By Rick Schulte
All those years, all those games, all those practices, you would think John Biedenbach has seen it all.
And apparently, he hasn’t. While some people come back from Las Vegas with stories they shouldn’t share with others, Biedenbach comes back with an idea for a new drill.
“I was watching a football practice at UNLV,” Biedenbach said. “I like to watch other teams practice. Doesn’t matter the sport. And they were doing a running drill that I thought was interesting. So we started doing it. It worked well for us.”
Same with a trip to South Carolina. Making time to see a softball practice, Biedenbach saw something that caught his eye.
“It was a warm-up drill. I liked it. We still do it now,” he said, shrugging off the notion that it’s hard for him to stumble across something new. “I guess you never stop learning.”
Biedenbach has over 800 softball coaching victories. How many for sure? Yeah, he can figure that out (only because his wife Joan has done such a stellar job of keeping track of the softball stats, no doubt). About the only time he has to break out the calculator is when another hall of fame group or another curious reporter asks how many wins does he have.
Biedenbach has coached at Trenton since “maybe 1975. Or ’76. Something like that,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”
So long, in fact, that when he first began coaching at Trenton – with girls for softball and basketball (although he also coached boys’ basketball for a while, too) – he wasn’t too far-removed from his playing days. Before getting into teaching, Biedenbach parlayed a tremendous baseball career at Michigan State (the Spartans’ top male athlete his senior year, in 1966) into an offer from the Washington Senators.
As a third baseman, he made it as far as Double-A ball before realizing his ceiling was limited. So in 1970, his playing career was done. But coaching? More than 40 years later, he’s still active and successful.
Although Biedenbach has decided to retire from coaching basketball, he’s still got the drive to do softball. He does, however, have the wisdom to know not to let the games linger too long in his head.
“I think I’m just as competitive as everyone else,” he said. “But it’s still a game. I’m not saying it doesn’t bother me. But some things come first; your family, your studies. This is a game.”
A game, yes. But he still takes the way he approaches a game seriously. Biedenbach also comes from an era where everyone did. Where coaches weren’t called by their first name. Where kids played more than one sport. Where there was a less of a sense of entitlement.
“With the advent of AAU and games on TV and the camps, everyone thinks they’re coaching material,” Biedenbach said. “Now, there’s a lot of second-guessing going on. And with pay to play, a lot of parents think, ‘if I’m paying $130, my kid should be able to play.’
“On the one hand, I can see that. It’s a lot of money. But a lot of times, kids want to play, but it’s not the same as wanting to compete. And that comes from working outside of the season, and doing all the extra work at getting better.”
Another concern is specialization. It’s no coincidence Trenton (as did some other schools) have a great basketball team in the fall, a great volleyball team in the winter, and a great softball team in the spring. Now, it’s rare to find schools have athletes stay busy in multiple sports throughout the year.
“We hardly ever have any three-sport athletes any more,” he said. “Maybe three in basketball, three or four in softball. Before, they used to try all the sports in high school. You don’t see that very much anymore, and that’s a shame.”
What also set Trenton apart from other programs in the area was the way Biedenbach’s teams succeeded. They were well-drilled, disciplined and — in a time where girls were once treated like China dolls, athletically — taught the same way the boys were.
“I just wanted to treat them as athletes, not just girls,” he said. “We tried to be honest with them, and I think it worked out pretty well.”
Thirty years of success and a desire to get better seem to bear that out.