Community profile: Demons basketball coach Fred Heisel asks himself, ‘What would Bob Chavez do?’
Legendary former Glenwood Springs basketball coach Bob Chavez believes everyone has a distinct role on the court.
“Not everybody can be a high scorer,” he said. “You need guys that rebound. You need guys that play tough defense all the time.”
Take it from Chavez, 88, who over his 30-year career coaching Glenwood Springs High School basketball amassed three Colorado state championships, including eight total title appearances, and remains the state’s winningest coach in high school history with a 477-161 overall coaching record. Chavez was inducted into the Colorado High School Activities Association Hall of Fame for his noteworthy credentials.
Back in the days of short shorts and tube socks, a quiet, 6-foot, 3-inch freshman named Fred Heisel was already stepping into his own role as a Demons force. Though very green for high school varsity basketball standards, Heisel was being given the nod in some of the most critical times.
Take, for instance, 1984 — the “AA” state title game against Florence, a heart-stopping barnburner narrowly claimed by the Demons, 51-50.
“Because we were playing a team that was real tall, Fred was one of the tallest guys we had,” Chavez said. “I was about getting ready to start him, but he twisted his ankle before the championship game.”
The next year, however, Heisel got his shot to play in the spotlight, which churned a state runner-up campaign. By 1988 — Heisel’s graduating year from Glenwood Springs High School — the formidable rebounder was off to college ball, playing for Regis University and the former Mesa State (now Colorado Mesa).
“He was a good player,” Chavez said.
It was then that Heisel was struck with an epiphany.
“What I figured out there is, it wasn’t basketball I loved,” Heisel said. “It was Glenwood basketball.”
High school basketball is back this week in the Roaring Fork Valley after a season delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Heisel is now preparing to take on his third year as head coach of the Demons.
But the former Chavez pupil, who last year led Glenwood to a 22-4 record and their fourth consecutive league title, isn’t just excited for the truncated season. He gets to continue to emulate the legendary figure in Chavez, a household name already etched and immortalized on the wall of the high school gym.
“I try to give the same experience as ‘Chav,’” Heisel said. “He did a lot of good for me and a lot of other young men, and I realize how important that is. I’m trying to give that to some kids.”
Heisel was in elementary school when he first met Chavez. He said Chavez, who retired in 1989, was his physical education teacher, and that he also spent his formative years watching him coach Demons high school basketball.
Back then — especially when you consider Glenwood’s previous championship successes in 1975 and 1979 — sports were a big deal.
“(Chavez) was in the championship game like one-fourth of his coaching years, which is pretty phenomenal,” Heisel said. “And the entire town would go and you would have to wait outside the gym in a line to fill the stands. There were some days you couldn’t get there early enough.”
The 1979 team is irrefutably the best basketball season in Glenwood Springs’ history. Undefeated at 23-0, equipped with an all-star cast led by Mike Vidakovich, among many other studs, and coached by an indelible name, Heisel took this all in and was determined to make a name for himself.
“You just wanted to be like those guys on the floor,” he said. “You wanted to be a Demon.”
In addition, Chavez said back then teams didn’t stand much of a chance when they came to town.
“We didn’t lose a lot of games at home,” he said. “It was like playing at a snake pit.”
But it’s not just the wins or the glory that struck Heisel. Chavez was able to make an impression with people, trying to teach students both on and off the court.
After college, Heisel went on to operate and own a construction company for some years. But the coaching and teaching bugs eventually bit him, and he’d start a new career in education.
In fact, he’d become a physical education teacher, “Just like Bob Chavez,” Heisel said. His last year of teaching P.E. was 2019.
“The gym is a place where (kids) can be a leader, they can be a name, they can be somebody … I like that part of it,” he said. “I feel the same way for music or choir, drama … I think it’s great for the kids to have those opportunities to do those things. Sometimes that’s the only place in a school environment where they feel good about where they’re at.”
When he’s not coaching, Heisel said he’s usually playing a lot of golf with his twin sophomores, Gus and Andy — they also play on the basketball team.
“For a while there, the golf course was about the only thing that was open that anyone really could go do,” he said. “I like golfing, but we also do a lot of fishing. My boys are great fishermen. They drag me up to the mountains and we fish small creeks and lakes and we do a lot of fishing on the river.”
Back on the court, Chavez said he sees a reflection of himself in relation to Heisel’s coaching style.
“Just what I see in Fred,” he said, “he did a lot of things that I did.”
Chavez, who now lives in Mesa, Arizona with his wife, Shirley, usually comes back to Glenwood Springs every summer. The summer of 2020, however, was an anomaly due to COVID-19.
But Chavez said the next time he’s able to come to town, he’ll come visit Heisel. He’s not, however, going to spend this time telling him how to coach or what plays he should do.
Chavez said it’s Heisel’s team now.
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