Weather Forecast


Willmar's football coach Heitzman resigns

WILLMAR -- Ken Heitzman, head football coach at Willmar High School since 1997, has resigned the position.

He announced his decision at the team's awards banquet at the high school cafeteria Sunday evening.

In an interview on Monday, Heitzman said he will continue as a history teacher and as a coach in the Cardinal Strength and Conditioning program.

The Cardinals finished 2-5 in the Central Lakes Conference, following league records of 4-3 in 2006 and 5-2 last year.

Heitzman insisted his resignation has nothing to do with wins and losses.

"If that was the case I would have quit after my second year," he said.

The team had a winless season in 1998 and there was some public criticism of the new head coach.

But the team went 5-2 in the CLC the next year and in 2000 tied for first with a 6-1 record.

His overall record for 12 seasons is 35-75.

"That has nothing to do with it," he said. "Every decision we made was in the best interest of the kids involved in the program. This was a personal decision for me and for my wife, Jeanne," he said.

The Heitzmans have two boys. Matthew is in ninth grade and quarterbacked the freshman team. Michael is in sixth grade.

"It's been on my mind since mid-summer, but I reached no conclusion," he said. "The biggest thing Jeanne and I talked about was that over the 12 years you keep adding more elements to the program -- the right elements, I believe -- and it takes away a little more time from my role as educator, father and husband."

He said he's enjoyed "phenomenal" support from the administration.

"They've been very supportive of all our policies and decisions during my whole tenure. They've been helpful and easy to work with."

He also noted that he is grateful for the dedication of his varsity assistants: Bob Bezdicek, the defensive coordinator, has been in the program since 1979; Brad Atchison and Steve Grove, both basketball head coaches, have each served with him at least 10 years each.

Though Willmar has had losing seasons seven of the past eight years, principal Rob Anderson said the administration is pleased with the program.

"For me, the thing as Ken steps aside is that he was always teaching," said Anderson. "He showed the kids a lot of respect. Ken treats players the way I'd want my own sons treated. I would have been proud to have my kids play for him."

The coaching position will be posted. The more teaching positions open, the broader the pool of candidates, pointed out Anderson. The outcome of today's school levy referendums will impact the size of the field, since a "no" vote will mean layoffs.

"If we're cutting positions, it makes it more difficult when you're trying to hire a coach," said the principal.

Athletic director Jamie Thompson said Heitzman will continue to be an integral part of the school's fitness program.

Thompson said he tried to get the head coach to reconsider and stay on.

"You hate to lose a great coach," he said. "But I completely respect his decision and his reasons. I think he's a coach in the truest sense. He's a teacher on the football field."

Heitzman, a University of Minnesota-Morris graduate, came to Willmar in 1988 as an assistant under Deryl Ramey. Ramey resigned after 18 years as head coach and Heitzman, the defensive coordinator, was chosen as his successor.

Heitzman ranks third in terms of longevity among the 10 CLC head coaches. Ron Stolski has been at Brainerd since the league start-up in 1977. John Ross, Heitzman's former teammate at Sartell, has in 15 years.

Heitzman said he is eager to serve as a "resource" in the transition.

John Sawatzky, a senior tight end, said it got pretty quiet at the banquet when the coach began the announcement.

"It was a big shock," said Sawatzky. "There were some long pauses. You could tell it was hard for him. But his family is more important. Football is just a game.

"He cared about every player. Hopefully, when his kids are graduated he'll come back (into the program) because he's a good coach."