Don Owen: Bellevue native Steve Ridder continues to make hoops history, but never forgets his past

Remember that lanky kid from Bellevue High School named Steve Ridder? You know, the star basketball player who helped Bellevue pull off a pair of stunning tournament upsets — 35th District and 9th Region — in 1976?

Fast-forward 44 years later, and the former 9th Region hoops standout is doing just fine. Ridder has migrated from the banks of the Ohio River in Bellevue to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Daytona Beach, Fla. In between, he stopped off in Berea for 12 years before accepting the job as basketball head coach at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

It’s also been an eye-opening journey for Ridder, filled with lots of crazy twists. How crazy? Well, he turned down an annual salary of $30,000 with Goodyear Aerospace Corporation in the early 1980s, instead opting for an assistant coaching job at Berea College — his alma mater — for $500 per year.

Steve Ridder has recorded 716 career coaching victories at Embry-Riddle.
“Coach (Roland) Wierwille said I’d get $500,” Ridder said, chuckling at the memory. “So I asked, ‘Is that for a week or a month?’ He tells me it’s for the entire season. So here I am as a recent college graduate, deciding on whether to take $30,000 a year in a good job, or get into coaching — which I really wanted to do — and make $500 for the whole year.”

Yes, $500. For the entire year. How’s that for insanity?

The Bellevue native isn’t crazy, though. Ridder has traded the sub-freezing winter temperatures in Kentucky for 72 degrees in Florida. He’s also won 716 games during his 31-year coaching career at Embry-Riddle — including the NAIA II national championship in 2000.

In fact, Ridder built Embry-Riddle from a non-scholarship program without a home facility into a present-day NCAA Division II member that finished the 2019-20 season with a 20-10 overall record. The Eagles were also headed to the NCAA Division II Tournament until the pandemic shut down the sports world in March.

Given Ridder’s long history of success in March — both as a player at Bellevue and now as a head coach — it would have been interesting to see how Embry-Riddle might have fared in the NCAA Division II Tournament.

Folks in the 9th Region — especially those who follow the basketball programs at Newport and Highlands — will attest to Ridder’s penchant for postseason success. Just bring up the 1975-76 campaign to Wildcat or Bluebird hoops fans — especially when tournament time arrived that season.

Several years before anyone consistently began using the phrase “March Madness,” Ridder and his Bellevue teammates unleashed a different type of insanity on basketball in Northern Kentucky. It began during the opening round of the 35th District Tournament against a powerful Newport squad in Regents Hall on March 3, 1976.

Fearless Tigers
Newport already owned a double-digit victory over Bellevue in January. The Wildcats rolled into the 35th District Tournament with plenty of momentum, having beaten three-time defending regional champion Newport Catholic late in the season. With an inside game that featured 6-foot-6 Mitch McIntosh and 6-foot-5 Dickie Boothe, plus a backcourt filled with quickness and athleticism, many observers felt Newport would win the 9th Region title.

Steve Ridder goes to the basket during preseason practice in 1975 at Bellevue High School.
As for Bellevue? The Tigers were simply the hors d’oeuvres for Newport before the main course — NewCath in the 35th District championship game. Ridder and his Bellevue teammates, however, presented a different menu to 9th Region basketball experts. Those supposed hors d’oeuvres also caused the heavily favored Wildcats to suffer major indigestion.

“I thought we were confident, yet at the same time we were overwhelmed at the level of talent on that Newport team,” Ridder recalled. “They had size. They had strength. They had foot speed, quickness and outstanding guard play. We knew it was a tough task, but I don’t remember us being fearful. We knew we had to play one heck of a basketball game to beat them.”

They did just that. Bellevue rallied from a 10-point deficit in the first half and stunned Newport, 60-57, eliminating the Wildcats in the opening game of the 35th District Tournament. Ridder netted 16 points to lead Bellevue, while teammate John Ahrens — who had missed the previous month with a hand/wrist injury — came off the bench and scored 13 to spark the Tigers.

Gary Akers, the Bellevue head coach at that time, told The Kentucky Post after the game the win was “the biggest in my career.” The smaller Tigers held the towering McIntosh to just eight points, and when the Newport center fouled out with 4:29 left in the game, Bellevue used a 13-7 run to overcome a 50-47 deficit and pull off the upset.

Leonard Slaughter led Newport with 15 points, while Boothe added 14 points. Steve Hannon and Tom Groeschen each scored 10 points for Bellevue. Three nights later, Bellevue dropped a 67-46 decision to NewCath in the 35th District finals, but the Tigers earned a berth in the 9th Region Tournament as the runner-up.

“We had a really good basketball team. We had good talent, not great, but we had special chemistry,” Ridder said. “I was a junior, but we had a great senior class on that team. They didn’t care who got the credit. They just wanted to make their senior year special and committed to doing that. Beating that Newport team, which was absolutely loaded with talent, was a major accomplishment and our seniors keyed that win.”

Former NewCath star Dave Faust, now the head coach at St. Henry High School and friends with Ridder since childhood, wasn’t stunned by Bellevue’s upset over Newport in the 35th District opener. Faust was a junior guard at NewCath in 1976 and knew the personnel from both teams.

“Newport, on paper, was more talented. But I wasn’t that surprised Bellevue won because I knew they had a very good team,” recalled Faust, whose NewCath team beat Dayton in the other 35th District first-round game. “It might have been a shock to a lot of people, but I’d played against Steve and some of those other Bellevue guys on the playgrounds growing up.

“I don’t think (Bellevue’s win) was a shock to us. For me, it was a mild surprise. To everybody else, it was a huge upset.”

Awaiting Bellevue in the first round of the 9th Region Tournament was Highlands — a 20-game winner and the champion of the 36th District. The Bluebirds were under the direction of former St. Thomas head coach Ken Shields, who was in his first year as the Highlands mentor.

Bellevue works OT to stun Highlands
A field of outstanding basketball teams gathered at Conner High School for the 1976 9th Region Tournament. Boone County featured 6-foot-8 Rick Waller. The Holy Cross roster included the dynamic duo of Mike “Turkey” Jones and Mike List. NewCath was loaded with talent and championship experience.

Holmes featured a sophomore forward named Doug Schloemer, plus a senior guard tandem of Mike Moore and Dwayne Morris. That’s not to mention Highlands, which was led by junior standouts Bob McManus and Mark Wendel.

Could Bellevue pull off another upset? Or would Highlands cruise to an easy win?

Instead of a blowout, the Bellevue/Highlands contest emerged as the most exciting game of the 1976 regional. Highlands maintained the lead for most of the game, but the Bluebirds never pulled away. By the end of regulation, it was tied at 67-all and heading for overtime. Then, tied at 75-all, they played a second overtime. And the Tigers were without Ridder.

“I had to watch the overtime from the bench because I’d fouled out,” said Ridder, who finished with 20 points and 20 rebounds.

Bellevue, though, regrouped and responded. Trailing by a point in the final seconds, the Tigers pulled out a heart-stopping 81-80 victory when Denny Smith found Hannon with a perfect pass for a layup as the buzzer sounded.

“I’ll never forget the last seconds of that game against Highlands. Denny Smith dished it to Hannon, and Steve nailed the winning basket,” Ridder recalled. “What a great pass by Denny to Steve. That sent us to the semifinals of the regional. It was a huge win for Bellevue High School.”

Smith scored 20 points, and Hannon netted 14 points as Bellevue advanced to the 9th Region semifinals for the first time since 1949. Ahrens added 10 points for the Tigers, who survived a 32-point outburst by McManus. Highlands had forced a second overtime by rallying from a 75-71 deficit in the final minute as McManus drilled a pair of long-range jumpers.

“To beat Highlands a week after knocking off Newport in the district — two of the biggest wins I ever was a part of — is a tribute to the guys on that Bellevue team, especially that senior class,” Ridder said. “It was such a special group of players.

“Looking back after that Highlands game, we felt confident that we could keep winning. But we ran into Holy Cross in the regional semifinals with both Mike List and (Mike) ‘Turkey’ Jones. They knocked us out, but that was one of the best teams in Bellevue history.”

The following season, Bellevue again advanced to the 9th Region Tournament, this time as 35th District runner-up to Newport. Holmes defeated Bellevue in the opening round of the regional, and Ridder finished his prep career with 1,328 points, 851 rebounds and 307 assists.

Ridder’s Berea College years
He enrolled at Berea College, where he played basketball and baseball. Ridder also met his future wife, Vicky Taylor, while a student at Berea. Under the tutelage of Wierwille — a legendary coach in the NAIA ranks — Ridder learned important lessons about basketball, education and life.

Steve Ridder as a player at Berea College. (BC photo)

“Roland Wierwille is an important figure in my life, and for many reasons,” Ridder said. “He said that I was a born leader and perfect for the coaching profession. Coach Wierwille is why I made the decision to turn down that $30,000 right out of college. Vicky and I were about to get married, so it was the first big decision we ever made together.”

Ridder accepted the $500 coaching job. Berea also found other ways (dorm director, financial aid, etc.) to supplement his salary. The school also provided a free room as part of the dorm director’s position. His wife already had secured a teaching job, which provided the couple with much-needed income.

Ridder spent eight seasons as Wierwille’s top assistant. He helped Berea to a 148-76 record with a conference championship and national tournament berth along the way. The Bellevue native also coached baseball for one season at Berea. “I really enjoyed being the baseball head coach,” Ridder said. “I thought being the head coach for baseball and the assistant coach for basketball was a great experience. I expected to stay at Berea for a long time because I love the school and wanted to build the baseball program.”

But a new challenge awaited Ridder in Florida — the basketball program Embry-Riddle.

From no home court to national champions
Despite his love for Berea College, Ridder accepted the job at Embry-Riddle in 1989. He realized there was very little interest in basketball at the aeronautical school. There was no home gym. There were no athletic scholarships for basketball players.

Ridder also inherited an Embry-Riddle program that had gone winless (0-21) on the court in its inaugural season of play in 1988-89. The record later became 3-18 after three forfeit wins were awarded to the Eagles.

Embry-Riddle lost its first 19 games during Ridder’s first season. “I’d never been 0-19 in anything,” he said.

The Eagles bounced back to win four games and finish 4-23, but two of those victories were the results of forfeits. “I received letters in the mail from two schools saying that they’d used ineligible players, so we got two wins that way,” Ridder quipped.

But the wins multiplied in a hurry with Ridder in charge of the program, and without forfeits. In 1990-91, Embry-Riddle posted a 22-8 overall record, the first of four straight 20-win seasons. He convinced the administration and faculty at Embry-Riddle to implement athletic scholarships, assuring everyone that his players would be outstanding students at the aeronautical school.

Robby Padgett
Ridder also used his connections in Northern Kentucky — and childhood buddy Dave Faust — to land scoring machine Robby Padgett from St. Henry.

“My first year as head coach at St. Henry, Steve recruited Robby Padgett,” Faust said. “Robby became an All-American and Embry-Riddle’s all-time leading scorer. I joke with Steve all the time that I give him one player, and he never comes back again.”

Padgett netted 2,415 points in his four-year career (1993-97) at Embry-Riddle. He also holds the school records for scoring average (18.2 ppg), 3-point field goal percentage (.480) and free throws made (585). Padgett was also the first player in Embry-Riddle history to earn first team All-America honors, something he accomplished twice in his career.

“Rob was such a great scorer and outstanding shooter, and I’m grateful he decided to come to Embry-Riddle,” Ridder said. “Great young man, outstanding student and just a joy for me to coach. He was the total package that we always talk about in terms of student, person and player.”

The crowning achievement for the Embry-Riddle program occurred on March 14, 2000, when the Eagles captured the NAIA II national championship with a 75-63 win over the College of the Ozarks. The victory capped a 31-7 season for Embry-Riddle and brought the campus unprecedented national coverage on television.

Another Ridder legacy is the ICI Center — the home facility for Embry-Riddle basketball and volleyball with a capacity of 1,968. The Eagles no longer have to play at a middle school gymnasium — something they did in the early years of the program. “We played at Silver Sands Middle School in Port Orange for our home games,” Ridder said, chuckling at the memory.

Ridder — who served as athletic director for 20 years (1993-2013) — also paved the way for a full-fledged athletics program (19 sports) and first-class facilities on the campus. He has been honored as coach of the year eight times in his career, including national coach of the year honors from the NAIA in 2000. Ridder is also a member of the NAIA Hall of Fame and also enshrined in the Florida Association of Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame, the Berea College Hall of Fame, the Northern Kentucky Hall of Fame and the Bellevue High School Hall of Fame.

Embry-Riddle captured the NAIA II national championship in 2000 by defeating College of the Ozarks. (ERAU photo)
Faust isn’t surprised by Ridder’s success at Embry-Riddle.

“What he’s done with the progression of that program just shows how dedicated Steve is,” Faust said. “Steve was relentless as a player. He did everything well. He could shoot it, rebound the ball and he could guard the opposing team’s best player whether it was a guard, forward or center. Steve is a very competitive person.”

The Bellevue native gives all the credit for his success to many others, a list of people that extends from his younger brother Dan (now the principal at Bishop Brossart High School) to former coaches at St. Anthony Grade School such as Tom Miller and Ralph Meyer. There’s also another important person who has been there for the entire journey — from Berea to Daytona Beach.

“None of this happens without the ultimate teammate and soulmate, my awesome wife of 39 years, Vicky Ridder,” Ridder said.

In recognition of their commitment and dedication to the athletics program, the Embry-Riddle administration established the Steve and Vicky Ridder Student-Athlete Transformational Leadership Program and Scholarship last fall. The Ridders also have four children and four grandchildren. Ridder’s son Ryan is currently the basketball head coach at Bethune-Cookman University.

Ridder hasn’t forgotten his roots in Northern Kentucky. Just mention places like Dixie Chili, Pasquale’s Pizza or Gold Star Chili and the excitement in his voice ramps up to another level.

“I love those places and that food, so does my family,” he said, noting his weakness for coneys.

The food talk is somewhat ironic, given that Ridder has gone from being among the hors d’oeuvres (Bellevue vs. Newport, 1976) to chef extraordinaire (athletics program at Embry-Riddle) during the past 44 years. But just like his playing days in the 9th Region, the Bellevue native is still causing the opposition to suffer major indigestion on the basketball court.

In recognition of their commitment and dedication to the athletics program, the Embry-Riddle administration established the Steve and Vicky Ridder Student-Athlete Transformational Leadership Program and Scholarship last fall. (ERAU photo)

Contact Don Owen at and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport

One thought on “Don Owen: Bellevue native Steve Ridder continues to make hoops history, but never forgets his past

  1. I went to grade school and high school with Steve. He was always a lot of fun and an all-around good guy. It’s no surprise he did so well in life.

Leave a Reply

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