In a career that, to date, has amassed more than 780 wins, 15 District 4 titles, nine Elite 8 appearances, five trips to the state finals and one PIAA Girls’ Basketball championship, there’s certainly more than a multitude of milestones that Mike Klembara can consider as he ponders his greatest achievement as a head basketball coach.
But for the Shamokin-born teacher and longtime skipper of the Lady Red Raiders at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional School in Coal township, his greatest accomplishment is not found in seasons past but rather in seasons of the future – the successful lives his students lead, years after graduating from Lourdes.
“The biggest joy I get out of this is to see them be successful, to see them with their children and a family and so forth,” Klembara said in a late December interview with The Witness.
“As a coach, I want to see them come back 10 or 15 years from now and tell me how they’re doing. That’s most important to me, to see how successful they are in the future. I’ve coached people who are doctors and dentists, teachers, nurses, people who have two or three children. It’s a great pleasure to see them being successful in life, whether they were players I coached or students I taught.”
“It’s about preparing them for life beyond the game, beyond high school,” he said.
Coach Klembara is a staple at Lourdes Regional, as teacher, athletic director, and coach of football and girls’ basketball over the years. His dedication to the school and its community is rooted in his upbringing in a faithful Ukrainian Catholic family that focused on work ethic and pride. His grandfather, who could not read or write, raised two sons. The eldest, Coach Klembara’s uncle, became a doctor; the second born, Klembara’s father, was a longtime science teacher at Shamokin Area and the first Catholic teacher in the district when he began in 1942.
“We are proud of our Ukrainian heritage. I am proud that I was baptized, received First Holy Communion and Confirmation and was married in the Ukrainian Church in Shamokin,” Klembara said.
“That carries into the way I teach and the way I coach. It’s about stressing the fact of being proud of who you are and who you represent,” he said. “It’s like the old saying, the name on the back of the jersey is not as important as the name on the front of the jersey. I tell the girls on the team to be proud of Lourdes Regional High School and go out there and perform to the best of your ability.”
With close to 800 wins and a bevy of titles his players have helped Klembara amass over the years, one would assume that Klembara grew up a basketball whiz himself.
“I will be the first to admit I was not a good basketball player during my high school years at Shamokin. I think I stopped playing basketball in my sophomore year, then it was football and track,” Klembara said. He continued as a two-sport athlete at Bloomsburg University. “The camaraderie and the connections you make, the places you go and see is a great part of collegiate athletics,” he said.
A year after college graduation, while in his first year of teaching in the Blue Mountain School District, Klembara married his wife Jane; the couple celebrated their 59th anniversary this year.
“As I’ve said to many, many people, every coach’s wife goes straight to heaven. Being married to a coach must be hell on earth for them,” he said of the sacrifices they make.
Klembara’s coaching career is just about as long as his marriage. He coached football and taught at Blue Mountain, Pottsville, Lourdes and Hazelton, and then coached the football team at Susquehanna University for 20 years.
In 1988, he was asked to coach the girls’ basketball team at Lourdes.
“It was a learning process because I had never coached girls before,” said Klembara. “But I learned from some outstanding people like Dave Maloney and Frank Marcinek at Susquehanna University.”
“And I stole things I liked,” Klembara said. “Like every coach – and I will admit it – I steal everything I see on TV or read about basketball or what other people tell me they do. If I like what I see with the game, I steal it.”
Season after season, he’s studied film, developed game plans, adapted plays, configured lineups. But two things have remained steadfast in Klembara’s approach to the game: focus and praise.
“In practice, you have a set block of time, like an hour and a half or two hours, and you have to be prepared and organized,” he said. “I learned the value of organization as a coach and from being a teacher. You have a block of time, and that’s it. With the attention span of teenagers, you have to keep them attentive and focused.”
For Klembara, that involves a specific approach with players.
“I always say, ‘Shout praise and whisper criticism.’ I try not to ever embarrass a young man or a young lady, whether it be in football or basketball. They’re trying to make you happy. In the coaching profession, we’re always trying to look for the perfect game, and there is no such thing. You can win by 20 points and still find faults in some area. Or you can lose by 1 or 2 or 3 points, and you still emphasize the good things. Lou Holtz would always say, ‘Don’t dwell on the imperfections.’ You can correct it, but don’t keep harping on it.”
This season, the Lady Red Raiders return five veterans from last year’s rotation that saw Lourdes reach the PIAA Class A championship and come away with silver in a spectacular run after losing in the first round of the District 4 tournament. Turning heads on their appropriately-named “Revenge Tour” after the district loss, a determined Lourdes team answered the bell to make a run at the state title.
“There is an awful lot of pressure on our girls this year more than any other because we have so many players back, but they worked hard during the summer,” Klembara said.
And the summer was not an easy one for the Klembaras, who lost their beloved son Michael to cancer.
“I have four children – Michael, Andrew, Jennifer and Melissa. On May 30, my one daughter had a graduation party for their son, and Michael was fine. Two or three weeks later, there was a tumor on the side of his neck. He died on July 10,” Klembara said.
“It’s been tough. Thank God I have basketball. When I’m coaching, I’m not really thinking about Michael. After the game is over, we get down on our knees and pray,” he said.
Scores of people shared their condolences and sent Mass cards, and for that the Klembaras are extremely grateful. “Father Andrew [Stahmer)] of Holy Angels in Kulpmont and Father Mike [Hutsko] at St. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church Mount Carmel have gone out of their way for us and gave Michael Last Rites in the ten days he was at Geisinger,” Klembara said. “The Lourdes community has been fantastic – the students, the administration, the faculty. I’ve had a number of former athletes and former teachers express their condolences. A number of them had Masses said, and Anita [Michael’s wife], Jane and I attended every one of them… It’s great when you have people who can be supportive in any way possible.”
The faith-based atmosphere, the Lourdes family, the memories on and off the court, the success of students – these are the things that keep Klembara coming back to his post at Lourdes.
“Again, for me it’s the idea that you’re seeing young people progress and try to achieve their goals as young men and women,” he said.
“In many cases, they do ask, ‘Coach, what school should I apply for? Where should I go?’ I encourage them to apply to four or five, and then I tell them, ‘Go visit the schools, and if you hear a voice echoing from the halls that this is the place for you, that’s where you’re going to be most comfortable. And no matter where you go, don’t forget to go to Church on Sunday.’”
“Ultimately, you really enjoy seeing that they’ve succeeded in their endeavors,” he said.
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness