In Bill DeWitt’s mind, the word hometown doesn’t have to be defined by origins.
A native of Hays, DeWitt grew up loving football, wrestling, track and academics as a high schooler at Thomas More Prep-Marian. But spend a few minutes with Lawrence High’s new athletic director and assistant principal and his pride for the city and school he now calls home comes across as strong and sincere as his handshake.
DeWitt’s love for all things Lawrence began shortly after moving here for the first time in 1992 as a recent graduate of Hays-TMP. He enrolled at Kansas University, where he would earn bachelor’s degrees in philosophy, psychology and education. During that time, DeWitt did his first teaching observations at LHS. He never had seen a high school so large and so full of students. He hoped then his career would bring him back one day.
When longtime LHS athletic director Ron Commons and assistant principal Felton Avery both retired, a door opened for DeWitt to return, again from Hays-TMP, where he served as principal the past four years. The decision was a no-brainer for DeWitt and his wife, Amy, who have three daughters.
“For my family, Lawrence, Kan., is home,” DeWitt said. “There’s no other place we’d want to be.”
He deemed his new job just as appealing: “It’s Lawrence High,” the athletic director said. “The school was established before the Civil War. There’s a lot of pride in being a Chesty Lion.”
DeWitt officially joined the Lions family July 1 — his first day on the job — but his career in high school athletics began as a coach while he was still a KU undergrad. He worked locally at Tonganoxie High, first coaching, then teaching social studies, after completing his degree. He led the wrestling program and was an assistant for football and track in his five years at THS.
In 2002, DeWitt moved on to similar positions at Eudora High. He gave up coaching football but taught, worked as head wrestling coach, assisted the track program and spent one year assisting soccer. Eudora athletic director Cara Kimberlin was the softball coach then, but she and others at EHS noticed how DeWitt seemed to help out with everything and always made a point of getting things done the right way. Kimberlin can see those attributes and others serving him well at LHS.
“Bill has a really good knack for making connections with kids,” she said.
DeWitt remained at Eudora until 2009, when he earned his master’s from KU and became principal at his alma mater, back in Hays. Now a first-time athletic director, DeWitt has missed coaching since he gave it up four years ago to become an administrator.
“My worst day of coaching is better than my best day of not coaching,” he sometimes tells people.
Still, he is happy to be a part of the coaching community at Lawrence in a different fashion.
“Some of us coaches need to get into administration,” he said, “so we can take care of some of those things that allow coaches to just coach.”
DeWitt said a network of supporters — LHS principal Matt Brungardt and other school administrators, as well as Commons and Free State athletic director Mike Hill — have eased the transition while he learns the ropes of his new position.
Since arriving at LHS, DeWitt has been meeting with the school’s head coaches, not to talk philosophies and approaches, but to find out about them as people and what they like about the school.
Tonganoxie athletic director Brandon Parker, a former colleague of DeWitt’s, said Lawrence’s coaches will enjoy working with him.
“He has a great way of relating to people,” Parker said. “He’s very honest and hard-working. You know what you get with Bill.”
DeWitt is just getting started at LHS, and though he learned quickly that he likes the school’s coaches and players, he knows he hasn’t stepped into an easy job.
“Having lived in Lawrence and in the area,” DeWitt said, “I recognize the tradition and the expectations — and that’s what I want.”
What’s more, his desire is for LHS to become a model for every other athletic department in the state: “I want our school and our student-athletes to be above reproach.”
Currently, DeWitt said he is in a honeymoon period with his new job, and hasn’t yet heard from people about specific things they want to see changed at Lawrence High. He expects that day to come, but isn’t concerned with hearsay. DeWitt wants to see each program with his own eyes before making changes of any kind.
In the meantime, Lawrence’s first new athletic director since 1994 wants the school’s coaches and student-athletes all supporting one another. And he hopes to get as many parents, community members and alums as possible backing the Lions.
Said DeWitt of his central philosophy: “You can achieve excellence. You can’t achieve perfection.”