LAGRANGE — During the 15 years Tim Sirk was at the helm of Lakeland, his surroundings were changing around him. The IHSAA implemented class basketball in 1997. Every other Northeast Corner Conference school has hired a different coach since he took over the Laker program. Even Garrett left the conference starting in the 2005 school year for the Allen County Athletic Conference.
Sirk never changed, though, keeping the same three goals he traveled to LaGrange with following a five-year tenure at Hamilton in 1995. Those goals even remained intact when he was faced with health problems and the recurrence of a rare form of salivary gland cancer called acinic-cell carcinoma.
“The first is to be a good father, husband and friend. I pray about that every day. The second is to be a good Christian and have faith like a child. I want to believe in the Lord. The third, I will have to change this, is to be a great basketball coach,” Sirk said. “You get up everyday and try to be the best Christian you can be, the best person you can be and the best one at your profession. Cancer can’t touch that.”
After 20 years of head coaching, Sirk retired following the 2009-10 season. He stated, “my body isn’t able to do what I want it to do to be a good coach.”
Originally diagnosed in spring 2003, the cancer was thought to be defeated in 2006. “I felt like a veteran in the military that never really went to war,” Sirk recalled of his emotion following a clean slate.
The sickness did not stay away. Complaining of lack of sleep due to headaches and earaches, Sirk and his family had the area checked again in 2008 where he was re-diagnosed.
“That was devastating,” Sirk said. “But, I think you apply life lessons and see it as ‘it is what it is’ and you go on.”
It was only a matter of time before Sirk was back on the court, but limited at first. After coming back, he started to hand over some duties to assistant coach and friend T.J. Schneider, who was a captain for Sirk’s first team at Lakeland.
A little bit of the flame was missing at first, but Schneider described how Sirk started turning back into his energetic self, when his health allowed it. The trust between Sirk and Schneider was one that makes Schneider believe the transition to whoever coaches next will be smooth.
“His intensity and passion is the same now as it was back then. It’s almost overwhelming,” Schneider said. “They don’t know how he does it. I think a lot of people think they work hard, but you notice you are not working hard enough when you watch Tim Sirk.”
Prior to his diagnosis, Sirk had his own emotional run-in at Hamilton, where he finished 62-51 in five years and brought the program its second sectional title.
Sirk refers to it as “being there at the right time” where he thought he coached one of the best classes to ever go through the school system.
It almost ended too early, though, in 1991 after the Marines started 3-5 following a daunting loss to Bishop Dwenger. Sirk spoke of a turning point in his early career the following Saturday when his hopes were down in the dumps. Questioning his coaching tendencies, Sirk sat in the copy room at HHS in darkness before he was confronted by assistant coach Roy Charleswood.
“I’m thinking, people here are going to fire me after one year. Elizabeth was pregnant with Jake and I was thinking, ‘Man I’m in trouble,’” Sirk recalls. “Roy walks in and he tells me, “Listen, I just want to tell you we are doing the right things. Don’t change what you’re doing. Don’t change how you’re coaching. Don’t change.’
“Probably of all my moments, that was the most important.”
Those hurdles didn’t stop Tim Sirk in his coaching career as he ended with an overall record of 265-187 and a school-record 203 wins at Lakeland. He is also the only coach in Hamilton boys basketball history to win at least 15 games in three straight seasons.
His key to success is simple: Put the players first and have loving support from his family.
Sirk keeps a corkboard for pictures and stories about his kids while putting stories about himself in a drawer. “It’s not about me, it’s about the kids. If we win, I can’t say I drew up the play that made us win, it should be about the kid who hit the shot,” he said.
Crossing the planes of family and players was his son, Jake. Jake Sirk, who will graduate this spring, was a major force on the Laker team. He averaged 18.4 points and 2.4 assists per game in the final go-around for both him and his father.
“Not that my expectations were low, but he exceeded all of my expectations,” Tim Sirk said. “It was hard on him. There is a lot of pressure that goes along with it.”
An emotional moment was shared between father and son in the regular season finale against Angola.
They both wanted to win the game for the other, Tim Sirk for his players and Jake Sirk for his father. Being the final time either would see the Lakeland home crowd, even a loss did not break the moment.
“I think it was a joy (coaching Jake) because I know where his heart was the whole year. I knew where his mind was and I knew what it meant to him,” Tim Sirk recalled. “Just inside me, it wasn’t like we lost anything.
“At that moment, I don’t know if you can explain it, but you are a dad and accompanying your son. You just realize how much he loves you.
“That is a moment I’ll always remember because of how much that meant to him.”
So after building a solid program that probes into early elementary school, and spending most of his life on the hardwood, what is next on the schedule for Tim Sirk? He said he will remain a teacher in the social studies department at Lakeland High School, but a void will be there where basketball once filled.
“I’m really bad at golf, I really don’t piddle around the yard and I don’t collect stamps. I like to read, which I do a lot anyways,” he said. “I don’t have any other hobbies, so I hope to stay connected to basketball in some ways. I know I won’t ever be a varsity coach again.”