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Basketball coach’s legacy spans four decades, 400 career wins

‘My why is Wyoming’

Photos by Dianne Carroll-Burdick

Wyoming — A binder filled with pages of quotes, sayings, rules and definitions provides a glimpse of what Wyoming High School varsity basketball coach Thom Vander Klay expects of his players. 

Each teammate has a copy of the Attitude Notebook, often with sentences and paragraphs circled and underlined in pencil. Some information is basketball-specific: “Jump to the ball,” “Don’t get screened,” “Get your hands up,” but much of it contains sage bits of wisdom that can be applied to all areas of life: “Make getting better every day your goal.” “Take responsibility for your actions.” “Take and give criticism the right way.”

‘He’s created a lot of tough men who will go on to have successful lives.’

— senior basketball player Gage Behrenbrinker

Players start studying the notebook in junior high, so by the time they are on the varsity team they know it from cover to cover, Vander Klay said. After 38 years as a basketball coach in Wyoming and the recent milestone of his 400th career win, attitude is still one of the things Vander Klay stresses most.

“It’s all about how to be a winner in life and it ties in, of course, specifically with basketball — things like confidence and being a good teammate, how to lead,” he said.

Coach Thom Vander Klay talks with his players before practice
Coach Thom Vander Klay talks with his players before practice

Senior basketball player Gage Behrenbrinker referenced the notebook within seconds of being asked about Vander Klay’s impact on him and his teammates.

“Part of it is teaching us to be mentally tough. We talk a lot about that,” Gage said during practice in the high-school gymnasium. The team is quizzed on topics within the approximately 100-page book and has daily readings.

“He’s created a lot of tough men who will go on to have successful lives,” Gage said. “He teaches us a lot of good characteristics at a young age that we can bring into our jobs or college or wherever we go. That’s one of the biggest impacts he’s had.”

Fast (But No Easy) Breaks

It’s 30 minutes into practice, and Vander Klay’s team is working hard, sweat dripping and Nikes squeaking as shots swoosh or bounce off the rim. It’s continuous drills, perfecting plays and scrimmaging. It’s typical Wolves-style basketball.

The team has always consisted mostly of scrappy, fast athletes good at run and gun basketball and adept at wearing out taller teams that are more reliant on set plays, Vander Klay explained. While Wyoming’s student population has greatly increased in diversity over the past couple decades, the players have similar traits to those he coached in the ’90s, he said.

 “Our demographics haven’t changed in terms of athletes; we don’t have height. We’re always tiny,” he said with a laugh. 

“We have to go fast; we have to get possessions and we have to press. Our kids have to go hard to compete with the teams we play against. … Isn’t that all part of those life lessons too?”

Vander Klay graduated from the former Wyoming Park High School in 1982 and Hope College four years later. He began coaching and teaching in 1986 and coached junior varsity basketball and football before spending the next three decades as varsity basketball head coach. While he was a “blue and white Viking through and through,” in reference to Wyoming Park’s colors and mascot, he’s proudly worn purple since Wyoming Park consolidated with Wyoming Rogers in 2012.

He talked humbly about his 400th career win, which occurred Feb. 9 when the Wolves beat Union High School 79-35.

“It’s a longevity thing, of course; the fact that if you’re any place long enough you are going to end up getting some wins. For me, it doesn’t seem very long. … I feel like time has gone so fast.”

Freshman basketball coach Chris Hose is used to that humility, having coached under Vander Klay for 10 years.

“Coach Vander Klay is Wyoming. ‘Tommy WYO’  is what some might call him. He works so hard every single day mentoring, encouraging, inspiring and building up Wyoming students and student athletes to be the best they can be, on and off the court.”

Athletic Director Ted Hollern remarked on Vander Klay’s high energy level.

“Coach Vander Klay is one of the most energetic, detail-oriented people that I know,” Hollern said. “He has the spirit of a rookie coach. Thom is the type of coach that all would want their athlete to play for. When you spend time with (him), you can tell he loves the students and what he does every single day. He does his absolute best every time he takes on a challenge. The Vander Klay energy and smile are contagious to all that have the opportunity to work with the coach. “

A True Coach and Teacher

Vander Klay was a student athlete himself, influenced by coaches he considers legends in several sports. At Wyoming Park, he played football, basketball and ran track. At Hope, he played football and basketball. He married Kim right after college and with her had three children: sons Chase and Brock, and daughter, Audra. He coached both of the boys in basketball.

He also always aspired to be in the classroom. 

“I knew in seventh grade I was going to be a high-school teacher,” he said. 

And there was never any doubt where he wanted to teach: Wyoming. He teaches psychology and sociology, helping students learn the big picture when it comes to human behavior and how they view themselves and others. It’s another lesson that applies to life and basketball.

“My ‘why’ is indeed Wyoming. I’m an extremely loyal person, and Wyoming did so much for me when I was young. There was no chance of me ever leaving. … I love Wyoming.

“Most people, including kids, don’t recognize their potential and don’t understand the ways to think in order to help themselves and the people around them be happy and successful.”

Yet there are hard lessons as well.

“(Sports are) one of the last vestiges of competition in education. They keep score; you might get cut; you might do everything right and (still not be) good enough. Those are truly the advanced kids, because they put it on the line.”

He’s felt the heartbreaks, too, he said, recounting the 2020 team that took the OK Gold championship and was headed to the district finals when all sports were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. He didn’t see the team again until months later. 

“That was hard,” he recalled.

‘We have to go fast; we have to get possessions and we have to press. Our kids have to go hard to compete with the teams we play against. … Isn’t that all part of those life lessons too?’  

— Wyoming Basketball Coach Thom Vander Klay

Part of being a coach for so long is having seen so many students grow up, Vander Klay said. That’s the delight in it.

“It’s hard to express how much joy there is in watching that development, and a lot of it has nothing to do with me. They love the game, and they physically mature, as people do, and you watch them become these young men with mental toughness and fortitude and able to compete at the highest level that they can.”

Senior Maxi Morales said Vander Klay inspires him to give his all.

“For me he taught me that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. You’ve got to keep going; you’ve got to keep pushing.”

Junior Dwayne Droughn Jr. echoed that sentiment. Vander Klay prepared him for tryouts by emphasizing how hard he would have to work and practice, and by inspiring him to step up.

“That just helped me,” Dwayne said. “Being here has made me a better person and player.”  

Read more from Wyoming: 
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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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