Vetter, the Innovator, Is Still Showing 'Em
Sunday, December 24, 2006
Want to challenge Stu Vetter's basketball program? Then come on, the coach says. Walk into his office at the Montrose Christian School in Rockville.
Here, framed on the wall, hang portraits of seven NBA players. "They all started their careers with me," Vetter says. The coach walks behind his desk and pulls out his latest instructional DVD, which, Vetter says, is "available everywhere." And how about this? It's a recent copy of a Japanese magazine with a feature article about Vetter. "I can't read their writing characters," Vetter says, "but I'm almost a legend over there."
Vetter has a complete tour of these artifacts, and he leads it instinctively. He's honed his defensive tactics during a 30-year clash with the high school sports establishment in Washington. Through four schools, 732 wins and 24 consecutive nationally ranked teams, Vetter has antagonized powerful coaches and administrators by defying the principles of amateur sports. He avoided joining leagues to ensure that he answered to no one. Then he fought for widespread recruiting, for corporate sponsorship, for a top-to-bottom professionalization of high school basketball.
And he won.
In the last year, The Washington Post has written about the men who made over amateur basketball by ignoring conventions and, at times, evading rules. Billion-dollar shoe companies sponsor teams that recruit 10-year-olds. Coaches control academic curriculums. Businessmen import foreign players for profit.
Vetter, a two-time USA Today national coach of the year, does none of these things. But, for better or worse, he was one of the first coaches in the nation to challenge the traditions of high school sports. And because Vetter was so successful, his radical vision for creating a basketball powerhouse became the accepted blueprint for schools seeking to become national powers.
At a succession of tiny private schools, Vetter pushed boundaries and created new norms that fit his vision. He recruited players away from local public schools in the 1970s. He scheduled games across the country -- including some on ESPN -- in the 1980s. He scouted internationally in the 1990s. Opposing coaches decried each of Vetter's innovations as unethical. Then, to remain competitive, they emulated him.
As the coach of Montrose Christian, Vetter continues to innovate. During the last four seasons, more than 15 of Vetter's players have lived adjacent to the school in a house owned by their coach. The house, purchased in 2003, allows Vetter to provide living arrangements for his nonlocal players. Because Montrose Christian is a private school with no conference affiliation, the house breaks no rules.
"Everybody has always complained about what we were doing, and then they go out and do the same exact things," Vetter said. "That's been the trend. They can call me the bad guy, but then other teams follow our steps."
At Montrose Christian, Vetter has fulfilled the coaching vision he first brought to Flint Hill, his alma mater, in the early 1970s: He has virtually replicated a college basketball program.
Except with 15-, 16- and 17-year old players.
Montrose, a K-12 school with about 350 students, sits next to a shopping center on a major thoroughfare in Rockville. Its tiny basketball court has a scuffed, brown rubber floor with yellow lines. The gym has fewer than 600 seats, and many of those have an obstructed view of the court. But amateurism persists no further.
Vetter's players often arrive at school 45 minutes before the start of classes to take jump shots, and a schedule packed with study hall, practice and weightlifting sometimes keeps them at school until 8 p.m. Vetter prints out a daily practice itinerary on Nike letterhead, and he requires Montrose players to wear suits on game days. Players take lessons on proper table manners and interview etiquette. Vetter reprimands players who greet strangers without looking them in the eyes.
Sloppiness, under Vetter, is an unforgivable attribute. During an early-season workout last season, the coach ordered his players to practice clapping in unison after on-court huddles. A group of third-stringers -- players unlikely to get into the game alone, much less together -- failed to make one coordinated noise. Vetter glared at the group with penetrating eyes that are set deep into his round head. "See," Vetter yelled, "this is why you don't play." Then the coach made the third team practice clapping for 15 more minutes.
"Stu is going to make you miserable sometimes, because he's a perfectionist," said Serge Zwikker, who advanced to North Carolina and the NBA after playing for Vetter in the early 1990s. "He is probably the strictest high school coach in the country. It's going to be more business than fun. But you just have to remember there's a reward at the end."
Vetter has sent about 100 players to Division I basketball teams, including 2006 graduates Greivis Vasquez (Maryland) and Kevin Durant (Texas). Vetter's Web site boasts endorsements from Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski and Texas Coach Rick Barnes. Vetter employs five assistant coaches, including a strength and conditioning specialist. He takes his teams to a tournament in Hawaii every season, and Montrose usually plays about 10 games outside of Maryland.
"We think we have a pretty great program, almost like a college program," Vetter said. "We don't recruit kids as much as we probably should, simply because we don't have to anymore. Players want to come here, and I think that's because, based on our track record, we offer a pretty ideal setup."
Vetter further improved Montrose's appeal in 2003 when he bought a house on Randolph Road as, he said, "a good investment." The property previously was owned by Montrose Baptist Church, which had sometimes used it to house foreign students. Vetter, who lives alone in Virginia, decided to use the house for that same purpose.
The coach invited a Montrose youth pastor to live in the house for free and watch over the basketball players. During the next three seasons, Patty Schooler became a de facto mother for three boys from Nigeria and one each from Japan, Korea, Argentina and Russia.
