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Heights’ Wheeler steps down as football coach

Published Nov. 9 at 2:45 p.m. | Last updated Nov. 17 at 8:20 p.m.

Heights football coach Rick Wheeler announced his resignation Friday, bringing an end to a 14-year career that oversaw one of the greatest turnarounds in Kansas high school football history.

Wheeler told his assistant coaches after a team banquet Thursday night, then told players Friday morning. He will remain at Heights as athletic director.

“My wife and I started talking about it three or four weeks ago, and the more we talked about it, the more it felt like the right decision,” Wheeler said. “We pulled the (players) out of class right at 8 a.m. and had a very brief, informative meeting where we told them what was going on and then got them back to class.”

Wheeler was 110-37 in 14 seasons. Heights won the Class 6A championship in 2010, going 13-0 and defeating Olathe North 48-14 in the title game. The Falcons finished second in 2009 and 2011.

The three championship-game appearances were the pinnacle of a stunning turnaround for a program that once celebrated three wins in a season.

Before Wheeler became coach in 1999, the Falcons had two winning seasons in the school’s 38-year history — 5-4 records in 1969 and 1998. Wheeler took over a program that had a .335 winning percentage against City League opponents.

“I always believed we could win championships and win at the highest level, I just knew it wouldn’t happen overnight,” Wheeler said. “There were times when that belief wavered, sure, but as I went from a younger, inexperienced coach to a more exprienced coach, I didn’t think our work would be defined by if we won a title or not.

“... I certainly appreciate what we did playing in those three championship games because it was an awesome experience, but it was an accumulation of so much more that made football at Heights different. So many players and coaches sacrificed so much to turn things around.

“I’m proud of (2010), but I’m also proud of where our program is at.”

Heights’ championship in 2010 was the first 6A football title for a City League school since East won in 1983.

"He's a great coach, great motivator," said Wichita State basketball player Evan Wessel, a 2011 Heights graduate and one of five Eagle Top 11 players coached by Wheeler. “You never wanted to disappoint him. He always got the most out of his players."

Wheeler had to deal with tragedy during his coaching stint. He youngest daughter, 13-year-old Regan, was killed in March 2010 in a golf-cart accident. Wheeler said a big part of his decision to step away from coaching was in order to be closer with his family.

His wife, Konnie, is a nurse practicioner, and his oldest daughter, Madison, is a student at Wichita State.

“Whatever the situation is with our family, I think everyone deals with tragedy in different ways,” Wheeler said. “And I don’t know if it’s the right way to do it, but what we’ve done is immersed ourselves in our work.”

As Heights’ athletic director, Wheeler is now in the unique position to select his replacement.

“When most coaches step away, they don’t get a lot of input in that part,” Wheeler said. “I’m looking forward to being part of that process.”

Reach Tony Adame at tadame@wichitaeagle.com or 316-268-6284.