Former Aspen coach now in rival’s dugout
The thought seemed improbable to Rick Ryan.Following his abrupt dismissal as head coach of the Aspen High School baseball team on July 6, Ryan said he was not anxious to pursue another position. He could not have imagined that seven months later, he would wind up 17 miles downvalley in Basalt, at a school he had taught former players to despise. But that’s exactly where he is. Ryan reached a deal with Basalt High last weekend; he will share head-coaching duties for the upcoming season.”For nine years I taught Aspen to hate purple, to beat purple, and we did,” Ryan said Thursday during an informal practice at Basalt High School. “This is bittersweet because I love the kids at Aspen. It was out of everybody’s hands.”Aspen athletic director Carol Sams made the decision not to retain Ryan on July 6, amid rumblings that the coach was too hard on his players. The move shocked Ryan and was met with harsh criticism from former and current players.At the time, Aspen baseball player Kevin Coulombe described the decision as “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” Coulombe contended that a small group of Aspen players, upset over a lack of playing time, complained to parents who, in turn, took their concerns to Sams. Despite building a program on a foundation of loyalty – Ryan took over head coaching duties from his former coach – Aspen made the decision to “move in another direction,” Sams said in January. Matt Lilleberg, a 25-year-old Minnesota native, was hired as Skiers head coach in late-November.
News of Ryan’s departure spread as far as Denver, where Bruce Matherly, the Basalt softball coach who became head of the baseball program in 2005, took time out from a conference lunch to answer his cell phone.”My daughter Jamie called me and said, ‘you’re not gonna believe this, but Rick was fired,'” Matherly said. “I told her to save the paper, came back and read about it. The first thing I thought about was talking to his [Rick’s] dad. “When you have the opportunity to hook up with someone like Rick, you can’t pass that up. He is an asset to baseball.” The two men have known each other for close to 20 years. Ryan was a former student assistant in Matherly’s wife’s Basalt Middle School classroom. Matherly has always admired Ryan’s coaching style from afar. Ironically, Matherly solicited Ryan for information about baseball in the valley when he contemplated taking over in Basalt in the fall of 2004. Now, Matherly was the one making the pitch.Ryan attended Basalt’s first Saturday offseason practice and was immediately struck by the turnout and the genuine interest of the players, he said. It has been common for 10-12 players to attend sessions, held three times a week. Ryan had the chance to reconnect with a group of players he coached during previous summers as head of a valley squad that competed in the Grand Junction League. The prospect of having Ryan join the staff intrigued players, as well.”I was playing with [Ryan] over the summer when we found out,” said baseball player Tucker Hinchcliffe, one of six Longhorns on Ryan’s summer team. “I enjoyed playing with him, and he taught me a lot, so me and my dad got on it and told Bruce he’d be a good help.”
It wasn’t long before Ryan and Matherly met with Basalt athletic director Michael Green and agreed to a deal. Ryan isn’t unfamiliar with Basalt. He attended middle school and played two years of baseball at Basalt High School before moving to Aspen.Matherly and Ryan’s coaching relationship is only in its initial phase – formal practices do not begin until Feb. 21 – but both men said their partnership has already yielded promise. They see eye to eye, Ryan said, when it comes to kids, baseball and running a program. They share the same old-school approach to the game, Matherly said. They expect players to be at practice, to compete for positions and to be dedicated. On Thursday, Ryan had players efficiently alternating between drills to correct throwing mechanics, improve bunting proficiency and practice fly ball technique. The players listened intently, and with good reason: The Longhorns are 1-4 in their last five against Aspen. The attitude and the outlook are changing, players and coaches say. One player told Matherly a few weeks back, “I guess it’s serious this year,” Ryan said. Ryan drew criticism using the same matter-of-fact approach during his tenure in Aspen. Matherly said Ryan’s style is his strongest attribute.”He does a great job relating to the players and is an excellent coach,” Matherly said. “He was always tough to compete against. He competed with class, and his teams were always well-prepared.
“What happened in Aspen happened in Aspen. I don’t know the details. Now, with Rick and a little luck, we may see a whole new era of Longhorns baseball.”Ryan struggles to grasp or explain his abrupt dismissal in Aspen. He has yet to speak to Sams. He still coaches eighth-grade basketball in Aspen and said the hardest part is running into his former players as he heads out of the gym. The communication is short and uncomfortable. No one knows what to say. Ryan admits it will be difficult coaching against the Skiers players he learned to respect; and he is happy Basalt is ordering new uniforms in black. “I wouldn’t want my former players to see me in purple,” he said with a chuckle.Things did not end on the best of terms in Aspen, Ryan said, but he is grateful to have found such a good situation so soon. He is grateful to be coaching alongside a good friend and to be working with a quality group of ballplayers.”It wasn’t that the kids didn’t want me to coach, and that’s what makes this situation hard,” Ryan said. “But I’m OK with their [Aspen’s] direction and my direction. I’m ready to move on.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org