State champ baseball coach Jim Vukovich remembered as first-class all the way – MLive.com

Posted: September 3, 2020 at 3:53 pm


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On a night designed to recognize his accomplishments as an athlete and longtime coach, Jim Vukovich took the podium at the 2002 Greater Flint Area Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony, but rather than talk about himself and his decorated career of more than five decades, he redirected praise toward just about everybody else.

His former Flint Northern teammates, his fellow coaches and his Burton Bentley players made prominent appearances in Vukovichs induction speech in front of 500-some attendees on Dec. 7, 2002 at the Genesys Banquet and Conference Center, and the fact that hed rather talk about them than shine the spotlight on himself was classic Jimmy, said longtime friend Bill Troesken.

If you talked to 50 people in this area who knew him, everyone would have a Vuke story, Troesken said. In his induction to the Greater Flint Area Hall of Fame, he almost deflected being the guy and wanted to talk more about his teams, the teams he played on and his players. In his program bio for the ceremony, he mentions more about the people around him than stuff about himself. He was more interested in talking about the accomplishments of the team and his players than himself.

That night, everyone said thats typical Jimmy.

Vukovich died of a heart attack Monday at age 85 and is survived by daughters Ellen (Jim) Klobuchar, Arlene (Stephen) Hildensperger and Jane Vukovich, sister Jennie Calakay, plus five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by wife Barbara Vukovich.

The longtime baseball skipper leaves behind an unmatched coaching legacy at Burton Bentley and an impressive rsum as a player at Flint Northern and the University of Michigan.

A 1953 graduate of Northern, Vukovich starred for the Vikings basketball and baseball teams, earning All-Saginaw Valley Conference honors on the hardwood and helping the ball club win City and Saginaw Valley Conference championships.

On the summer baseball circuit, he played for American Legion Fisher Post 342 and led many of those same Northern players to consecutive state championships in 1951 and 1952.

After graduating from Flint Northern, he earned three varsity letters as a first baseman at the University of Michigan, then guided Montroses boys basketball team to a district title during a three-year run with the Rams, before ending up at Bentley, where he spent the final 37 years of his coaching career.

He coached just about every sport Bentley had to offer at one point or another, but the majority of his success came on the baseball diamond, where he collected a 575-361-5 record, which ranks 31st on the Michigan High School Athletic Associations career wins list.

Bentley High School baseball coach Jim Vukovich watches the action from the dugout. (File | MLive.com)

During that span, Vukovichs teams captured 11 conference championships, seven district title, three regional crowns and Class B state championships in 1973 and 1975.

He earned All-District Coach of the Year honors 10 times, All-Region Coach of the Year recognition twice and was the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association statewide Coach of the Year in 1974, the followed it up with Associated Press Class B Coach of the Year honors in 1976.

In addition to his individual induction into the Greater Flint Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2002, Vukovich was inducted as a player with the 1953 Flint Northern baseball team and as a coach with his two state champion Bentley squads.

He was also part of the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Associations inaugural Hall of Fame class in 1987 and was inducted into the Michigan High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2001.

During his induction speech for the Greater Flint Area Sports Hall of Fame, Vukovich expressed his love for coaching baseball and what sports in general meant to him.

I liked every day because I was working with young people, he said. I had fun, even on those cold, rainy spring days which were more like winter than baseball weather. Athletics was the center of my universe as a youngster. We had no TV or computer games, so the alternative was to get involved in sports.

That passion for sports and helping young athletes made him one of the most respected members of the community, said Troesken.

He has a great representative for the entire Flint area, and I never heard an individual say that he was even OK. He was perfect, and thats hard to imagine in the day and age we live in now, but he was first-class all the way, Trosken said.

Current Bentley athletic director Scott Bednarski played for Vukovich and described him as the type of coach who never had to scream to get his point across.

When I first met him, he was legendary because he had already won two state championships, so he was almost larger than life and a very tall man, said Bednarski, who graduated from Bentley in 1994. He spoke softly, never really hollered or got too high or too low, but everything he said had a purpose, whether it was about baseball or life. He was a very positive guy, and it was an honor to take the field for him.

Perhaps no player knew the legendary longer than Bill McLemore, who served as Bentleys bat boy at age 8, played for the Bulldogs until he graduated in 1984 and later returned to Vukovichs dugout as an assistant coach.

It was the time on the practice field that I remember the most, McLemore said. He was as father figure to thousands of kids. We were blessed at Bentley. He always took the approach of being really laid back and not being that fiery Rah-rah type of guy, but we won a ton of games.

He was larger than life, but yet so personable.

Vukovichs impact extended well beyond the players he coached thanks to his dedication as an educator -- first as a teacher and later as a counselor at Bentley, where he played an instrumental role guiding countless kids to career paths.

But at the center of it all was his family, and his daughter, Ellen, recalls plenty of afternoons in the dugouts, visits to his classroom and backyard T-ball games.

Hed let us come to his games, and sometimes wed sit in the dugout and run the bases, she said. Hed take us to the school and let us write on the chalkboard in his classroom, and when we were older, hed support us and his grandchildren in sports. Everyone got to play some T-ball in his backyard, and every time, hed try to get them interested in baseball first.

In all the hours Vukovich spent talking with his players, his students and his family, he never brought up was his own personal accomplishments, so his daughter, Arlene, couldnt help but admire his humility when she started learning more about the unassuming coach who carved out a career as one of the best in Michigan high school baseball history.

He was the most humble man Ive ever met in my life, she said. In the past couple days, weve come across all these awards and honors that we didnt know about because he never talked about them.

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State champ baseball coach Jim Vukovich remembered as first-class all the way - MLive.com

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September 3rd, 2020 at 3:53 pm

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