Friends remember Whitefish Bay football coach Jim Tietjen, who died after battle with brain cancer

Whitefish Bay head coach Jim Tietjen watches his offense work against Shorewood-Messmer on Oct. 19, 2014. Tietjen passed away after a battle with brain cancer Nov. 30, 2015.

Whitefish Bay head coach Jim Tietjen watches his offense work against Shorewood-Messmer on Oct. 19, 2014. Tietjen passed away after a battle with brain cancer Nov. 30, 2015. Photo By Jerry Luterman

Dec. 1, 2015

He was, as former Nicolet coach Dave Quam called him, "The face of Whitefish Bay football." A Blue Duke through and through.

Bay football coach Jim Tietjen barked and roared through life, demanding perfection from his players, asking for fairness from the officials and always seeking new and ingenuous ways to beat his most demanding competition.

Tietjen passed away the morning of Nov. 30 after a short but courageous fight against brain cancer.

Tietjen, 61, had been coach at Bay for 14 years. He was diagnosed with the illness in late July and to maintain continuity in the program, Blue Dukes offensive coordinator Jake Wolter was named as interim coach. Tietjen's son Joe was on the staff and kept everyone apprised of details as best he could.

Coincidentally, it was the same day as the Blue Dukes' team banquet. Not many in attendance knew he had passed until after the event was over.

"You respected the way he did things because he put kids in positions to be successful," Quam said. "He pushed them to be the best they could be. You think about that and you realize what a great loss this is for Bay, for the community and for all of us in the profession."

Always learning

Tietjen was one who read widely, kept copious notes, never forgot a tendency and as more than one person said, "never left a stone unturned."

"Going through his files we found notes from the 1980s when he was at Mukwonago. He did an amazing amount of preparation," said Wolter. "If I did half of what he did, I would be doing a lot."

He also helped his less financially able players find jobs, talked up others to college coaches until he was certain the kid would get a place in school and stalked the hallways of Bay finding the toughest, smartest, most patient of athletes to be members of the team.

These were kids who would run through walls for him, who were never great in number or size, but who were often the most motivated to exceed their load limit, to stretch their abilities beyond the maximum allowance. He had them doing unique training exercises like tossing tires across a football field and he also had them help out in many public service projects

In short, they became people who succeeded.

"They were always undersized year in and year out but they always had good teams," said Germantown coach Jake Davis. "Sometimes, you wondered how they could compete that way but it was because of him."

Titan of turf

Tietjen also helped his friends, brought them in to be members of his staff and happily loaned out expensive equipment from his landscaping company to them to help finish projects.

He was also willing to give free advice when you found him at a lawn and garden store planning your own project, whether you wanted it or not, and he helped fundraise when the new Lubar Stadium project was in the planning stages in the early 2000s.

In short, Tietjen was a complicated, irascible, hard-nosed stereotype of a football coach who took time to get to know, but once you did, you were happy to talk to him every chance you got.

Tietjen stayed active as best he could, showing up to practices and to games whenever he felt strong enough between the arduous treatments. Bay athletics director John Gustavson said he had seen Tietjen last week and found him to be in good spirits.

"Jim was the genesis for the resurgence and the continued competitive success of Whitefish Bay football," said Gustavson in a press release. "Opposing teams knew that a game against Whitefish Bay meant they were going to be challenged both physically and mentally, and that the Blue Dukes would never back down. Jim's greatest strength, however, was in developing young men who took the lessons learned from football to guide their successes beyond high school."

On a personal level, Gustavson and many others who knew him found him to be a generous, lively soul with a great imagination for doing things just a little bit differently and always with the best interests of his players in mind.

"A lot of people saw him as a gruff, stuffy old football coach but everyone who knew him knew him to be a great human being," said Gustavson. "He always had high expectations for his kids but none higher than what he had for himself."

Long-tenured coach

Tietjen was a 1972 graduate of Bay. After graduating from UW-Whitewater with a teaching degree, he taught and coached at local high schools before returning to Bay to coach in various capacities from 1985 to 1996. He then became the head coach at Whitefish Bay in 2002 and held that position for 14 seasons.

Under Tietjen's leadership, the team won North Shore Conference championships in 2012 and 2015 and made 10 playoff appearances, including nine consecutive from 2007-2015, highlighted by a berth in the WIAA Division 2 state semifinals in 2012.

Tietjen earned North Shore Conference Coach of the Year honors three times and was inducted into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2014.

"He was just one of those guys who you loved to compete against," said Homestead coach Dave Keel. "He was always so ready. If your team wasn't quite as ready, you were in deep trouble. A terrific coach and a great family man. We just really respected how he got the job done year in and year out."

"We always respected how dedicated and passionate he was. He was a real competitor," added Cedarburg coach Brian Leair. "He always did things the right way."

Wolter, who has been on the staff for four years and who admitted early on in his tenure that he was walking on eggshells because of the legendary toughness of Tietjen, said there was serendipity in the timing of the passing.

"He finally made it through; the season was over and he brought this senior class home," said Wolter.

Information on services for Tietjen was still pending at presstime.

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