ST. LOUIS, Mo. and DE PERE, Wis. – Each Saturday night, Shane Van Diest finds himself waiting for a phone call. It doesn’t always come at the exact same time, it can’t, but it eventually comes each Saturday of every month during the fall.
“Since I’ve left Helena, Dad and I usually talk, we talk quite a bit,” Van Diest said of his father, Mike, the longtime football coach at Carroll College who announced his retirement on Monday. “We talk about life as father and son, but we sort of have a tradition that on Saturday nights we talk shop, we talk football. Usually Saturday nights we’ll call and talk about the game, talk about how the defense played, what things we’re looking at going forward and I think, for me, it’s an unbiased ear who knows football and knows him.”
This weekend’s call was different. The Van Diests still discussed Xs and Os, things done right or wrong, but this conversation took a more serious direction – Mike told his oldest son he would retire from coaching football after 43 years in the profession.
“Over the last couple years, it certainly came up, knowing that retirement was on the horizon. We’ve batted it around and always sort of talked about, ‘Would Carroll be the end for him? Would there be other coaching jobs in the future?’” said Shane. “I had a feeling this was coming, either this year or next year, but he didn’t make it official, even to (Shane’s younger brother) Clay and I, until the last week. I don’t think there was surprise, but it’s always strange to just imagine Carroll football sans Mike Van Diest moving forward.”
Shane played for his father at Carroll, winning NAIA national championships in 2005 and 2007.
After graduation, he followed in Mike’s footsteps, landing coaching jobs at Helena High, the University of South Dakota and, most recently, Duchesne High School in St. Charles, Mo. Shane had to step away from coaching this season after moving to St. Louis.
But coaching is clearly in Shane’s blood, and his hiatus from the sidelines will likely be short-lived. In fact, he and his father have always dreamed of coaching together — Shane the head coach, Mike the coordinator — but, for now, Shane looks forward to continuing a relationship that’s blossomed over nearly three decades.
“My pride is overwhelming. As sons and fathers go through phases of their relationship, your relationship to your father as a son certainly transforms as you age. It’s very different at age 5 than it is at age 10. It’s very different when you’re in high school versus when you’re in college versus post-college,” said Shane. “My dad and I have had a chance to go through all those phases of our relationship, we just got to add another one in there. … He’s one of my closest friends. Again, we talk a lot of football, we talk a lot of life.
“I just welcomed my first daughter into the world, she’s just over 12 weeks old, so at the end of the day, the most important lessons he’s given to me are how to be a good father, how to be a good husband. Of all the things he taught me about football and being a good man, the most important are that he showed me how to be a good husband in the way he treated my mother, and he showed me how to be a good father. Those things will be there long after the football accolades have faded away.”
Just more than seven hours north of Shane, not even physics or theology homework could keep Clay Van Diest from watching Monday morning’s live stream of his father’s press conference. The younger of the two Van Diest sons, Clay is a senior defenseman for the St. Norbert College hockey program in the Green Bay metropolitan area.
Clay watched emotionally as his father, his hero, said his goodbyes, thanked his supporters and swelled with pride when mentioning his family.
“Not going to lie to you, I cried watching the live feed (of the press conference), so it was definitely emotional for Shane and I, as well,” Clay said. “One of the things I love about my dad and some of the things I love about Carroll and the reason he loved that job, in particular, is the fact that we got to be a part of it. Seeing how hands-on my mom has been, my dad still jokes that there’s no way he could have done it without her. ‘She’s the best recruit he’s ever signed.’ Growing up on the sidelines, it was pretty cool because I got to be a part of it every day. … It was an emotional day. Talking to some of those guys, getting to be a part of their lives, I mean, I was in (former Carroll linebacker) Joe Horne’s wedding. I got to dance with (former Saints all-American tight end Casey Fitzsimmons’) wife at his wedding more than he did. It’s an emotional day for all of us because Carroll is so important to all of us. I know that won’t ever change, Helena will always be home, and it’s something we’ll always love.”
