Former Griffins basketball coach Jim Lazaruk remembered as a great mentor and teacher

Jim Lazaruk, left, was a teacher and mentor for many MacEwan women's basketball players during a near-decade tenure in head coach and assistant coach roles with the Griffins (Courtesy Rob Poole).
Jim Lazaruk, left, was a teacher and mentor for many MacEwan women's basketball players during a near-decade tenure in head coach and assistant coach roles with the Griffins (Courtesy Rob Poole).

Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – His contributions to the basketball and football careers of hundreds and hundreds of area athletes will never be forgotten.

But equally as endearing for those who crossed paths with Jim Lazaruk is how he prepared them for real life.

The former MacEwan University Griffins women's basketball coach passed away on Aug. 29.   

"Basketball was just a vehicle for teaching life skills and that's how he saw football, too," explained Archbishop Jordan principal Joe Dumont, an assistant coach on Lazaruk's Griffins women's basketball staff for three seasons.

"I've been getting text messages throughout the day today since people found out he passed away. It's the same sentiment time and time again. It's not necessarily all the teams and the wins, it's all the life lessons, and how gentle of a person he would be with people while, at the same time, keeping them accountable.

"You would do your best for Laz because you just wanted to impress him," he added. "It wasn't that he would yell at you. You would do it because you didn't want to disappoint him. That's true for everybody that he coached."

Lazaruk was head coach of the Griffins women's basketball team from 2006-09, winning Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference North Division coach of the year twice (2008, 2009). He was also an assistant coach with the Griffins prior to taking on bench boss duties and, also served five seasons (2010-15) in that role under Rob Poole.

"Jim was a very cerebral coach; therefore, he was a great guy to talk strategy, philosophy about the game could be played," said Poole, who won three ACAC North Division coach of the year awards in a five-year tenure at MacEwan – two with Lazaruk on his staff – before retiring following the 2014-15 campaign, the Griffins' first in Canada West. "He was definitely a gifted teacher, which made him such a valuable member of the coaching staff.

"All of the athletes who were fortunate to have Jim as a coach will probably all agree he was a strong leader, very highly principled and valued, and was respected by his players and their opponents. The coaches who coached against him had nothing but respect and admiration with the kind of work he did with young people."

Jim Lazaruk, right, with the 2014 MacEwan women's basketball team (Courtesy Rob Poole).

Lazaruk made his mark as a star player on the Alberta Golden Bears football team from 1970-73, anchoring a dominant offensive line and winning a Vanier Cup in 1972. He later returned to the U of A as a coach from 1979 to 1983, winning another national championship (1980).

Counting a national junior championship as head coach of the Edmonton Wildcats, Lazaruk won three Canadian titles in the span of eight years.

Following his graduation in 1973, Lazaruk taught at Salisbury high school for 33 years, founding the Salisbury Sabres high school football program. When it came time for the school to hire a women's basketball coach, Lazaruk decided to pull double duty. For 30 years, he coached both sports and turned the Salisbury women's basketball program into a powerhouse.

"When he was a young teacher at Sal, he said 'we're not going to have another coach run the girls basketball program,' " recounted Dumont. "He thought that was untenable, so he did football and basketball. Well, what did he know about basketball? Nothing, but it was irrelevant. He was teaching life skills and we'll figure out the rest as we go. He created a Sherwood Park dynasty in women's basketball."

Among his successful philosophies was offering equal playing minutes rather than leaning on star players – unique at the time. Dumont also remembers how much of a collaborator Lazaruk was; on the Griffins, he would treat him and assistant coach Stephanie Stolk as co-coaches.

"We respected him so much as a leader and as a coach that we always knew he was the head coach," said Dumont. "But he had this way of communicating. You really felt empowered and given the opportunity to share an opinion, an idea or a thought."

Poole noted if MacEwan could have forged a person who best defines the institution's values, it would have been Lazaruk.

"He was just an outstanding person, who gave so much of himself willingly to the amateur sport community in Edmonton in football and in basketball," he said. "And at MacEwan, I don't think (the university) could have had a better representative in terms of the kinds of attributes they wanted their staff and students to display: high integrity, strong values, great communicator.

"He's stellar in the community and that's what I remember. So many people respected him for those reasons."

A Celebration of Life for Lazaruk will be held on Thursday, Sept. 5 at 2 p.m. (Bethel Lutheran Church - 298 Bethel Drive, Sherwood Park).