Type to search

The story of Russ Swartz: A life with basketball, lots of wins and emotions

The story of Russ Swartz: A life with basketball, lots of wins and emotions


By Tom Nader

Publisher and Editor


Basketball has always been important to Russ Swartz.

Ever since he can remember.

Back to the days when he was just a toddler running around the gymnasium inside Springfield High School, where his dad was a coach.

The love started to grow there.

And it has never stopped.

But the game of basketball has never meant more to Swartz than it does now.

For different reasons, too.

Some would think his 500 career wins would be the reason.

Others may point to his pile of league-championship trophies.

Or some could point to his 35 years of coaching that have been an opportunity created as an extension to his career as an educator.

All three provide every bit of evidence needed to validate Swartz as one of Portage County’s all-time greatest coaches.

And while they all mean the world to him, the tears that well in his eyes these days while talking about basketball, have zero to do with any of those milestone achievements.

“The older I get, the more emotional I get,” Swartz said. “I think of all the relationships with all the great people that have helped me get to this point in my life. Those people and all of those relationships have meant so much to me that I can’t help but get emotional when I think about it. It has never just been me. I have been blessed with amazing players that worked hard, assistant coaches that supported me and my family has always been there for me. They have sacrificed …,” Swartz said as he paused to collect himself from his emotions before continuing, … the network of people around me has been so strong, and I feel so very lucky to be able to say that.”




Basketball and Swartz were hand in hand from the beginning.

In the late 1960’s, Swartz’s father Larry was the JV basketball coach at Springfield.

At that time, the Spartans were a Class AAA school and the program had talent.

Swartz and his older brother Rod would go to as many practices as their schedules allowed.

They would go to the games, riding the bus when they could.

Basketball would overflow into the backyard of the family’s Mogadore home on Williams Avenue.

Basketball was everything.

Swartz’s mother, Jan, saw in an instant the hold the game had on her boys.

“She tells us that we were never a behavior problem at the games, because we would sit there and stare at the game from start to finish. I guess we just never wanted to miss anything,” Swartz said with a laugh.

Soon, Russ and Rod were old enough to start playing organized basketball, which at that time was part of the Junior Pro league that was a staple in Portage County into the mid-1990’s.

Teams were formed inside each community, then came together to play a schedule of games against each other. In a sense, a miniature version of the Portage County League.

Mogadore’s teams were some of the best of the bunch, featuring Tom Pollock, Steve Lutz Sr., Russ and Rod, among others. The group qualified for the national tournament that was hosted in Lexington, Ky., where Pollock and Russ were named All-Americans as sixth graders.

Memories and moments that continued to allow Swartz to fall in love with basketball.




As Russ transitioned to high school, his class of basketball players was big enough for the school to have a freshman team with a full schedule.

To get the opportunity to play on the JV team, as a freshman, at that time, was a big deal, with the natural progression being that sophomores would lead that group.

Leading into Swartz’s sophomore season, he set a goal for himself.

“I kept telling myself that I don’t want to play JV,” Swartz said.

The idea was not intended to be rude, but instead, it acted as motivation for Swartz to improve himself enough that then-head coach Jerry Butcher had no choice but to include him in his varsity rotation.

“That idea motivated me daily. It really did. I wanted to prove that I belonged on varsity,” Swartz said.

Butcher agreed and Swartz landed on varsity as the team’s sixth man.

The momentum and Swartz’s competitive drive never slowed down.

For his junior season, Butcher left Mogadore to become the head coach at Cuyahoga Falls and Tom McClary took over the Cats’ program. Swartz, who finished his prep career with 1,067 points, flourished and was named All-Portage County League and was a leading contributor to Mogadore’s Associated Press poll state championship — just months after helping the 1979 football team win the state championship.

Celebrated accomplishments to be sure, but it was a conversation with McClary, on a bus ride home from one of the team’s road games, that had the strongest impact.

“I can’t remember if it was my junior or senior year, but I remember talking with coach McClary, and he asked me, ‘What do you think you want to do?’ I told him that I would love to become a coach one day.”




After playing collegiately at Hiram College, once again alongside his brother Rod, Swartz’s coaching career launched when he became a graduate assistant at the University of Akron.

