Growing up in Gary, Ind., Rick Wedlow remembers going out for lunch with his friends during his freshman year at Gary Roosevelt High School.
One day, Wedlow recalls, he and his friends were talking about not returning to school after lunch and calling it a day.
Wedlow decided he would go back to his classes. His friends did not.
“I told them I had to go back to school,” Wedlow said recently. “They dropped me off at school, and they went off and they got in some trouble. They got in the kind of trouble where they ended up getting expelled from school, and it was one of the first good decisions I made in my life.
“From then, I decided that I can either go right, which is to do some positive things, or I can go left and go down that path of crime and drugs and violence and getting caught up in that lifestyle,” Wedlow said.
Dealing with adversity, Wedlow grew up in a single-parent household in Gary, but he was able to escape that difficult life and go on to play basketball at Earlham College in Richmond.
Last May, the 42-year-old was named the new head coach of the Richmond High School boys basketball program.
He replaces Joe Luce, who led the Red Devils to more than 100 victories in six years, plus North Central Conference, sectional and regional championships.
Wedlow also is the first black head coach in Richmond High School boys basketball history, according to athletic director Frank Carr.
Only Eric Gillespie, who coached Richmond football from 2007-2011, was a black head coach of a major sport at Richmond before Wedlow.
“It’s something we talked about when he was taking the job,” said Richmond basketball assistant Jeff Williams, who has coached at RHS for close to 25 years. “I told him that from my standpoint, I could never put myself into a black man’s shoes, but I told him, it’s about time. There are a lot of African-Americans that gave a lot to this program for a lot of years and made this what it is. It’s about time they were represented as the head coach.
“But I also agree that in today’s age, I don’t think it’s as important on a day-to-day basis, other than the historical standpoint of it.”
If Wedlow learned anything from leaving Gary, a large, predominantly black city in Northwest Indiana, to attending a private liberal arts college in a small town, it was that race should matter very little, if at all.
He also understands his position is one of power and says he hopes to use it as an avenue to inspire and mentor whoever he comes across.
“It means an awful lot, and I’m proud and I’m humbled for this opportunity,” said Wedlow, noting James Blackmon of Marion and Jeff Holloway of Muncie Central also are black head coaches in the NCC. “… You have three African-American coaches that have taken advantage of opportunities. My situation is about taking advantage of opportunities.”
It’s a situation that more than anything, Wedlow calls his “avenue to inspire and make a difference.” He tries to do that as much as he can, regardless of one’s race, gender or socio-economic status.
During a recent assembly on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Wedlow was asked to talk to the entire Richmond High School student body.
“He shared a good amount with us,” said senior Adrion Gibson, Richmond’s only returning starter from last year’s 26-4 semistate team. “He shared how basketball pretty much saved his life, … (how) he used basketball to get an education and to change the way that he lives.
“It just makes me feel good because I know that if someone like coach Wedlow is not growing up in the best of neighborhoods, the best of homes, then if he can use basketball this way to be able to influence him and be able to rise up, then I should be able to do the same, get a college education and hopefully be able to go for free, because of basketball.”
Wedlow talks about growing up near the projects of Gary and gaining toughness from playing basketball in that environment. When the father of his younger brother and sister was killed, Wedlow took on more of a parental role.
“I was the babysitter, I was the daycare, so I would take my brother and sister to practice with me, whether it was basketball, football, baseball, and it was just one of them deals where basketball gave me an opportunity to get away from my problems and didn’t allow me to feel sorry for myself,” Wedlow said. “It allowed me to keep dreaming and keep believing in myself that I could do something with my life and be productive and give back.”
Basketball helped him stay away from gangs and drugs while in Gary and eventually, helped him leave the city to play at Earlham.
Wedlow says he had a chance to go to Purdue as a walk-on but opted to be a starter at Earlham. There, he says he earned all-freshman honors and led the Quakers in scoring his first year.
“I probably didn’t work as hard at it as I could have, but I did enough to get out of there and get to Earlham, and making those grades,” Wedlow said. “Earlham’s not an easy place to get into and so, Earlham afforded me the opportunity to attend Earlham College and play college basketball, and be a student-athlete at the collegiate level.
“Even though it was Division III, it was still college basketball, it was still doing road trips, it was still staying at hotels, it was still having offseason programs and study tables, and stuff like that.”
Wedlow took time off from Earlham to work as a personal assistant for Glenn Robinson, his former high school teammate who went on to play in the NBA, and met professional basketball players such as Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen and Ray Allen, to name a few.
Carr crossed paths with Wedlow when Carr coached football at Earlham in the 1990s.
“I was head football coach then, and we were just kind of turning the corner,” Carr said. “ … He was kind of in that era where we had some really, really good athletes. It’s neat to look back and see those kids, a kid from Gary and what he’s doing now.”
Wedlow is taking over a team that went 26-4 last season but has lost four starters and its head coach as well as both size and strong 3-point shooting off the bench.
The 26 victories were the second most in school history, and the regional championship the Red Devils won was the program’s first since Richmond brought home a state title in 1992.
Expectations coming in for Wedlow could be hefty from outsiders, but Carr said whether Wedlow meets his standards for a head coach won’t necessarily be measured in wins and losses.
Carr explained his expectations for the new coach during a recent parent meeting.
“I said 26-4 last year was pretty fun, (but) I’m not going to turn to coach Wedlow here and say, ‘Hey, 26-4 is the standard,’” Carr said. “I told these parents, ‘But I expect to play like a 26-4 team.’
“… Everybody likes to win and we like to be 26-4, but what’s more important is how we play. I think if our team — and I think Rick is really working to emphasize this — our team plays hard every game. They play with class, and we play like people in Richmond want to be represented.
“… So that’s the expectation I have from Rick, is his leadership to get our guys to play hard, to play with class and sportsmanship and represent Richmond the way that this community expects.”
Wedlow holds himself to even higher standards, depending on how you look at things.
“I just really feel like my situation hopefully inspires a lot of these young people,” he said. “I hope it inspires children from the African-American community, I hope it inspires women and I hope it inspires kids coming from low socio-economic environments. To me, it’s not about black or white, it’s about taking advantage of opportunities.
“I’m proud of who I am, I’m proud of the skin color I have, but during my Earlham time, I realized that, no matter what color you are, we are more alike than we’re different.
“… I just want to inspire a lot of these young people in the community.”
Williams believes Wedlow’s background will help him do just that.
“That’s what it all comes down to. Coaching and teaching is about building relationships with these kids,” Williams said. “If you’ve got stories similar to what they’re going through, then they can see that.
“Here’s a guy that could have very easily packed it in and taken a different road throughout his life, but he didn’t. He’s here, and he’s making the most of his life. He’s a good family man, and hopefully, that’s just a good role model for our kids that, ‘Hey, what I’ve got is nothing compared to what he’s went through,’ and hopefully, it gives them that little impetus to do the right thing.”