Cuba City coach a legend in his own town

Cuba City coach a legend in his own town

Published Jan. 13, 2012 4:00 a.m. ET

CUBA CITY, Wis. — Inside a high school gymnasium tucked in a sleepy town most people have never driven through, a fiery, white-haired man, firmly in the trenches of another mid-week afternoon practice, rapidly barks instructions at players on his talented boys basketball team.

The next game, only days away, is the most important of the season, and he is not here to waste any precious seconds. This time to teach is simply too valuable.

The man is constantly talking, constantly moving. While players stretch at midcourt to begin practice, he shuffles between them, explaining every basic play the upcoming opponent will run, as well as each opposing starter's tendencies, leaving nothing to chance. If any man knows the scouting report on teams around these parts, it's Cuba City coach Jerry Petitgoue.

This resolute demeanor is the same manner with which he has prepared for his first 1,002 games, each of which, of course, was the most important of the season.


At age 71, Petitgoue is old enough to be his players' grandfather. But they listen intently to his every word because they know, more than any coach in the state, he'll turn them into a better team.

In 44 seasons as a boys basketball coach, the last 40 at Cuba City, Petitgoue has earned more victories than any coach in Wisconsin basketball history — 803, to go with just 199 losses. He has sent Cuba City High School to six state tournaments and won three state championships.

No, he may not be these players' grandfather, but he is certainly considered the godfather of this town, with a population of 2,086.

"He put us on the map," says Joanie Von Glahn, owner of Joanie's Hair Repair on Main Street.

"If you go almost anywhere in the state and mention Cuba City, they go, ‘Oh I know where that's at because of the basketball,' " adds Cuba City resident Mike Munyon. "And it can be traced back to Coach Petitgoue."

This year's team happens to be undefeated, ranked No. 1 in the state in one Division 4 poll. There is talk around town that it could be one of Petitgoue's finest teams ever. That prognostication does little to change the way in which Petitgoue prepares his team for battle.

Inside the gym named in his honor — it was dedicated as "Jerry Petitgoue Gymnasium" on the back wall above the theater stage in 1999 — he is a combination of cheerleader and disciplinarian. He almost always strikes the right balance to maximize his players' efforts. And he maintains full command of the team at all times.

Petitgoue (pronounced Pet-e-gew) prances around the gym, wearing a black polo with "Cuba City Basketball" emblazoned in yellow on the front of one side and a white Jordan brand logo on the other. It is tucked into a pair of khaki pants, which drop just above his white tennis shoes. The shoes move as fast as his voice.

"You're still king of the jungle when it comes to jumping!" he tells one player who leaps high for a rebound.

"You have the best hands in the state," he tells another who collects a post pass for a layup.

When a lackluster three-man weave drill results in a missed layup, he bellows: "Come on, you're not sharp! Get sharp!"

When one of his guards commits a turnover in the backcourt against a full-court press, he stops practice and drops his notepad to simulate an overhead pass.

"Hey!" he shouts. "The next guy that throws it from the wing and makes this pass has 10 laps!"

Nobody dares to disappoint Petitgoue by making the same mistake again.


Cuba City is a peaceful, quiet, no-stoplight town that ends nearly before it begins. Its location is described to outsiders only by its proximity to two other towns — Platteville, Wis., and Dubuque, Iowa. It rests about 10 miles south of Platteville and 17 miles northeast of Dubuque, and it's considered part of the Tri-State area. Both Illinois and Iowa are within 20 miles.

"There isn't much to do here," says Trent Denlinger, a forward on Cuba City's basketball team. "You play basketball, hunt and fish. For your driver's test, if you want to practice with stop lights, you've got to go to Platteville."

The Weber's Meat processing plant marks the start of the city limits. A few blocks later, the Buick and John Deere dealerships signify the end of town.

In between, traffic on Main Street is sporadic during business hours. It is lined with bars, family diners, hair salons, insurance outfits, an antique shop, a hardware store and two gas stations.

"Things change here in Cuba City," Munyon says, "but they change slowly."

The town's most notable claim to fame, beyond Petitgoue, is that it's known as the "City of Presidents."

Along Main Street, light posts are lined with red, white and blue shields with the names of every U.S. president. Each shield displays one president's silhouette, term in office and birth state. George W. Bush once gave a speech at the high school in 2004 to see Main Street for himself.

This is a place that faintly resembles the fictional rural Indiana town of Hickory in the basketball movie "Hoosiers," straight out of the 1950s.

"It almost feels like you're in Mayberry," Von Glahn says, referring to "The Andy Griffith Show."

But the passion for basketball here is very real. It is the talk of the town, even if success has become an expectation for the Cubans of Cuba City High.

While the boys teams have won three state titles, the girls teams have captured nine state championships, including a 29-0 season two years ago. And fans show their appreciation for both teams by filling the stands.

"If you're an outsider coming to a game, you would wonder where to sit," says Jeff Pustina, Cuba City girls basketball coach and athletic director. "We have preferred seating. We've got some people that have been coming to these basketball games for 30 years, and that's their seat."

Students from three different towns filter into the high school, which has an enrollment of 271. They come from Cuba City, Dickeyville (population 1,043) and Keiler (population 497), making Jerry Petitgoue Gym the place to be from miles around on game night.

When fans attend, they almost always expect to leave with a victory. The list of boys basketball conference champions is too long to fit on just one banner in the gym.

Petitgoue has established a standard of excellence that almost goes overlooked in Cuba City.

"People here are nonchalant about it," Von Glahn says. "It's like winning is expected. Here it's like, ‘We're going to the state tournament again.' Everybody goes, but people aren't doing summersaults like other towns that have never been before."


Like any great coach, Jerry Petitgoue did not build this empire overnight.

His love for the game of basketball developed as a high school player in Dubuque, Iowa, but he says he quickly realized he didn't possess the skill to play at a higher level. So he soaked up knowledge about the sport, determined to pursue a career as a coach.

He found his first job in the small Wisconsin town of Gratiot in 1963, coaching four years at the high school before it closed. He distinctly recalls the second game of his coaching career being postponed due to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

When the high school closed, Petitgoue needed a teaching job and found one across the border in Lena, Ill. He taught physical education for one year and then caught on for three years at a school in Galena, Ill., teaching social studies only 15 miles from his home. He did not coach during his four years in Illinois and missed the game dearly.

So when he discovered a coaching opening at Cuba City before the 1972 season, he applied for the position and couldn't wait to return to the sideline.

"As they say, the rest is history," Petitgoue says.

During his time in charge of the program, interest from players has skyrocketed. Four years after he became coach, he opened an annual summer camp for boys and girls youth basketball players. Attendance has since ballooned to more than 250 campers. Basketball quickly became the game of choice in Cuba City.

"They start you pretty young around here," Denlinger says. "I was in kindergarten when I started going to his camps."

Over the years, Petitgoue's ability to adapt to his players in each individual season has served as perhaps the biggest single reason for his success, he says. It's why he won state titles in 1981, 1991 and 1998.

In '98, for example, he had a team with a talented point guard and good wing shooters. So he adopted a run-and-gun style and rode it all the way to a state championship.

This season, he has two strong post players in Denlinger and leading scorer Corey Vaassen, so his team slows down and works the ball inside. Defensively, the Cubans play a 1-3-1 halfcourt trapping zone to take advantage of their size and length.

"Unlike college, where you can recruit your players to your system, in high school you have to go with the hand that's dealt to you," says Petitgoue, who retired from teaching American history at Cuba City in 2001. "Your job as a coach is to give your kids a chance to win."

And win he has. Petitigoue has had just one losing season at Cuba City — in 1978.

"We were 9-10," he says. "We played a lot of close games that year."

Petitgoue likes to say that if you stay around long enough, you should win some games. But that statement does a great disservice to his leadership qualities and ability to relate to his players and make the game enjoyable.

"He's still a great coach," Denlinger says. "Age doesn't matter. He has fun, and it makes practice go faster."

Petitgoue says he has been tempted to leave Cuba City just once. In 1997, he received an offer to coach at his alma mater, the University of Dubuque. The team had won just once in the past 50 games, but Petitgoue's son, Ryan, also was a player on the team.

Petitgoue turned down the offer.

"People always say the grass is greener on the other side until you get there and you find out it's burnt out, too," Petitgoue says. "I always felt we had something special here. I felt I was made to be a high school basketball coach and probably not a college coach."

The next year, he won another state title.


Cuba City is almost halfway through the basketball season, and the Cubans have yet to be seriously challenged.

Their closest victory, a 73-64 triumph, came against a top 10 Division 5 Sheboygan Area Lutheran team that featured Wisconsin basketball commit Sam Dekker.

Petitgoue, not surprisingly, concocted a master game plan, double- and triple-teaming Dekker throughout the game to hold him to a season-low 13 points — 18 below his scoring average.

The rest of the games have been blowouts. The Cubans have won eight of their 10 contests by at least 25 points. Four times, they have won by 48 or more.

"It's kind of boring to go watch them because they kill everyone by so much," says Cuba City resident Jen Nolan, who played girls basketball at the school from 1997-2001.

These boys have waited their entire lives for a season like this one. Even for a legendary coach such as Petitgoue, this kind of season doesn't come along every year. For all his success in 40 years at Cuba City, he has won a state championship less than 10 percent of the time.

Petitgoue, in fact, has called this perhaps his best team, which is saying something. Folks around town say he typically never tips his hand on how good his teams will be each season, saying simply that they'll be around .500.

"This team is dynamite," says Stu Fraundorf, an assistant basketball coach at Cuba City from 1971-2006. "They've got size. They've got quickness. They really have a nice blend of everything that you look for in a team."

A state championship is a realistic goal in Cuba City this season, and the pressure to succeed permeates through the town. Talk has surfaced that this may be Petitgoue's final year as a coach, particularly if the Cubans win state, only adding to the magnitude of this season.

Some say he'll continue coaching as long as he's in good health. He loves the game too much to do anything else, they suggest, and the fire he's brought to the team for four decades remains.

Petitgoue himself isn't entirely sure of his future. His wife, Joan, retired from teaching in 2004 after 35 years at an elementary school in Galena, Ill., and he has said he would stop coaching every year since then.

"I'm going to be 72 in August," Petitgoue says. "It's got to come to an end one of these days, doesn't it?"

He admits that a state championship would significantly sway his decision to step down.

"If the cards would fall right," Petitgoue says, "and the stars are all aligned in the right way and we would happen to win the state championship, I think that would be a really big motivating factor of looking at it and saying, ‘Is this the time?' "

If this is indeed his final season, you can bet players on this year's Cuba City team will fight like mad to make sure he goes out a winner.

"I don't know when he'll quit," says Cuba City forward Zach Adams. "But it would mean the world to him to come out with a win in his last game."

They know Petitgoue wouldn't have it any other way.

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