LINCOLN PARK — Dave VanderMeulen says his former players tell him he's gotten "soft."
Not likely. You don't get to 300 wins as a high school coach, as VanderMeulen has, by being easy.
The longtime Latin School of Chicago boys basketball coach racked up his 300th career win — more than any coach in school history — in a 62-19 conference blowout over Elgin Academy on Dec. 13.
Lately, he has been "just thinking about everybody who's helped me get to this point," VanderMeulen said.
It's a long way from his days as an assistant basketball coach at Aurora University, where he worked after stints as a high school assistant coach at several schools.
VanderMeulen applied for his job at Latin in 1994 after learning of the coaching vacancy from his sister, a teacher at the school. He made an immediate impression.
"Dave came in and just blew us away with the interview," said Latin Athletic Director Tom Bower, who's worked at the school since 1981.
VanderMeulen's success, he said, is a testament to him "doing things the right way."
"He's a good teacher, understands the game, has a nice touch with young people and promotes good sportsmanship. The wins are indicative of that," Bower said.
VanderMeulen, 48, has led the Romans to five Independent School League titles and three regional championships. He's also earned ISL Coach of the Year five times.
Ryan Allen, a 1995 Latin graduate, was a senior point guard when VanderMeulen took over as head coach.
"Having a new coach my senior year, I couldn't imagine having a better leader to come in and roll with it. It was a breath of fresh air," he said.
While the Romans finished just 11-14 that year, Allen relished the opportunity to work with the new coach.
"He's humble. He doesn't take things for granted and I think that's what endears him to a lot of his players," he said.
By the late ‘90s, VanderMeulen had strung together four 20-win seasons in five years. Those teams included 7-foot-7-inch Kenny George, the tallest basketball player in NCAA history, whom VanderMeulen called "a pleasure to work with."
George went on to play college ball at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and later played professional ball briefly in the Czech Republic.
"It's been a lot of fun watching guys develop as players and young men. I've been really lucky," he said.
Many of VanderMeulen's former players have also gone into coaching, he said.
Greg Kemp, who played for VanderMeulen at Aurora University, has been an assistant coach at Latin since 1994. Latin graduate Tyrell Bell also coaches at the school.
Allen also went into coaching. He led Latin's eighth grade and jayvee boys basketball teams for several years before taking over as head boys coach at Muchin College Prep. Allen's teams have squared off against VanderMeulen's squads each of the past five years.
"We shoot the breeze and chit-chat before the game, but I'm still trying to get the first win against him," Allen said. "He definitely hasn't gotten soft."