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November 19, 2018

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

Remembering Jan Van Tuyl, who coached into his 80s and left mark on LV teens

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Jan Van Tuyl, who began coaching and teaching in 1969 in the Clark County School District, died this week at age 83. He coached tennis and basketball at Desert Pines High School, even though he qualified to retire in the late 1990s.

The Basic High girls basketball team won the overtime jump ball. With possession, coach Jan Van Tuyl’s strategy was simple: Hold onto the ball for the last shot.

So, the Lady Wolves deliberately ran out the clock, dribbling and passing to avoid the defense until the end of the four minutes of extra time. They got the last shot and missed. Another overtime.

They again won the jump ball and drained the clock. This time, they made the final shot for the win.

Van Tuyl’s strategy could have been considered dull and ineffective. But his players knew better to question their veteran leader. They trusted him because he trusted them.

Van Tuyl died this week at age 83, leaving behind a legacy of compassion, kindness and dedication that was downright refreshing on the local high school scene.

He was a math teacher, tennis coach and girls junior varsity basketball coach at Desert Pines High School through this spring, and he was the 14th-longest tenured employee in the Clark County School District, officials said. He could have retired in 1998 but kept coming back each year because “retirement wasn’t for him,” Desert Pines Principal Isaac Stein said. He also worked at Rancho High and Garside Junior High School in a more than 40-year career.

Van Tuyl is one of the coaching legends of girls basketball in Las Vegas, a man who coached teen after teen with the intention of turning them into powerful young ladies. His lone concern was the well-being of an athlete or student, and that sincerity made him extremely popular.

“He was a genuine person who was genuinely concerned about our students,” Stein said. “Our students, they easily can spot who is genuine and wants to be here with us and who doesn’t.”

But by no means was he a pushover.

Van Tuyl was stern, demanding and not afraid to yell — just like others from the “old school.” It’s exactly what the teenagers from at-risk Desert Pines, where he worked since 2006, needed. Many educators begin their careers in the inner city to gain experience for a spot at a school with more resources and in a better part of town.

But there are a few like Van Tuyl, who was attracted to Desert Pines because those students needed him the most. Many former players and colleagues expressed their appreciation on social media, including powerhouse Centennial tweeting, “When you talk about girls basketball in Las Vegas, he’s one you will always mention.”

Linda Van Tuyl, his wife of 63 years, has been overwhelmed with calls and messages of support. She knew her husband was respected, but she had no idea how many were grateful for his compassion.

“He was everything to the kids. He was father, grandfather, teacher and coach,” she said. “One of the kids called him ‘dad.’ Another called him ‘grandpa.’”

About five years ago, Van Tuyl also became the Desert Pines tennis coach and worked with a local nonprofit to get children — most of whom had never previously held a racket — the equipment they needed to participate. Not only did he teach these recreational players the game and coach them to a playoff spot, he also coordinated for a few to receive college scholarship money, his wife said.

“How many people can say they like their job,” Linda said. “Teaching was a way of life for him. He loved the kids and helping them achieve.”

When Basic qualified for the state basketball tournament in the late 1990s, Van Tuyl arranged for the players to receive an early morning celebratory breakfast at Jokers Wild. Back then, four teams from Southern Nevada reached the tournament in Reno every season and faced long odds to win because Reno schools had a near two-decade string of championships.

It was a welcome change from most mornings when Van Tuyl ran practices before school, meaning players showed up at the crack of dawn. Some only made it to practice because Van Tuyl coordinated transportation. But he’d have it no other way, and players eventually became drawn to the camaraderie of being in the gym together each morning.

The camaraderie kept Van Tuyl coming back each school year.

Van Tuyl’s teaching career ended in the spring because of declining health. But he still planned to coach tennis in the fall.

“I told (our athletic administrator) that he would have a job coaching here until he was ready to retire,” Stein said. “And he wasn’t ready to stop coaching our kids.”

Ray Brewer can be reached at 702-990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21

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