SALT LAKE CITY — Jim Yerkovich, who coached Judge Memorial’s boys basketball team for 44 years before retiring in 2010, passed away in his home in Poulsbo, Wash. on Wednesday night after a battle with Parkinson’s disease.

He was 77.

Yerkovich was a staple on the sidelines at Judge Memorial’s tiny gym from 1966 to 2010. During his career, his teams racked up 634 wins, three state championships, six runner-up finishes and 18 region championships.

Marty Giovacchini, who was an assistant coach for Yerkovich off and on for 25 years, said his positive coaching traits were what made him stand out above most other coaches.

“I’m sure everybody is happy he’s not dealing with the Parkinson’s anymore,” said Giovacchini.

Yerkovich’s 634 wins are the second-most in state history behind only George Bruce (Dugway and West Ridge).

When Yerkovich retired from Judge in 2010, he told the Deseret News, “It’s been a great ride. It’s the people that have made the difference. I know that might sound trite, but it’s not. It’s all about people.”

In 2003, Yerkovich penned his coaching philosophy in a book titled “WE: a Model for Coaching and Christian Living.” He called it the highlight of his coaching career.

Yerkovich summed up the core of the “WE” philosophy in his book by saying, “coaches can teach players how to play a game at the same time they teach them about life.”

That philosophy pervaded his program for 30 years, and in conjunction with some fiercely loyal assistant coaches, they were the primary reasons Yerkovich loved coaching high school basketball for 44 years.

In the summer of 2017, Yekovich moved to Washington with his wife Betty. Later that year Judge Memorial renamed its gym Coach Yerkovich Gymnasium in a ceremony that Yerkovich attended.

Yerkovich was a graduate of Judge Memorial in 1961.

Dan Del Porto was a former player of Yerkovich’s who then went on to serve as an assistant coach at Judge Memorial for 25 years. He believes one of Yerkovich’s lasting legacies is that he inspired generations of former players to follow in his footsteps and become coaches.

In addition to Del Porto, among those other players are Marty Giovacchini, Chris Jones, Tim Gardner, Aaron McCarthey, Brock Veltri, Brandon Veltri, Rick Solvason, John Colosimo, Stallon Saldivar, Jason Soto, Oliver Hughes, Adam Acosta, Micahel Beierschmitt, Jeremy Chatterton, Jonas Chatterton, Dan Quinn, Chris Sasich, Nick Sasich, Eli Sasich, Tim Bettin and Jeff Baird.

A handful of former players and an old friend shared a few memories of coach Yerkovich with the Deseret News:

Jimmy Soto, Judge player 1987-1989

“One of the big things was the defensive principles that he taught us. We always played man-to-man defense at Judge so learning that obviously was a huge help in making the transition to Utah. Obviously I still had a lot to learn there, but I had a pretty good idea of the fundamentals when I got there.

“He taught us well and had good structure in play, but the one thing he didn’t do for sure was over-coach us. He let us play to our strengths, got us to play together, got us to play hard. He never over-coached or had a thumb on anybody, he just let us play and taught us how to play that way.

“I stayed in real good contact with him. He moved up to Seattle, and a few years ago when I was up there doing the radio with the University of Utah when we played Washington, I had lunch with him and his wife. It was fortunate it worked out, him and his wife came into the city, we had a nice lunch and spent some time together. I stayed in pretty good contact with him before that, but it was nice to see him and spend some time with him up there.” 

Chris Jones, Judge player 1986-1990

“I was only the second freshman he kept on the varsity level of that time, and it just did wonders for my confidence and he made me feel great about me as player and me as a person. I remember him telling me there’s no such thing as a freshman or a senior, you’re a varsity basketball player, go play.

“He did a great job of understanding what each individual player’s strengths were and playing to those strengths, and not worrying about what the players weaknesses were, and we’d figured out the weaknesses later. His “WE” mantra, team-first mantra, it was we before me, and it really resonated with us all at the time. We just loved playing hoop for him.”

Tim Gardner, Judge player 1992-1995 (current Judge coach)

Some of the fondest memories I have of him is growing up in the Judge community and being at those games as a little kid and watching and hoping to play for Judge. Our whole group of kids growing up within the Catholic school system, we all went to summer camps with coach Yerkovich just hoping to one day get a chance to play. From a coaching perspective, he always had his teams ready to play. Whether he had the most talented group, or some years didn’t have as much talent, you could always count that Judge basketball was going to have a very disciplined hard-nosed group that was going to be ready to scratch and claw for everything.”

Marty Giovacchini, Judge player 1970-1973, assistant coach 1985-2010

“I think he was really good at understanding what his teams and what his players could do, and really good at letting good players play, and trust them on the floor. A lot of coaches want to choreograph the game and can be restrictive, and he usually saw the potential and the positive of what a player good be and found subtle ways to dial them back if he needed to.

“Any coach will tell you you have to have good players to win, and to me the sign of a good coach is a guy who can compete or win when he doesn’t have good players. Sometimes the best coaching he did was when we didn’t have (great) players. He was a teacher first, he understood the kids more than most, probably just from his own love of the game.”

“Something I always appreciated from when I played for him and when my boys played for him, he was not one to belittle anyone. Very seldomly used any harsh language. He was a teacher.”

Dan Del Porto, Judge player 1983-85, assistant coach 1986-2010

“The 44 years is the most amazing thing about him cause that just doesn’t happen anymore. The nature of high school basketball coaching, that’s unbelievable that he was able to do that job and do it as well as he did for 44 years. The last year that he coached he had his team in the state championship, it’s pretty remarkable he did it that long.

“He was a people-first guy. The well-being of the kids, making sure he was doing everything he could to impact them in their life and their growth, and becoming better men by the time they got done playing for us and graduated from Judge. That was his emphasis. He was obviously a very good coach, knew what he was doing, His Xs and Os was as good as anybody. He impacted a lot of people and was certainly a statesman of the game.”

Andy Grose, Judge Memorial classmate Class of 1961

“Jim was much more than a coach. To his many lifelong friends, many of whom first knew him as a fellow student at Judge, he was always an outstanding example of sincere faith, modesty and personal courage. Utah is lucky that ‘‘Yerk’ chose to come back from the University of San Francisco for a career as math teacher and quiet, problem-solving senior administrator, as well as a great mentor for decades of student athletes. In over 60 years of friendship, I never heard Jim make an unkind comment about anyone. He is irreplaceable.”