Lifetimes: Funny neckties, encouraging attitude endeared Coach Mike to young people

Mike Sitko_RobertWilson, The Record
Photo: Robert Wilson, The Record

Valerie Hill
Waterloo Region Record

KITCHENER — There seems to be a dominant theme when you speak to anyone who knew retired teacher, principal and sports coach Mike Sitko: He was a really nice guy.

Longtime friend and mentor Tuffy Knight, who served as head coach of the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks football team, remembers meeting a teenage Mike in the 1970s for the first time. The coach had been scouting for talent, as he did every year, inviting prospective players to visit Laurier’s campus.

The boys would be told that life as a student and football player was no picnic, and that there would be a lot of hard physical work and demands on their time. There was no one to coddle them and they needed to take the work seriously.

Tuffy said some kids knew they couldn’t handle the pressure and just left, but not Mike.

“It didn’t scare Mike at all,” Tuffy said. “Mike worked hard and he was a leader right off the bat, he was a talker and would get along with people.”

For Tuffy, it was all football all the time, and he saw that same devotion in Mike when he first met him as that tall, strong teenage boy.

In 2001, Mike told the Record: “I was playing offensive tackle and linebacker at St. Michael’s College school (a Toronto high school) when Tuffy came to see me play in Toronto’s annual high school all-star game at Varsity Stadium.

“I had already made a trip to check out a serious scholarship offer at the University of Iowa in the U.S., but I decided I wanted to come to WLU. It was a decision I never regretted.”

Mike, a superb athlete, proved to be a valuable asset to the Hawks, becoming an all-Canadian football all-star in 1976. He also created a role for himself as unofficial assistant coach for Tuffy, helping the young players through their personal struggles.

“The kids listened to him when he spoke,” Tuffy said. “The new guys came in, right out of high school, they were a bit intimidated and some kids quit.
“He’d take a leadership role with these freshmen and tell them, ‘Hang in there, you’re doing OK.'”

This natural inclination continued through his five years at Laurier and later when he was coaching his own football team at Resurrection Catholic High School in Kitchener, where he also taught.

Tuffy could see the correlation between Mike’s leadership abilities on the football field and his skills in the classroom.

“It’s likely why he was such a good teacher,” he said. “He was an honest guy, a fun guy and a hard worker.”

Mike was born in Toronto, the eldest of six kids, and when he was only six years old, his parents divorced, leaving his mother to care for all those kids on her own.

“He was the responsible one in the family,” said his wife, Carol Sitko. “He worked three jobs in high school.”

One of his summer jobs was with the railway police for CN Rail, where his father worked as an electrician. Mike used to tell his own boys that he was shot at a couple of times while on the job. Carol smiled and said Mike was one for embellishing a story to make it more exciting, but there was indeed at least one shooting incident. He was not hurt.

After graduating from Laurier, where he met fellow student Carol, Mike considered a pro football career and even had a brief tryout with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but ultimately he decided to return to school for a teaching degree. He graduated from the University of Toronto in 1978 and quickly discovered there were few teaching jobs.

So Mike headed west to a job teaching at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a small Catholic boarding school in the tiny village of Wilcox, Sask. The school had a strong athletics program and teachers were also expected to coach — a winning combination for Mike.

Carol described Wilcox as “150 people in the town, plus the school.” This was not big-city living for the young couple who married the year after Mike started at the school. She was hired to work in school administration.

By 1986, the couple, with the first two of four sons in tow, decided it was time to return to Ontario. Mike’s mother was dying of cancer.

“When my mother died, I then took charge of my 14-year-old brother David, and it was quite a time because I was married and had two young sons of my own,” Mike told the Record.

Back in Ontario, Mike joined the staff at what was then St. Jerome’s High School in downtown Kitchener, at the urging of his friend, principal Rev. Mike Cundari.

Mike and Carol purchased a house in Kitchener and had two more sons, a total of four sports-mad kids who filled the couple’s home with other sports-mad kids.

There were sons Jonathan, Matthew, Joshua and Patrick, plus their constant stream of friends who usually arrived uninvited but were always welcome and always fed.

Patrick said that “our parents had an open-door policy, we didn’t have to invite them, they just showed up.”

Carol said it was a happy household full of laughter, particularly because of Mike’s antics.

“He was a jokester,” Joshua said. “He’d dress up as Santa Claus, a clown, a pirate for our birthdays.”

Carol added that the dressing-up theme continued during his three-decade career as a teacher. Mike always wore funky-themed ties and suspenders, which made him a hit with the students.

He taught at St. Jerome’s until it closed, then transferred to Resurrection High School, a new school Kitchener, where he also helped build the football team and co-ordinated the school’s co-operative education program.

Tuffy, who had left university coaching for a time, returned to Waterloo to take over the limping University of Waterloo Warriors, a football team he said had lost 36 straight games. But just like the kids Tuffy used to warn about the hard work needed to be a player, assistant coaches were also warned and many were scared off.

So he called Mike.

“I needed help coaching and he came on board,” said Tuffy, who was aware Mike had a family, a full-time job and his own teams to coach. But for five years, Mike stood by Tuffy’s side, helping raise the team that consistently lost games to winning a Yates Cup in just a couple of years.

“It was because I had good people, like Mike,” Tuffy said.

Though Mike loved teaching, he eventually decided to become a school principal and moved to an elementary school, St. Elizabeth Catholic in Cambridge. He retired in 2015, and Tuffy remembers asking why Mike didn’t retire years earlier, since he certainly had the seniority.

“He said, ‘I could, but I’m having too much fun, I love being with the kids'” Tuffy recalled.

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