John Schneiter succeeded the revered Gay Kintner as Decatur High School's basketball coach after Kintner died at the start of the second half of a Feb. 15, 1960, game against crosstown archrival MacArthur High.
Mr. Schneiter went on to also become one of the most esteemed and accomplished coaches in Illinois high school sports during a 43-year career that reached its apex at New Trier High School and ended with distinction at North Shore Country Day School.
"Hiring John (in 1998 after he retired from New Trier) was the first big step I took to say we're serious about what we do athletically," said Patrick McHugh, North Shore Country Day's athletic director since 1994. "We needed a (boys) basketball coach, and I called John. That may have been the best phone call I ever made as athletic director.
"He had a huge positive effect on everybody here. So many of the kids that he coached found him to be a tremendously influential person. He gave me great counsel on life. His influence changed my life."
Mr. Schneiter, 80, died Tuesday, Jan. 21, at his home in Northfield. His health had deteriorated because of Parkinson's disease after he had retired from coaching in 2002.
A native of Olney, Ill., Mr. Schneiter joined his Decatur High predecessor Kintner in the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1978 and was inducted into the Illinois High School Tennis Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1995. He also is a member of the Hall of Fame at Millikin University, where he received his undergraduate degree and master's in psychology.
After serving as Decatur's co-coach during the rest of the 1959-60 season, Mr. Schneiter became head coach the next season, and in 1961-62 he made history by becoming at age 28 the youngest coach of a state championship basketball team.
He accomplished that feat during an era when all of the schools in the state competed in the same tournament — unlike the current multiclass format. And in the title game, the team had to beat Chicago's Carver High School, a powerhouse led by future University of Michigan and NBA star Cazzie Russell.
Mr. Schneiter moved to New Trier East in 1963 to coach the boys and was reassigned to the girls team in 1981 when the school and New Trier West merged.
At New Trier he became the only Illinois basketball coach to lead a boys team and a girls team to the title game. His 1973 boys team lost to Chicago's Hirsch High School, and his 1989 girls team lost to Chicago's Marshall High School in overtime.
He also coached tennis. Current New Trier tennis coach Tad Eckert, one of his best players, noted, "It's ironic, but you can argue he was a more successful tennis coach than basketball coach."
Mr. Schneiter's boys tennis teams took eight state titles from 1982 to 1998. He coached Eckert to the 1989 singles championship and coached three state doubles champions, Bob Buerger and Tom Frei in 1982, Frei and David Gollob in 1983, and Russell Bennett and Peter Rose in 1997.
"He knew how to win, and he brought that winning mentality to the tennis court from the basketball court. He was a great motivator," Eckert said. "I thought that was his biggest asset."
Mr. Schneiter was a dapper dresser and had a coaching style that exuded confidence and charisma. But he was neither volatile nor flashy.
"You never saw John throw a tantrum," said longtime friend Joe Ruklick, a Northwestern basketball superstar of the 1950s who went on to play in the NBA. "He thought the guys who did that were grandstanding to shift blame for a mistake to an official or player — to imply, 'It's not my fault, it's somebody else's fault.'"
"He was a very confident person as a coach," Eckert said. "With his witty one-liners, he wanted to put up that front for his players because they perform better when they see confidence coming from the coach. I was a volunteer under him when I was in college and just out of college. He was obviously a big influence. I wouldn't be coaching New Trier tennis if it wasn't for Coach Schneiter."
Like Eckert, New Trier girls basketball coach Teri Rodgers is one of Mr. Schneiter's successful proteges. Starting in 1994, she spent three years as his basketball assistant.
"He had that calm, easy demeanor when the game was getting close or a little hectic," Rodgers said. "He never looked in doubt. He did a great job of giving the kids emotional steadiness when they needed it. That was something I've always kept in mind in my own coaching, but I'm not as good at it as he was.
"Another thing I admired was his relationship with the other coaches. After a game he always wanted people to come to his home. The opposing coach would usually be there; even other coaches who had games in the area that night would stop by. He took coaching seriously, and it was important to him, but outside of that competition, he wanted to enjoy it. He set a great example for me as a young coach."
Mr. Schneiter is survived by his wife, Suzanne; their daughter, Joanna King, and son, Clay; and two children from a previous marriage, Jill Schneiter and Steve Schneiter.
A celebration of his life will be at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Northfield Community Church, 400 Wagner Road.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun