Normally, in these early summer months, you can find Mike Huston parked somewhere with his camper, sitting next to a campfire after a day spent fishing and breathing in the crisp mountain air.
He would have reenacted such a scene at least a half dozen times by this time of the year.
Those first trips pulling his camper up the mountain had to wait a little longer this year. But, it was a wait Huston was willing to patiently endure.
This wasn’t any ordinary spring high school baseball season. It was the first season back after the 2020 campaign was completely wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, even more meaningful, it was Huston’s final season coaching high school baseball.
Following Northridge’s season finale — a 9-7 win against Silver Creek on June 10 — Huston officially decided to retire, closing the book on a 41-year coaching career at Windsor, Greeley Central and Northridge.
“It just seemed right,” Huston said. “It was obviously a tough decision, especially with Northridge winning 10 games this year without any seniors. That makes it tough, but at the same time, it made it easier, because for whoever might come in and take over at Northridge, the cupboards aren’t empty. They’re walking into a team that, for the next couple years, is capable of making the state tourney.”
Huston said, initially, he had plans to retire a year ago. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic canceling the 2020 season, there was no way he was going to let that lost season be his last season.
He came into the season this past spring confident this would be his final run. But, not wanting his imminent retirement to distract from what would be a highly successful season for Northridge, Huston didn’t tell anyone besides his wife Sheri of his intent to retire until a couple days before the season ended.
Among his 41 years coaching, Huston, 60, spent the past 34 as a high school head coach. He’s the only head baseball coach Northridge has ever had, taking over the program when the school opened 21 years ago.
Before that, he coached at Greeley Central for six years (1995-2000). And, he got his high school head coaching start at Windsor where he coached for seven years (1988-94).
Huston has a high school head coaching career record of 390-290, going 238-184 during his 20 seasons at Northridge. And, factoring in summer legion baseball seasons, he has an overall career coaching record of 1,920-1,061.
He received his first legion baseball head coaching gig fresh out of high school, taking over the summer team for his alma mater, Valley/La Salle.
Huston also coached Greeley GoJo Sports’ all-star summer baseball program for 34 of the program’s first 35 years of existence. He retired from coaching GoJo’s in 2015 after leading the program to seven Legion A state titles.
Huston taught physical education and health for 28 years before retiring from full-time teaching a year ago.
In 2004 and ’06, he led Northridge — still just a handful of years into the program’s existence — to the final four of the 4A state tournament.
It was the third program he led to the final four, enjoying similar postseason runs at Windsor and Greeley Central.
In 2014, Huston was inducted into the Colorado Dugout Club Baseball Hall of Fame.
But, marquee victories and postseason runs aside, Huston said what he’ll miss most about coaching high school baseball is the opportunity to connect with young, impressionable student-athletes.
“I’ll miss being around the kids,” Huston said. “But, everything just feels right about (retirement). I don’t want to be one of these guys that hangs on too long. I had someone tell me once, ‘You’re better off going out too early than too late.’ That’s probably true.”
Tony Wittmus played for Huston on the 1999 Greeley GoJo’s team, during the summer after Wittmus graduated from Fort Lupton High School. Wittmus went on to become an All-American and hall of famer for Colorado State University-Pueblo.
Wittmus, 40, said had it not been for the advanced level of coaching Huston provided him after his senior year of high school, he may not have made the immediate impact he did at the collegiate level.
“Coming out of Fort Lupton, I was a very good athlete, but I didn’t how to play baseball until I started to play for Coach Huston,” said Wittmus, who won a Legion A state title with GoJo’s in ’99. “He really taught me the ins and outs of the actual game — the attention to detail and how to prepare for games, how to approach baseball as more than a game but as a competitive struggle.
“He really showed me how to compete. He prepared me for college baseball more than anybody had before.”
Brad Hertzke, 45, has worked with Huston on the baseball diamond for the past 30 years — first as one of Huston’s players at Windsor High School from 1990-94, then as one of Huston’s assistant coaches for most of the past 27 years with Windsor, Northridge and GoJo’s.
One of the many things he always appreciated about Huston was the way he instilled confidence and responsibility within his assistant coaches, even letting them coach and call the game from the third-base box — a spot typically reserved for a club’s head coach/manager.