"A lot of people thought it sounded crazy," said Schooler, who moved to Oregon last summer and was replaced in the basketball house by another couple who works at Montrose. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I thought it was a chance to do something good."
Ben Thomas, now a freshman at James Madison, visited the house before transferring to Montrose from a high school in Alabama at the beginning of his junior year. His parents saw the large living room, the eight beds and four bathrooms and marveled at the size. Thomas saw two televisions with cable and the school gym across the street and marveled at the setup. "It was almost like going to college and living in the dorms," Thomas said.
Said Vasquez, who lived in the house last year: "It makes everything easy. You walk to school, you live with your friends and you stay free."
This season, varsity players Terrell Vinson, Isaiah Armwood and Douglas Browman live in the house. Several private schools recruited Vinson, a 6-foot-6 sophomore from Baltimore, but none could match Montrose's offer.
"That house is a big reason why he went there," said Progressive Christian Academy Coach Van Whitfield, who coached Vinson two seasons ago as an eighth-grader at Southern Maryland Christian. "Terrell's family didn't want to drive. Montrose gave him a place to live."
Like every other part of Vetter's program, the house is governed by militaristic control. When each player moves into the house, he agrees to abide by a long list of rules: clean your own room and bathroom; no television after 10 p.m.; lights out by 11 p.m.
"We look at the house as a privilege," Vetter said, "and I make sure to watch over it."
Vetter learned to seize control during his first few years as a coach. He attended Shepherd University and returned directly to Flint Hill in Oakton, where he became coach of the junior varsity football, basketball and baseball teams. He had been unspectacular as an athlete, and he possessed only a fundamental understanding of basketball. In his rise to coaching prominence, Vetter relied mainly on determination.
He defaulted into the varsity basketball coaching job as a 23-year-old, taking over a program in 1975 that had never produced a college player. Vetter's first star, Mike Pepper, attracted attention from recruiters after he played a great game in a senior all-star tournament. A day later, Vetter insisted that college coaches talk to him before speaking to Pepper.
"Even then, he wanted to control traffic and make connections with all these coaches," said Pepper, who eventually chose to play for North Carolina. "We were at this tiny school in a tiny conference, and we played in a gym that was also the cafeteria and the theater. But Coach Vetter had this vision of building a basketball powerhouse at the level of any other powerhouse in the country. We thought he was crazy."
Especially because most people assumed that Flint Hill would never even be the best team locally. Those were the years when DeMatha and legendary coach Morgan Wootten ruled high school basketball in the area. The thought of another private school challenging the Stags seemed preposterous.
"You can't create a great program by going for the quick fix," Wootten said. "It takes years and years of work to do it right."
Vetter's players almost unanimously remember a coach who had few close friends and no substantial hobbies. Vetter devoted himself entirely to his basketball program, and he demanded that his players did the same. He made coaching high school basketball a year-round job, running clinics in the summer and securing a relationship with Nike.
At Flint Hill, Vetter lured players from surrounding public schools so consistently that the Northern Virginia Coaches Association twice voted to stop playing against his teams. At monthly athletic meetings, coaches and administrators brainstormed ways to stand in Vetter's way. "It was war," said Earl Gillespie, the former VHSL executive director, "and [Vetter] was the bad guy."
Said Red Jenkins, then the coach at W.T. Woodson: "When Stu came around, we had to recruit our own neighborhood kids for the first time. If you didn't get a kid sold on going to his public school early, he was as good as gone."
Vetter sometimes changed his players' academic classification -- from a junior to a sophomore, for instance -- so they could play high school basketball for an extra year. Dennis Scott transferred to Flint Hill in 1984, after playing a freshman season at Loudoun County High School. Vetter made Scott a freshman again at Flint Hill and, in Scott's fifth year of high school, USA Today named him the player of the year.
"There were a lot of kids over the years that made me say, 'Geez, I wish he was only a junior.' But I couldn't just go and change it," said Bob McKeag, a longtime public school coach in Fairfax County. "There's more to a kid's life than improving his basketball skills."
Vetter, though, made basketball the priority, which resulted in a pattern at a succession of small private schools: Vetter's teams built up the schools, and then left them fractured. At Flint Hill (1975-90), he invited Glenn Rounsevell, then the school's owner, on a basketball road trip -- and asked him to carry the players' textbooks. At Potomac-based (and now defunct) Harker Prep (1990-92), Vetter alienated the school's supporters by bringing in a full team of transfers. At Frederick's St. John's-Prospect Hall (1992-98), a rift developed between regular students and basketball players.
"It felt like two schools," said Thomas Peri, then the headmaster. "There were the students and the basketball players, and they had nothing in common."
Vetter said he feels more comfortable at Montrose Christian than he's felt anywhere else. Other high school programs have imitated him so thoroughly that Vetter's methods hardly stand out, coaches said. Almost all elite private school teams travel to national tournaments and recruit internationally. Vetter no longer reclassifies players, he said, and he refused to play teams that do. Montrose recruits less frequently than many schools in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, coaches said.
"Everything has changed in the last few years," Vetter said. "It's a level playing field. We might have been ahead of the curve once, but those perceptions have changed. If we were on the cutting edge before, now we're right in the middle."