One Super Spartan
Tim Richards fit into Conneaut’s galaxy of stars like a hand with a glove
By KARL PEARSON
One of the most special teams to ever grace the basketball courts of Ashtabula County was the 1969-70 Conneaut High School squad coached by Harry Fails.
Those Spartans had it all. They had scoring ability, could run the floor, had size and knew how to defend. They also had chemistry and even a bit of the element every fine team needs — luck.
That team had a special coach in Fails, who in just two seasons as the varsity coach took a program with tremendous tradition and elevated it to an even higher plain. It also had special players like Scott Humphrey, Jeff Puffer, Al Razem and John Colson.
Being the foxy coach he was, Fails found a kind of secret weapon that probably pushed the Spartans over the top to a berth in the Class AAA regional tournament at Canton Fieldhouse. It came in the form of a sophomore named Tim Richards, who provided an extra element of court savvy, solid fundamentals and a particular affinity for getting his nose dirty defensively.
TIM RICHARDS of Conneaut swoops to the hoop during a game against Jefferson at the old Falcon Gym. Richards will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on April 10.
To play much of a role on any varsity squad as a sophomore in that era was a significant achievement. To start for virtually any team was certainly the exception, rather than the rule, but Fails was already familiar with Richards’ skills and, just as importantly, his level of maturity. It was not a gamble at all, in his eyes, to plug the youngster into the lineup.
If Fails had been affected by any doubts about Richards’ ability to handle the demands of varsity basketball, he need only have consulted Tom Ritari, who had served as Conneaut’s freshman coach when the youngster arrived on the scene.
Richards lived up to the faith Fails and the Conneaut coaching staff had in him. The 1969-70 Spartans went 19-6 and won the Northeastern Conference championship in an era when great teams roamed area courts, then helped them fight their way through several tense games on the tournament trail to the regional semifinals before falling just short of defeating Akron Central, 62-60, despite a furious late-game rally.
As Richards points out, without a hint of bravado, that Conneaut team has a unique distinction in Ashtabula County basketball history.
“Only two teams from Ashtabula County in the last 50 years have won district championships in the big-school division,” the 56-year-old said. “I think we won with our team chemistry.”
Richards moved into even more prominent roles with the Spartans as his career progressed, but they were never quite able to reach the heights they had in that special season. They went 12-7 in both the 1970-71 season, Fails’ last at Conneaut, and in Richards’ senior year of 1971-72 for Paul Freeman, who had moved up from a role as Fails’ JV coach.
In his junior year, they finished behind Ashtabula in Gene Gephart’s final season as the Panthers’ head coach. In Richards’ senior season, they were behind Bill Koval’s Geneva squad that reached the Class AAA regional semifinals as the Spartans had two years earlier.
Despite his status as one of the team leaders in those final two seasons, Richards approached the game in the same way he had two years earlier. He continued to play a solid all-around game, especially at the defensive end.
Freeman certainly was aware of Richards’ gifts when he took over as Conneaut’s head coach.
“Tim did everything exceedingly well, down to a minute detail,” Freeman, who was an outstanding player in his own right at Pymatuning Valley, said.
Even though he wasn’t a huge scorer and he wasn’t particularly big, barely reaching 6-feet, if that, Richards’ skills gained enough attention that he was attractive to a number of college programs. He finally settled on Kent State University, where he played briefly for future Cleveland Cavaliers coach Stan Albeck and managed to stay on through the early years of the Rex Hughes era with the Golden Flashes.
Even after graduating from Kent State, Richards remained active in basketball. Despite moving around to various places around the country, he became involved with a number of fine age-group programs. Even now, he can still be found on the court, plying the same skills he always has.
Over the years, Richards has watched many players he revered as he was growing up, or went to battle with or against when his time came, earn selection into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame. Finally, his time has come as he has been chosen as a member of the Class of 2011, which will be inducted on April 10.
He is grateful that his time has arrived.
“I knew I was a pretty fair player,” Richards said. “When I got the call from (cousin) Ron (Richards, a member of the ACBF Hall of Fame Class of 2008), I had all kinds of flashbacks to what it took to get there.
“It’s a pretty unique honor to be joining so many great players, ones that I saw and ones that I played against. And I was fortunate enough to play for three coaches (Fails, Freeman and Ritari) who are all in the Hall of Fame. To be inducted with them is pretty special.”