Huston’s ability to instill confidence into his young pupils dates back to his very first high school head coaching gig at Windsor in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Hertzke recalls when Huston took over the Wizards program while Hertzke’s older brother was playing, Huston brought a level of professionalism and personal accountability that immediately changed the entire culture within the program.
“As soon as he he came to Windsor, everything changed, and we knew it,” Hertzke said. “He changed the way we dressed. He changed what everybody expected, and how we worked and how we did everything. It was what everybody wanted. And, it’s the way it needed to be. It was so fun.”
Mike has been married to his wife Sheri for 39 years, almost as long as he’s been coaching.
She’s undeniably been the biggest supporter of his legendary coaching career, almost never missing a game.
Like Mike’s many other friends, family members and close supporters, Sheri was right there when her husband coached his final game on June 10 at Northridge’s Darryl Kile Field.
As much as he maintained his game face throughout the tightly contested game, Mike’s emotions began to set in during those final pitches.
But, he certainly wasn’t the only Huston family member who was emotional.
“It was kind of bittersweet — just knowing he will now have time to do what he wants to do with his time off,” Sheri said. “Mostly, he’s going to be doing his fishing a lot more. … But, I think it was sad for him knowing he wasn’t going to be able to be there to work with another group of boys (next spring) and bring them along.
“… And, he kept questioning (retirement). It took him up to the very end to decide if he was going to really retire this year or not.”
Baseball has always been a family affair for the Hustons.
Like Sheri, Mike’s parents — Bill and Glenna — rarely missed a game. In fact, they often operated the scoreboard and kept the book during long GoJo’s doubleheaders.
And, literally, right by Mike’s side for much of his coaching career was his younger brother, Don.
Don coached alongside Mike with GoJo’s for 30 years and also coached with Mike at Northridge for nearly a decade.
In 2015, Mike and Don both had banners raised in their honor at GoJo’s longtime home field, Butch Butler Field near Centennial Park in Greeley.
Don was right with his older brother during many of the very best moments of Mike’s coaching career — including each of the seven Legion A state titles.
He witnessed his brother achieve such immense success with a level of humility almost unheard of from a coach with Mike’s resumé.
“Mike was a part of every single one of those state championships, and he never took credit for any of them,” Don said. “It was an unbelievable run. And, Mike is just an unassuming guy and he doesn’t want any credit. But, you know what? This doesn’t happen by accident. Somebody has to build it.”
Coaching Greeley GoJo’s for three and a half decades, Huston was able to mentor young athletes from schools beyond just Windsor, Greeley Central and Northridge.
Huston said one of the greatest joys of his career was seeing these kids from different towns, schools and backgrounds come together and form a winning baseball program in a matter of weeks, while also forming lifelong friendships with each other.
With a Major League-like schedule of 70-plus games in just more than two summer months, the families of these players and coaches also formed deep, long-lasting bonds.
During those long road trips to Pueblo, Wyoming and Las Vegas — and during the dozens of five-plus-hour doubleheaders right at Butch Butler Field — these players from all throughout northern Colorado would just grow closer and closer with other, their coaching staffs and each other’s families.
Mike’s parents, Bill and Glenna, still tell stories of great players that donned that GoJo’s green and gold decades ago.
Glenna said she routinely runs in to past players who still remember her and Bill, and still reflect fondly on the impact Mike made on their lives years ago when they were mere high school graduates preparing to take on the real world.
“We are so proud of him and what he has done, and the lives he’s impacted,” Glenna said of her son. “One of the neatest things now is, we run into guys who played for him. And, so many of them will come up to us and say, ‘those were some of the greatest times of our life, having Mike as our coach and playing for him.’ And, that’s a great reward for us and for him to know that people thought so much of him and cared so much about him.”
As much as his admirers will miss seeing Huston lead a dugout, the next few decades of Huston’s life are likely to be as enjoyable and rewarding as the previous decades have been.
Huston said he’ll enjoy the extra time with family, including his two grandkids. And, of course, nothing will interfere now with getting that early jump on heading for the hills, his camper in tow.
“Mike’s time for fishing is finally here,” Hertzke said of his longtime friend and mentor.
Bobby Fernandez covers high school sports for the Greeley Tribune. Reach him at (970) 392-4478, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BobbyDFernandez.