For over half his life, Ken Vecchio has been on the bench coaching the Manitou Springs Mustangs. He's a hard man to miss. He stands at 6-foot-10 and has a voice that can boom over any packed gym in the state.
He's given so much of his life to one school and to one basketball team. And now he's stepping aside.
Vecchio will not return as head coach of the Mustangs next year and will retire from teaching at the conclusion of this school year.
"I have a lot of time invested there, but I’ve been able to be around a lot of great kids, work with some great coaches and had some pretty good administrative people to work for," Vecchio said. "I think I’ve had a pretty good time with it."
Vecchio played his high school basketball at Trinidad. The coach at the time was Mike Vecchio. Not Ken's dad, but rather his older brother. Mike ended up coaching and serving as the athletic director at Trinidad for more than 40 years.
After graduation, he took a scholarship to continue his basketball career at the University of Wyoming. He stayed in Wyoming for seven years after he finished his career with the Cowboys. He taught and coached at Hanna Elk Mountain High School and Saratoga High School before accepting the job as a social studies teacher and head boys basketball coach at Manitou Springs.
Coming into the job, he hoped to emulate the coaches he played for mainly because they were greatly influential on the way he developed as a basketball player and as a person.
"The people I still respect the most are the coaches I played for because they made me do things that I probably wouldn’t have just done on my own," Vecchio said. "They made me do it their way and I think that made me a better player and made me learn more about the game. I really appreciate those guys. And even today, I can’t see those guys and not call them ‘Coach.’ They will always be 'Coach' to me. I won’t call them by their first name or anything else. Those guys were pretty influential on me."
Not long after he took the job, a hotshot standout named Justin Armour came through the doors at Manitou. In 1991, his senior year, Armour helped Vecchio and the Mustangs reach the Class 3A Final 4. It would be the closest Vecchio would ever come to winning a state championship.
But he never felt like he needed that to be seen as a success. In an era where coaches might always be looking for a better job, or a better position elsewhere, Vecchio was always determined to live out his career with the Mustangs and help develop the kids in that district.
It didn't matter if it was someone like Armour who would eventually play in the NFL or someone who's athletic career would peak just with the Mustangs, if they improved in their time under Vecchio's watch, he considered himself successful at what he was doing.
"I get the same satisfaction to see a guy improve as much as they do from the start of a season to the next as I do to see a guy go off and play in college," he said.
One of the kids he got see go play in college was his own son, Brian. After graduating in 2001, Brian took a scholarship to play at what is now Colorado State University-Pueblo.
Brian would return to Manitou as a student-teacher and assistant basketball coach in 2005. Today he chairs the school's physical education department and has sat next to his dad on that bench for every basketball season since.
"There is a ton of stuff that I used to have to do that he just did, and he got the guys ready to play," Ken said. "It was a great gap between my age and the kids that were playing, and he fit right in there. They bought into everything that he talked about."
Even if Ken doesn't have a state championship banner to his name, he leaves Manitou as a winner. Counting his seven years in Wyoming, his career record stands at 516-317. He won his 500th game a year ago, in the opening round of the Tri-Peaks district tournament.
At Manitou alone, he went 455-272. That's even taking into account a winless season in the early 1990's. His 455 wins at Manitou will put at fifth all-time for wins at one school. He passed Rye's Anthony Ribaudo, a friend of Vecchio's off the court.
There's no telling what the future holds for him beyond the conclusion of the school year in May. He'll spend a lot of time playing golf and he knows there are things about basketball season that he'll miss when next winter rolls around.
"The competitive part, the preparation part, game night," Vecchio said. "Those were things I really looked forward to. It’ll be a little bit different watching games and stuff like that and see what it’s like to just be a fan and go from there."
He would never say he'll never coach again, but he's content with his decision to walk away at this point of life. The competitive fire that he brought to Manitou boys basketball over the years could be seen in the way his kids played. There's not a staff member at the high school that wouldn't say Vecchio got his teams to overachieve in some years.
It was never to feed his own ego, it was always directed toward the kids. He never wanted them to be content with what they were able to do. He demanded they achieve more than what they thought they could do. That's what made him fixture in the building.
"I wanted kids to know that I want them to achieve at their highest level," Vecchio said. "I’m probably too competitive for that type of stuff, but that’s how I’ve been. I’ve always had people tell me that I’m too competitive. But that’s who I am."
After 32 years of it, Manitou basketball has always been better because of that attitude. And with any luck, that mentality will stick around as Vecchio rides into the sunset.