Jeff Lehnus is going out on top.
The long-time basketball coach who led the Bayfield High School boys basketball team to the program's first-ever state championship last week announced his retirement from coaching Friday. After 34 years in the business, the state title also was the first in the career of the 55-year-old coach.
"It's been 34 years now, and it was an amazing end," Lehnus said, referencing the state title. "I'm just grateful to have had a chance to do what I can to help them realize their dream."
Lehnus said he plans to continue to teach history at BHS but could eye retirement from the classroom in four years or so.
Lehnus spent nine seasons coaching the Wolverines, with stints from 1999-2005, then again from the 2014-15 season through this season, and he finished with an overall record of 108-94.
As the Bayfield coach, the Wolverines reached the state tournament six times; reached the quarterfinals twice, which snapped a 20-year drought in 2015-16 with a sixth-place finish; broke 20-year droughts with league regular season and tournament titles in 2016-17; won the 3A Intermountain League coach of the year award for 2016-17; and won the league tournament championship, a regional tournament championship and the Class 3A state title in 2017-18.
"His knowledge of the game is incredible," BHS junior Hayden Farmer said of Lehnus. "There's not many guys that study the game as hard as he does. He's always trying to find new ways to help us out and that's super helpful for our team, and I'm thankful for him."
Lehnus' work was nonstop. He sacrificed his time, energy and health to do what he loved. He got by on four or five hours of sleep a night for months at a time during the season to try to put the Wolverines in the best position for success - on hardwood floor and in his history classroom at BHS.
"He's put in a lot of time with us," BHS senior Ryan Phelps said. "He's here all night. You drive by at night and you can see the light on up in his classroom, so you know he's always putting in extra time with our team and grading papers and stuff, and we really appreciate that."
Players such as Farmer and Phelps are only two of the many players who have called Lehnus coach. It's all of those players, students and the Bayfield community as a whole that helped Lehnus maintain his drive and commitment.
During the years, Lehnus had opportunities to move to bigger programs. There was more money offered at some high schools, or he could have jumped to the college ranks and used the connection of his second cousin Denny Lehnus, who is a hall of fame coach for his work at colleges in Illinois.
But none of that mattered to Lehnus.
"I'm a simple guy at heart. I like the connections I have at a small school," he said. "When I came back to my classroom (after the state championship), my students were clapping. To have the people at the Pine Cone restaurant watching (the state championship game) and cheering on, to have the fire department and police escort you into town, you don't get that at a private high school and you don't get that at a big school. That's more why I do this. It's the simple things.
"It's the joy of the accomplishment together. I'd rather have waited my whole career to do this. I have my win percentage and trophies, and all these little things, but what you remember is what you grew, what you built."
Coaching was always Lehnus' passion, and he had to wait for his chance.
After playing basketball at Kankakee Community College in Illinois, Lehnus graduated from the University of Northern Colorado and started looking for a teaching and coaching job. The country was in a recession, and two years of searching for his first job turned up nothing. Running out of options, he took the Air Force officer's test, but the fallback plan wasn't necessary, thanks to an opening in Shiprock.
"I was reading the Denver Post. 'Boys basketball assistant; teach P.E. at the elementary school,'" Lehnus said. "I started driving down there, looked around and said, 'If this is what's meant to be, then OK. I love people, it doesn't matter to me where or who.'"
He got to Shiprock 34 years ago, first as an assistant on the Chieftains' boys team and then as the head coach. After seven years in Shiprock and a trip to the state tournament, a feat the Chieftains hadn't accomplished on a regular basis, Lehnus went to Farmington High as the varsity assistant and coach-in-waiting to hall of fame coach Marv Sanders.
Realizing Sanders didn't plan to retire for several more years, Lehnus moved north and took over the boys program at Durango High School for a couple of seasons, then had the chance to move up to the college ranks and join Keith Durham at Fort Lewis College for one season.
"I got a taste of college, but it was too much of a business for my liking," Lehnus said. "I didn't enjoy it as much as I felt I would at (the high school) level. ...I didn't think that was my calling."
It didn't take long for Lehnus to find his calling. A job at Bayfield opened up that allowed him to coach and teach, his second passion. He coached the Wolverines for a while, then stepped away to recover from the toll it took on him. He kept teaching, worked his way up the ranks to the history department's chair and eventually dean of students at BHS and joined the administration side of education.
But the itch to return to the sidelines became more intense.
"I got an AP program going, then became a department chair, then dean of students and administration, but I wasn't happy," Lehnus said. "I decided I had been gone long enough. ... I said, 'OK, I have a certain number of years left, how do I want to spend those?'
"I knew I wanted it to be teaching and coaching, and it just so happened this job came open. I went to the superintendent and said, 'Can I come back (to teaching), get paid less and work more hours?'"
Lehnus rejoined the boys basketball program for the 2014-15 season and began the process of building the Wolverines into a state title contender. He beefed up the schedule and pushed his players to play without fear, without intimidation, and slowly his vision for the Wolverines began to take shape.
"He put us up against the bigger schools, the schools you know are always going to be good and give good competition," Phelps said. "It sucks to start off with really tough teams at the beginning, but in the end you can see how much it helps us."
BHS finished the 2014-15 season 14-12 overall but only had one win in league play before going on to finish a remarkable sixth at the state tournament. The next season finished with an 11-11 overall record and a 4-4 mark in league play. The 2016-17 season was even better, as the Wolverines went 15-7 and 9-1 in league play to win their first league title in two decades.
Then the state title in 2018.
"This is a crowning moment, but after a few years, the trophy won't mean a thing to me," Lehnus said. "The memories and the feeling of watching the kids grow, and achieving something you worked hard for for so long and to know what it's like to reach it, to know what it's like to win a state championship. You always hope and wonder, maybe someday."