Last year Clay brought the ninth national championship to the Van Diest family — Mike won six NAIA football titles with Carroll, capturing two with Shane, while Clay and St. Norbert won the NCAA Division III hockey championship. Clay’s Green Knights have appeared in the Frozen Four in each of his three seasons, adding second- and third-place finishes.
The Van Diests could certainly put their athletic prowess up against any family, but sports have never completely defined their lives. To an outsider, the Van Diests are about championships and awards, but Clay says the most powerful moment of his father’s retirement speech was a message meant for his sons, both Clay and Shane and the hundreds of players.
“I got pretty choked up when he said that, ‘The only two titles he needed in life were coach and dad,’ and those were the two most important to him. That’s what he lives every day. I’ve been fortunate, I know he joked about me leaving home at 16, but I can say with 100 percent honesty, I have talked to him on the phone or FaceTime’d him every single day since I moved away from home,” said Clay. “Carroll is definitely a big part of our family, so yeah, it’s going to be weird thinking of it without that, but I know how thankful Shane and I have been that, a lot of times people talk about coaches losing their family a little bit, but that’s not at all the case with the Van Diests. We have been completely a part of his career and I love that he’s let us be a part of that.”
Now it’s time for the roles to reverse. For nearly a decade Mike Van Diest coached his program deep into November or December, winning playoff games and national titles, while Clay was chasing his hockey dreams everywhere from Canada to junior hockey to the Frozen Four.
Mike fought back tears Monday, admitting he “can’t turn the clock back on what I’ve missed, but I can certainly go forward and help and support (Clay and Shane) in their (lives).” Clay says flights and scheduling have already begun for the final games in his senior season.
“That was pretty emotional to talk to him about that. He called me (Sunday) night and he already has some dates set up on when he’s coming. That’s just a little extra motivation to make sure I make him proud and work as hard as I do every day,” Clay said. “Last year, the one week that I was named player of the week was the weekend he was in town and it was because I wanted to play so well for him. I wanted to show him what I could do and it was fun having my biggest fan in the crowd. I can remember my proudest moment ever as a player was when I scored a goal in high school and I came around the net and saw him fired up, jumping up and down as a fan in the crowd, and that’s not the side most people see of Coach Van Diest. They don’t see the fan very often. He is 100 percent my biggest fan and he’s my favorite fan to play for.”
There will certainly be a transition period for the Van Diest family. After all, Mike has consistently joked he doesn’t have hobbies outside of football. The Van Diest family — Mike and Heidi, Shane, his wife Marah and daughter Cecilia, along with Clay — will get a glimpse of their lives sans football next week in Green Bay.
“I’m excited. They were here last Thanksgiving. It’s never fun when he’s here for Thanksgiving because it means they’re not playing (in the NAIA playoffs), but it’s a pretty good consolation prize,” said Clay. “Last year when I had that breakout game was when he was in the crowd here for Thanksgiving and that was a special moment. I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving because of hockey for 10, 12 years now, so them coming to me means the world to me and I’m so excited to have the whole crew here.”
“I had the opportunity to play for him, so he got to watch all of my college playing career from a unique point of view. But Clay has chosen a different sport, so his career has taken him out of the country, across this country and I know that’s been hard on my dad,” said Shane. “As a coach you do sacrifice some of that. It will be really cool for him to get to follow Clay’s senior season really closely.
“As far as the new grandchild, watching him interact with her when he was able to come out here on his bye week was one of the coolest experiences in my life, just watching him get to be a grandpa. I know that there’s a lot more of that to come, hopefully more grandkids, we’ll see what Clay ends up doing, but hopefully a few more from my wife and me. It’s going to be great to continue to see him and my mom be the couple they’ve always been. Football may be taking a backseat now, but the people that they are in the Helena community, the people they are for us as parents and now grandparents, those things that make Mike, Mike, aren’t going away.”
No national championship in the world is worth trading in those Saturday night phone calls for an in-person visit from the man who was, first-and-foremost, Dad.