NEW ALBANY — You could call John Buerger old school. He was a no-nonsense teacher and coach. No matter if he was in the classroom or on the practice field, he never took shortcuts or looked for the easy way out.
The Buerger way was about the details and proper fundamentals.
“I always tried to coach players to learn the right way to do things. That is the way I was taught,” he said.
That formula was also successful during Buerger’s career in education, which came to an end last Friday after five decades. Students would say he was tough, but they loved his class. They learned, the Buerger way.
Buerger spent 50 years in education, 43 in the classroom and the last seven as the International Baccalaureate Diploma Coordinator at New Albany High School.
He also coached football and baseball at Providence and New Albany during his five decades, as well as four years at Carmel. His success in the dugout earned him a ticket to the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame.
Buerger had success at every stop.
“Not too many people get to do what they have a passion for. I always had a passion for school and sports,” he said. “I would say 98 percent was positive and that is pretty good over 50 years. There were some regrets and down time and I may have rubbed a few people the wrong way, but it was very, very satisfying.”
After a stellar athletic career at Franklin College, where he played football and baseball, Buerger began his coaching and teaching career at Providence High School in 1969 at the age of 21. He laughs about replacing a nun at Providence and being co-sponsor of the senior class, despite being only 21.
Buerger was head baseball and assistant football coach at Providence for six years, and said he loved his stay at the school. He was familiar with Providence, since his future father-in-law took care of the football field. He was an assistant football coach in 1973 when Providence was Class A state runner-up.
“It fit my personality. I was always very disciplined and organized,” he said. “When I was with other people, things had to be done my way. At Providence, I could do that. I learned the value of discipline. If I would have told those kids to run through a wall, they would have asked how fast. It was a great learning experience and it was tough to leave there.”
His goal was always to get back to the Chicago area, where he grew up. When the Carmel baseball job opened up, it got him closer to his hometown, so he took it. The town was in the midst of a big growth spurt and the school had a solid athletic program. While Buerger continued to have success as the baseball head coach, taking Carmel to a semistate, he wanted to get back into coaching football. He was a quarterback at Franklin College and said he was operating a run-and-shoot offense before it became popular.
But in his four years at Carmel, there was never an opening on the football staff.
His wife’s parents lived in Clarksville and when her mother became ill, he started looking for something again in the southern part of the state. There was an assistant football coaching position available in 1979 at New Albany, and the baseball coaching position also opened up at the school the same year. So he came back south to New Albany, where he finished out his career.
Buerger was the head baseball coach at New Albany until 1994 and also served as an assistant football coach for several years. He decided to step down as baseball coach during the 1994 season and turned in his resignation letter prior to the sectional. Following the ‘94 sectional victory over Floyd Central, a scuffle broke out between the two teams with players and a few parents involved. After the smoke had cleared, it came out that he was stepping down and many people believed he was told to resign due to the altercation, which was not the case.
“A lot of people thought I was fired because of the fight, and I hated that. I really regret that the fight happened,” he said.
Twice during his tenure at New Albany he received notice of being laid off, only to be rehired before the next school year.
While 1994 didn’t end the way he had hoped, and there were times when he didn’t know if his job was secure, Buerger only has good memories of his career at NAHS. He taught economics and a course on the presidents, which he developed and would later become an honors class.
“Sometime, maybe 15 years or so into my career, I realized that 90 percent of my pay was for teaching and 10 percent for coaching. That is when I really dedicated myself to teaching,” he said.
Buerger still enjoys coaching his grandson Jack’s 8-year-old baseball team.
“When I began coaching, my players seemed more like younger brothers. By the time I finished coaching, the players were more like sons and now I’m coaching my grandson,” he said. “Coaching is all about passing the game on to future generations.”
He and his wife, Mary Jane, have been married for almost 47 years and the two have three daughters — Mindy Dablow, Jaime Buerger and Katy Buerger. He has two granddaughters, Anna and Caroline, to go along with grandson Jack.
He credits his family for their support during his coaching and teaching career. And while his 50 years in education has come to a close, the memories and impact he had on the lives of his former students and players will live on. They were taught the right way. The Buerger way.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” he said.
— Chris Morris is an assistant editor at the News and Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and 812-206-2155.