Beloved teacher, coach Belcher bids Eastlake High a final fond farewell
August 2, 2014
By Neil Pierson
New: Aug. 2, 3:19 p.m.
Rich Belcher’s oldest son, Mitchell, estimates his father has interacted with more than 21,000 students during his 41-year career as a teacher and coach.
Belcher stopped coaching high-school boys basketball seven years ago, compiling 414 wins during stops at two California schools and two more in Washington – Newport and Eastlake. He was inducted into the Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame in 2011, and took Eastlake to the state tournament three times in nine seasons.
In June, the 64-year-old Belcher walked away from teaching, something he’s been doing at Eastlake since 1999. Over the course of four decades as a teacher in Washington and California, he said, imparting life-long skills like critical thinking and work ethic have been at the heart of his life.
Whether Belcher was giving instruction in literature, U.S. history, government or sports, getting teenagers to voice their opinions in a constructive manner was vital to him.
“Whether or not they’re going to remember a date from the Civil War is not nearly as important as who they are as people,” Belcher said June 24 while sitting down to lunch at one of his favorite nooks, the Raging River Café in Fall City.
In Belcher’s humanities courses at Eastlake, students wrote in daily journals about a wide array of topics. On the first day of class, he liked to tell them he cared less about what they thought, and more about why they’d formed their thoughts in the first place.
“Any time someone says, ‘I don’t know,’ or they use the word ‘because,’ that’s not going to fly here in my class,” Belcher said. “Many times things aren’t all black or white either. Understand there’s a gray (area).”
Eastlake athletics director Pat Bangasser, who succeeded Belcher as the school’s boys basketball coach in 2007, said Belcher was a master tactician, but his success also relied heavily on building a positive atmosphere.
“Rich did a great job developing relationships with young men and women in his coaching, and we can all learn from that,” Bangasser said. “His basketball program was always like family, and kids loved playing for him.”
Belcher went far beyond working with his varsity players; he developed a year-round program at Eastlake through his work with AAU and select basketball, as well as a series of summer camps that routinely drew 100 players per week, Bangasser said.
“He was a really good mentor to a lot of coaches in the league,” Bangasser said. “They wanted to know how to start and maintain a successful program.”
Jason Griffith, who played at Sammamish High School in Bellevue, first got to know Belcher when the latter was coaching rival Newport. Several years later, Griffith assisted Belcher during the 1998-99 season – Belcher’s first at Eastlake, when they led the Wolves to a sixth-place finish at state.
Belcher has been married to his wife, Jill, for 32 years. They have two sons, Brian and Mitchell, and were prepared to welcome their first grandchild into the world in early July.
Belcher’s attitude as a husband and father made a distinct impression on Griffith, who now juggles the challenge of raising four children while serving as the head of Issaquah High’s boys basketball program.
“He gets how important that is to put time into your wife and your kids, because it can overtake you being a coach,” Griffith said.
Griffith and Belcher exchange emails on a regular basis, and often meet up for breakfast with mutual friend Steve Helm, a former head coach at Mount Si High.
Belcher’s ability to not treat his players differently than other students is something he prides himself on. And Griffith recalls being at several Eastlake practices where the players weren’t talking about basketball, but about what happened in Belcher’s class that day.
“To me, that’s what it’s all about,” Griffith said. “I don’t think coaches should necessarily be depending on wins and losses. Unfortunately, a lot of the recognition comes that way, but your goal should be creating memories and impacting kids for the long term.”
Brian Dailey, who coached Eastlake for four seasons from 2010-14, might be the person with the longest connection to Belcher’s career in Sammamish. Dailey began playing for him as a seventh-grader and was the starting point guard on the Wolves’ 2000-01 state team.
Dailey remembers Belcher’s ability to meld his players into a family, and how his “unprecedented preparation” created a consistent environment.
“He had a program and he transitioned his players into it,” Dailey said. “We were running the same plays as a seventh-grader as we were as a senior. And it worked.”
In games, Dailey said, the Wolves might be pressing or playing a zone defense, and the opposing team would call timeout to deal with it. In Eastlake’s huddle, Belcher would promptly anticipate that, and change the defensive scheme again.
“It was like a chess match,” Dailey said.
Belcher said he doesn’t have a “master plan” for his retirement years, but is looking to spend more time with family, and is even considering writing a book about the knowledge he’s gleaned from teaching and coaching.
In summing up his educational philosophy, Belcher recalls attending a coaching clinic many years ago where Bobby Knight was the guest speaker. Knight – an infamous hothead who won an Olympic gold medal and three NCAA titles – told the audience he didn’t care whether players liked him.
Belcher vehemently disagreed. In game situations, a tough opponent, verbally abusive fans and even poor officiating can conspire to overwhelm high-school players. They need friends, Belcher said.
“The last thing I ever want is for my kids to look at me and think that I’m their enemy,” he said. “I want them to think of me as their buddy, and the same is true of my classroom.
“…I want them to feel that we’re in this thing together. So whether I’m talking about Shakespeare or I’m talking about a half-court trap, I want them to say, ‘You know what, I believe in this.’”
He’s received hundreds of emails since announcing his retirement. One came from a well-known graduate of Rolling Hills (Calif.) High, Belcher’s first school.
“You were my first high school coach, and my best,” wrote Jay Bilas, an All-American at Rolling Hills who starred at Duke University and is now a college basketball analyst for ESPN.
“I learned to compete and do it with good humor and an even temper. You were always demanding, but never demeaning, a trait that precious few coaches have.”