|Gene Schneider, Colorado School of Mines coach.|
Talking with Colorado School of Mines (CSM) handball coach Gene Schneider reveals his passion for handball—more specifically, for teaching handball. With his self-deprecating humor, Gene puts at ease new players and keeps the game fun, never taking himself too seriously. His infectious attitude has caught on with the students who learn the game through his program.
Gene first discovered handball at age 15 at his local YMCA. He found it a perfect diversion and, seeing all the older guys still at it, realized he had found a sport for life. In adulthood, chasing that rubber ball around the court proved to be a great workout and an outlet for the stresses of the office.
In 2006, Oliver Boyd, who himself had played at the University of Colorado, invited Schneider to serve as an assistant for the nascent program he helped start at Colorado School of Mines. It was there he realized his joy for teaching and working with students on a handball court.
A couple of years later, Boyd moved out of state, and Gene accepted the position of the head coach and lead instructor for the handball classes. “I really enjoyed interacting with the students and the caliber of people on campus,” he recalls. “It allowed me to do something for the community that I really enjoyed. Plus, I felt like a kid on the court again. No, I don’t move like one, but I feel like one!”
|The largest Colorado School of Mines team at the 2016 Collegiates at the
University of Minnesota.
In 2019, Gene demoted himself to “consultant” at his workplace, giving up a lucrative sales position with a great company. (He needed to put his father in assisted living and remains his primary caretaker.) This allowed him to focus on the CSM handball program and to fulfill his passion for teaching handball to young people. The program subsequently garnered tremendous interest, and Gene worked hard to prepare his players for tournaments but also to foster engagement in the sport long after graduation.
“I give the same speech to my team every year,” Gene says, “and that is that CSM students have come up short in the powerhouse column of top teams. But over the years, Mines has exhibited the best of attitudes, respect and sportsmanship. That’s what makes CSM special, and that’s why handball is the perfect sport! Mines students are engineers and typically more focused. All the people I know in handball are those that are focused and move forward. This attitude fits with Mines students perfectly.”
While CSM has collected a team trophy and won a few individual awards at Collegiate Nationals over the years, a better measure of Gene’s influence is the number of Mines players who have been recognized with the Collegiate Spirit of Handball Award. He is not satisfied fielding a team for Collegiate Nationals but encourages players to stay involved with their school and the sport well beyond their collegiate days.
“I feel blessed that we have many Mines alumni that still play handball along with a few Regis players and University of Colorado players. State and local tournaments from the past saw from 15 to 33 percent attendance of Mines students, coaches or Alumni.” In response to the pandemic, CSM has suspended the handball program through the Spring of 2021. Nevertheless, Gene continues to play outdoors and encourages Mines graduates to join him.
He acknowledges strong support from the handball community through the Colorado Handball Association, its Costigan Program and the USHA. “Their work really allows me to focus on teaching and getting kids involved."
With backdrop of the Rocky Mt. Foothills, Gene and CSM's team captain Nick Thompson recruit new players on campus.
On the first day of class each semester, he asks students to write down what sports they play and why they chose to try handball. He then reads every response after handing out equipment. In the next class period, he teaches them the basics before moving on to drills, noting, “You may get frustrated. But we all do, and that’s a part of learning a new sport. What’s fun is the camaraderie you enjoy with others through the sport of handball. We bond with each other.”
At the end of the course, he brings in a paper bag. “They (faculty) want me to talk about nutrition, so I do this,” he admits wryly. “I bring in a bunch of broccoli, a six-pack of Coors—nothing else in Colorado—and a bag of pretzels. I pull out the broccoli and say, ‘You can eat this stuff. It’s good for you. You’ll stay fit and healthy, but most agree it’s probably not that fun.’
"I pull out the beer and pretzels and say, ‘You can enjoy this—like a lot of handballers do. A lot more fun than a bunch of broccoli. The choice is yours, but I encourage everyone to have fun.’” (Gene emphasizes that he does not encourage drinking beer, especially on campus, but hopes to make a point, if anything, to make players smile.)
Of his future, he muses: "I will continue to coach in some capacity, even if I do not have an active collegiate program in place. It is too important to me, and I feel the handball community has certainly enjoyed the influx of players over the years. It’s a very very big part of my life.”
Establishing a sense of sportsmanship and fun while keeping new players involved in the game is what makes Gene Schneider special to his players and anyone who has the pleasure of meeting him. The USHA is proud to present Gene Schneider with the 2020 USHA Coach of the Year Award.