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Renier has worked both sides inside the lines

Copper Country Legends

November 8, 2012
By Paul Peterson - For the Gazette , The Daily Mining Gazette

HANCOCK - Most local sports followers recognize Tom Renier as a longtime high school football official, who just completed his 45th year as one of the men in stripes.

But most of them may not remember that Renier coached Suomi College (now Finlandia University) men's basketball teams to 308 victories between 1963 and 1986.

Renier, a Green Bay native, came to Suomi in 1963 to teach physical education after graduating from Northern Michigan University.

"I really didn't have a background in basketball. But I went to a couple of clinics and read some books," he said recently. "I remember telling our dean that I would give it a year and see what happened."

The Lions would put together a winning season in Renier's second season and go on to consistent success over the next two decades.

"We used to play our home games at old Nikander Hall, " Renier noted. "It was such a small gym, it was very difficult to run any sort of offense."

Renier featured a run-and-gun style offense and recruited wisely, getting such top Copper Country players as Larry Kangas of Baraga, Dennis Miilu and Charlie Smith of Mass, and Dave Vertanen, Dennis Hietala and the late Marty Logan of Chassell.

"The local kids we recruited back then worked hard and could shoot the basketball," Renier said. "We had good success with them."

Reaching the National Junior College Tournament in Hutchinson, Kan., was one goal that escaped Renier and his team.

Because most of the teams in his region were located in Minnesota, the Lions invariably found themselves on the road in the postseason.

"We had some good teams ... but we always fell a little short," the ex-Suomi skipper said. "But the toughest one to take was a triple overtime game we lost in the regional finals in 1973 to Brainerd Community College."

In that game, Suomi lost by one point on a 40-foot heave at the buzzer.

Suomi produced such standouts in the 1970s as Ernie Montgomery, Matthew Johnson and Franz Jenkins. All went on to play for Northern Michigan University after two years in Hancock and gained team MVP honors for the Wildcats.

The building of Paavo Nurmi Gymnasium in the early 1970s was a key part in building the hoops program. The floor is the only one in the Upper Peninsula to have eight layers of flooring.

"I always felt we had the finest court anywhere in the U.P.," Renier said.

Suomi dropped basketball in 1986 and it wasn't picked up again until 2001.

Football was actually Renier's first love. He was all-state defensive end at Green Bay East High. He received a scholarship offer from Miami of Florida after graduation, but opted to go to Montana State University.

After suffering an injury at MSU, he transferred to Northern Michigan University, where coach Frosty Ferzacca recruited him. But another injury sidetracked him before he got a chance to play for the Wildcats.

He began his officiating career in 1967, working with a crew that included Fritz Wilson, Harold Amos, Con Sochay and the late Ernie Toivonen.

His later crews have included John Gravier, Eugene Fiszer and Joe Strong.

"I was fortunate to have worked with some very capable officials," Renier said. "It's been a lot of fun."

As for advice to young officials breaking in, Renier was to the point.

"You have to be committed. By that, I mean you have to stay up with the rule changes and you have to know the game. And you must have the courage to make the tough calls. You also have to stay in good physical condition."

During his time as an official, Renier has worked many big games. He said none was bigger than the 1998 Class CC state championship game between Montrose and Whittemore-Prescott.

"Working that state finals game at the Pontiac Silverdome was a big thrill," he noted.

Besides coaching and officiating, his other main interest has been the Green Bay Packers.

"My family has had season tickets at Lambeau Field for more than 50 years," he pointed out. "And my aunt was Vince Lombardi's personal secretary during his stay in Green Bay. I think you could safely say ... that I bleed Green and Gold."

Some time this spring, the MHSAA will award Tom a plaque for his 45 years of service - a honor he has worked hard to attain.



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