Don Zech not only knew how to coach championship-level basketball, but when exactly to call his own shot.
And in 1976, he was right on at the University of Puget Sound.
The hard-nosed Sumner High graduate guided the Loggers to a magical season, one that brought home the NCAA Division II title — the school’s lone national championship in basketball.
The UPS Hall of Fame coach died Tuesday morning of liver failure in Chandler, Arizona, at Gilbert Mercy Hospital. He was 83.
“He was not only a fantastic coach, but a great man,” said Matt McCully, a reserve guard on that Loggers squad. “He became a very kind-hearted, caring guy. I am just very lucky to know him.”
The three-sport standout from Sumner went on to the University of Notre Dame, then returned to coach an undefeated Blanchet High boys teams to the 1963 title in Class 4A.
After coaching the freshman team at the University of Washington, Zech was hired to take over the UPS program in 1969.
It didn’t take long for the Loggers to become factors in the national tournament, losing in the 1970 semifinals.
After UPS lost in the West Regional finals in 1975, Zech returned much of that squad the following season, including 7-footer Curt Peterson, who led a tall starting lineup.
Before the next season, Zech began telling people around campus that the Loggers were going to win it all, said former athletic director Doug McArthur.
“I didn’t hear that too much, but other players did,” UPS forward Rick Walker said. “We knew Don was an excellent coach, and we did what he asked us to do. Through that, we got results.”
The Loggers won a school-record 27 games that season, including five wins against NCAA Division I opponents.
UPS defeated North Dakota, 80-77, in the NCAA Division II quarterfinals in what many considered the greatest game ever played at Memorial Fieldhouse.
Greeted by jeers of “Puny Sound” in the final four in Evansville, Indiana, the Loggers upended defending national champion Old Dominion in the semifinals, 83-78, before beating Tennessee-Chattanooga, 83-74, for the national title.
Not only did UPS become the first West Coast team to win an NCAA Division II title, it became the first university from Washington to win an NCAA basketball title at any level.
Zech went on to become the all-time winningest coach in UPS history with 405 wins in 21 seasons. In 11 of those seasons, his teams won 20 or more games. Ten of his players went on to play in the NBA.
He was inducted into the UPS Hall of Fame in 1991.
“Puget Sound has lost one of its legends today,” athletic director Amy Hackett said. “He leaves an enduring legacy of the Logger spirit.”
In recent years, Zech and his wife, Carol, split time between living in Chandler in the winters and Belfair in the summers.
Last fall, Zech began kidney dialysis — and felt so ill this winter, he missed the 1976 UPS squad’s 40-year anniversary celebration March 12 at Memorial Fieldhouse.
Two of Zech’s children attended the reunion — and the coach was able to talk to his former players via Skype.
“It completely made his day,” said his daughter, Linda. “Those guys were 19 or 20, and he gave them such a great memory and experience. He loved it.”
Zech is survived by his wife, Carol; daughters Caron and Linda; and sons Don Jr., Tim, Mike and Steve.
Memorial services in Arizona and Washington will be held in coming weeks.