The Zips were coached by legendary college coach Bob Huggins, who Swartz spent two seasons with (1986-88).

He watched. He listened. He learned.

Inside those two seasons, Swartz realized that the college game was not his future. He did not want to be a college coach.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Do I really want to do this my whole life? All this moving around all the time’?” Swartz recalled. “Even at 25 years old, I knew that I really didn’t think that was going to make me happy.”

Swartz was then alerted that Southeast was looking for a new boys basketball coach.

He applied, got an interview and received an offer to take over the Pirates’ program.

“Let me tell you something, it is not easy being a 25-year-old head coach,” Swartz said. “I thought I knew everything, and I found out that I knew some things, but still had a lot to learn. A lot.”

Swartz’s first season, in 1988-89, was humbling.

One win. Nineteen losses.

But things began to change and Swartz watched it unfold in real time.

The Pirates went from the bottom of the PCL to the top and by the time Swartz’s time at Southeast ended, he had spent six years and his Pirates averaged 14 wins per season.

They won a pair of PCL championships and two sectional titles led by players like star Seth Truman and standout Sean Stephens.

The success opened an opportunity for Swartz to become the head coach at Norton, where he spent the next 14 years of his coaching career (1994-2008). With the Panthers, he won two sectional titles and was runner-up in a challenging Suburban League four different times.




Following the 2007-08 season, Swartz was faced with a decision.

His hometown Wildcats were searching for a new boys basketball coach and, naturally, it caught his attention.

The idea of coming back home grabbed his heart.

“I grew up in Mogadore. We live in Mogadore. Our kids go to Mogadore,” Swartz said of the thoughts that were going through his mind at the time of the decision. “There were a lot of factors and so many of them just made sense, but believe me when I tell you that it was not easy to leave Norton.”

And it wasn’t ike Swartz was walking into a program ready to compete at Mogadore.

The Wildcats were in a far different place upon his return home.

The same 2007-08 season that was Swartz’s final year at Norton, the Wildcats struggled through an 0-21 campaign.

Seeking inspiration and motivation, Swartz looked back to his start at Southeast.

“I felt like I had turned around a program once, so I can do it again,” Swartz said. “I felt confident that we could change things, but it would come down to the kids believing in the system and the culture.”

Swartz admits, though, that his first summer in the gymnasium had him nervous.

“OK, what did we get ourselves into here,” Swartz, chuckling, remembers thinking.

Swartz kept coaching.

A trophy that was presented to Russ Swartz after winning the 500th game of his career on Feb. 27, 2024.
Tom Nader/Portage Sports

The players kept working hard.

Everyone embraced the concepts that would be required to not only become a winner, but sustain winning.

Each season was another step forward and Swartz’s Wildcats are now one of the most consistent winners in Portage County and all of Division IV.

Mogadore’s league title in 2023-24 was the program’s seventh in nine years.

A feat far too difficult to fully describe.

“To maintain the level of winning that we have is something I am really proud of. It is really hard. Probably harder than anyone truly realizes,” Swartz said. “We have done it with great kids and great families. The players have bought into our system and our culture and our longevity of success is directly connected to that. They see that it works and sometimes it is not easy, but it works and it fits into our philosophy of developing young men into the best men, husbands and fathers that we can.”

Swartz won his 500th career game on Feb. 27, 2024, and his career win percentage sits at .611 — and since coming back to Mogadore, the Cats have a .713 win percentage under his leadership. In six years at Southeast (1988-94), Swartz was 68-61. In 14 seasons at Norton (1994-2008), he was 154-145. Since taking over at Mogadore in 2008, Swartz is 278-112.

Swartz’s No. 1 fan is his wife Dee. The two have been married for 36 years and met while Swartz was a graduate assistant at the University of Akron. Their children, Lukas and Alexis, both graduated from Mogadore and were multi-sport standouts.

They are the leaders in the web of support that flushes Swartz with emotion when reflecting on his career. He has shared so many moments with them, as well as players, coaches and families that has now stretched across four decades.

It outlines a love for basketball.

Deeper still, it outlines a love for the people that were there for it all.


  1. Tim Rogers June 4, 2024

    Fine piece on a terrific coach. He plays the hand he is dealt.

  2. John Nemec June 5, 2024

    Great article in an outstanding coach


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *