End of an era: Rama leaves behind long and distinguished legacy

posted on March 22, 2012

In describing Red Cloud High School teacher and head boys’ basketball coach Matt Rama’s career so far, the accolades speak for themselves. Native Country Coach of the Year, Region 8 Coach of the Year, two-time Lakota Nation Invitational Coach of the Tournament, former Scholastic Coach of the Month in basketball, track, and cross-country…the list goes on and on.

In twelve years as a head basketball coach, including nine at Red Cloud High School, Rama has amassed an overall record of 205 wins and 68 losses. He has averaged 17 wins a season, and has never coached a losing season. His teams have included 48 All-Conference players, 16 Academic All-State students, and 4 First Team All-State players. In addition, his boys won the State Academic Achievement Team Award for seven years. He took teams to the South Dakota State Tournament twice and, earlier in his career, coached a roster that finished their season as the Oregon 3A State Champions.

As head coach of track and field, Rama presided over a seven-year period that included 40 conference champions, 65 state qualifiers, and saw 14 school records broken. In his six years as head cross-country coach, his teams included four male and four female conference champions.

As a relatively young coach with already such a notable career, it is little wonder that Rama is known in South Dakota circles primarily for his work in the arena of athletics. To those who know him best however, he is also – perhaps first and foremost – a teacher, family man, and advocate of youth. In fact his next step in life, and his reasons for the transition, tell a lot about the values that motivate him.

But first, some history.

Rama came to Red Cloud in 2003, and this year marks his ninth year at the school. He graduated from Chadron State College in 1997 with a Bachelor of Science degree, and then taught and coached in Oregon and then at Bennett County High School. He spent his first year at Red Cloud teaching freshman English, the next five years teaching multimedia, and the most recent three years teaching computers. During his tenure at Red Cloud, he continued his post-graduate studies, and received a Masters of Education from Black Hills State University in 2009.

While teaching full-time, coaching all three sports seasons, and pursuing a masters degree, Rama nevertheless made time to do extensive community work, much of it on a volunteer basis. Programs that he created include the Balls and Book Program and Lil’ Warriors program at Bennett County, the Lil’ Saders and Pee Wee Basketball League at Red Cloud, the Warm Springs (Oregon) Boys and Girls Club, and the Wicasa Character-Building Program. In the classroom, he has spent many years as the yearbook advisor, created The Blue Pages, Red Cloud’s first ever student-produced magazine, and facilitated an annual student poetry compilation.  

Members of the Red Cloud School community who are saddened at the thought of losing such a valuable individual need not mourn for long. Although he will be leaving the high school and his coaching spot, Rama will only be moving his work about a hundred yards to the south, as he will be taking up the job of second grade teacher at Red Cloud Elementary. In fact, Rama’s original teaching certification was in elementary education. He joined the high school staff when he accepted the job as head coach, due in large part to the school administration wanting a coach who would be just as visible and accessible to his team members during the school day as during athletic practice.

So why has Rama decided this year to pass his position on to someone else?

A primary factory in his decision is his family. In his words, “My kids are getting older, and I want to have more of an opportunity to be able to watch them grow.” Rama has also become extremely dedicated to learning the Lakota language. As the father of Lakota children, he wants to be able to pass the language on to them to the greatest extent possible. That will mean spending a great deal of his free time learning and practicing the language – free time that is a rare commodity for a three-season coach, particularly during the winter basketball season.

When asked to reflect on the high points and low points of his career, Rama – in true form – indicated how central the well-being of his students is to his own experience. He said, “When you spend so much time dealing with young people, every time they have a success, you find it to be a highlight.” One might have thought he would have chosen a memorable or heartbreaking loss when asked about the nadir of his tenure at Red Cloud, but Rama took the long view: “When [I] see a kid leave Red Cloud; drop out…fail, and when I feel that I could have helped them succeed. I feel like with every one of those…I feel responsible.”

Despite the fact that Rama will continue to be a fixture at Red Cloud, there is no denying that the news of his transition came as a shock to many of his students and team members. Junior and varsity starter Duran Richards described his reaction to Rama’s announcement as “stunned.” He said that Rama told him and other teammates the news in person during a special meeting. His first thoughts were about the team next year – would they be able to continue to be a strong and successful squad? When asked what qualities he hoped for in Rama’s successor, Richards was quick to respond, “I hope he’s like Matt. I hope he keeps us disciplined.”

As the news radiates out from Red Cloud – traveling quickly, as news tends to do on the Reservation –  accolades and tributes have come fast and thick. Justice Beautiful Bald Eagle ’11 expressed the sentiments of many of Rama’s former players:

“To me, Matt Rama was more than just the head coach of a basketball team. He was a leader, teaching boys how to become men; how to lead on and off the court; helping you find yourself through the game of basketball…and also teaching how to be a Lakota warrior through the game. He dedicated his life to Red Cloud School and the basketball team.”

Beautiful Bald Eagle described how Matt’s working day would invariably begin with opening the gym at 6am for early morning basketball shoot-around, and how he would more often than not leave the school at 6-7pm in order to keep the gym open for others to play. He continued, “[Rama’s] support and care for the team is so inspiring to me. He acts as a major male role model, and is pretty much a second father in my family. He builds such a bond with [his students] and helps them achieve their goals on and off the court; in the classroom, getting into college, and teaching them how to dedicate themselves to a program.”

Tom Casey, the Station Manager of KILI Radio and himself a fixture of the Pine Ridge Reservation, perhaps knows Rama better than most, having worked alongside him in a number of athletic contexts over the years. He had this to say about the departure of his friend and colleague from coaching: “It is difficult to sum up the contributions of Matt Rama. During his time at Red Cloud, he has always been about the young people first and foremost. He pushes, challenges, encourages and helps students and student-athletes to set goals, be responsible and accountable, develop a strong work ethic and good study habits…He has always made sure that students are prepared for the next stage in their life and beyond, and that they know and are comfortable with who they are, and have an understanding what it is to be a Lakota.”

Jim and Donna McGhee, parents of Christian McGhee ’08 – currently a senior at Chadron State College in Nebraska, and a three-year co-captain of their basketball team – echoed the sentiments of nine years worth of basketball parents in saying; “We have always appreciated the dedication that Matt has had for the basketball team, both on and off the court. There has never before been a coach at Red Cloud that had as many kids go to college and play at a higher level. We hope that his successor will carry on his dedication!”

When asked about the ideal characteristics of his successor, Rama had this to say: “I think that we’ve built a good tradition here; a good solid foundation, and a respectable program. And so you really hope that you can find somebody that will continue to work towards those same ideals. We’ve had lots of kids go on to play in college, for example; we’ve stressed high academics. We’ve put an emphasis on those areas. So I hope that we can find someone who will continue to promote those standards and values.”

To be sure, Rama will be a tough act to follow. As Red Cloud advertises for a new coach to fill the position, in describing their ideal candidate, perhaps they could simply echo Duran Richard’s sentiment: “somebody like Matt.”