongly about. Not to say you can’t do that living somewhere else.”
Shelby has always been special to Zoulek, however.
He grew up watching Shelby basketball and idolizing Paul Griffin & Co., who led the Tigers to back-to-back state championships in 1971 and 1972. Zoulek’s father, Ted, once held Shelby’s single-game scoring record with 46 points. In Rick Zoulek’s senior year, Shelby made a deep tournament run before losing in the state quarterfinals.
During college, Rick Zoulek would drive from Holland to Shelby each weekend and he noticed that a McDonald’s was being constructed in Whitehall. Upon earning degrees in business and education from Hope in 1980, Zoulek served as the first manager at that McDonald’s. To this day, McDonald’s is the Shelby basketball team’s go-to for a postgame meal on bus rides home.
“That’s what my wife says, too. She says, ‘I know where you’re going to stop after the basketball games – there’s no doubt,’” Zoulek quipped. “Matter of fact, my team this year got me a McDonald’s gift card.”
After a pit stop in Gaylord, Zoulek’s career path led him back to Shelby, where he served as a substitute teacher in 1984-85 before being hired full-time the following school year.
In his first season as Shelby’s boys basketball coach in 1985-86, the Tigers were winless. On the bright side, they had nowhere to go but up and that’s exactly what they did under Zoulek.
He and Cathy built their adult lives in Shelby, where they raised three children: Keith, Sarah and Amber, who are all grown. He and his wife now have 11 grandchildren. Zoulek was able to coach each of his children, who all enjoyed success as Shelby basketball players and athletes.
For 21 years, Zoulek held the boys and girls varsity coaching positions at the same time before the girls season switched from fall to winter and he had to make a choice. Zoulek stayed with the boys program, but he’s always taken a keen interest in what was going on with the girls program, especially now with the family connection.
“Really, this is the first year he’s sat on the bench,” Sarah Wolting said. “His knowledge of the game is huge and his situational, ‘Oh, you need to do this,’ helps — just to have those extra eyes of someone who knows the game so well and has done it for so long. He’s good at standing back at times and just watching and then giving his suggestions, too.”
“Grandpa” has always been a coach for Kendall Zoulek. He can play the “good cop” while mom plays “bad cop.”
To watch Zoulek on the sideline, he displays poise and rarely seems to show outward emotion or signs of getting rattled. But, make no mistake: The competitor within him is intense. Those who know him best recognize “the look” when he shows it.
“He’s kind of relaxing, he’s funny, outgoing,” Kendall Zoulek said. “He’s just there – he’s in the moment, he’s not distracted by anything else and just wants to hang out with his grandkids, more than anything.”
Like any parent or grandparent loving his or her children the same, that’s how Zoulek feels about all of the Shelby basketball teams he’s coached.
Zoulek admitted it’s very memorable to lead a team on a magical run, such as the 2011-12 Shelby squad that made it to the semifinals at the Breslin Center. The best aspects, he said, were the involvement and enthusiasm from the school and community.
But what continues to drive Zoulek the most to this day is seeing young people grow and getting them to mesh and really believe in themselves.
“I think he loves every team,” Hayes said. “Every team’s different and he likes getting to know everybody and working to see what every team can do.”
Former Shelby star Jeff Hovey, whose children are now thriving in school and athletics at Hart, considers Zoulek one of the best coaches he’s had and that includes Hovey playing collegiately. Hovey said that Zoulek has a way of connecting with young people and getting them to play hard.
“I just appreciate what he does for the game and this community,” Hovey said. “I wish he could just stay coaching forever.”
Nothing is forever, but Zoulek has cemented his legacy in Shelby as a coach, educator and valued community member.
Zoulek taught business and personal finance, including small business administration, accounting and communications during his years in the school. He also taught physical education classes and served as athletic director for five years.
In retirement, he’s continued to stay busy with family, basketball and hobbies, including golf, hunting and fishing. He also occupies his time as a part-time driver for Shelby State Bank.
The only active coach in the West Michigan Conference who has been at it longer than Zoulek is Brian Wright, who is entering his 40th year as Shelby’s baseball coach. Wright coached basketball with Zoulek for 20-plus years, and Zoulek considers Wright a “kindred spirit.” When the Zouleks moved back to Shelby after college, the Wrights were their neighbors.
Wolting said her father is asked every year, “Are you going to give up coaching?” She said his reply every time is, “No, I’ve got this kid here now,” to which Wolting will interject, “You’re going to have that kid every year, dad.”
She said he just loves it. He loves being part of the Shelby community.
“For me, there’s nothing like going to the grocery store, going to the restaurant, going to church, and people saying, ‘Hey, good game last night, Coach!’ Or, ‘Hey, Coach, tough one last night,’” Zoulek said. “There’s not a day I go to church and someone doesn’t say something about basketball. … It just makes it easier, better, whatever you want to say.
“And for me to step down, I really would like someone to be able to come in and do that, but knowing that I’m probably a rarity and that I have that and I’ve been blessed and very fortunate to have been able to do that and been accepted and supported as much as I have for the 37 years through our ups and downs, I just knock on wood every day. It’s just been a blessing.”
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