|Big Bill Ficke's annual tribute to 9/11
victims and JoAnn B. Ficke
(Years ago, I wrote
this piece to tell Bill and JoAnn's story.)
After his Air Force stint, young New Yorker
Bill Ficke landed a job at Allstate Insurance's headquarters
in White Plains, New York.
"I saw this gorgeous redhead," he recalled the other
"I worked in the back of the building and she worked upstairs. I kept seeing her walking
through and going upstairs to her desk. I found out where her desk was, and she was in claims. So I started to go by and bring
her candy and say, 'Hi, how are you?'"
JoAnn Bury would say thank you. But after this went
on for a while, she politely said, "Let me ask you something. What is your job here?"
Bill Ficke: "I'm the manager in charge of morale. It's my job to go and make sure all the employees are happy."
"Oh," said JoAnn.
One day, Bill told JoAnn he had some pull on concert and
sports tickets, so if she ever needed any...
Finally, she asked if he could get a couple of James
Taylor tickets for her brother. He came through.
Then he got up enough nerve to ask if she wanted
to go to the Knicks-Celtics game.
"Who?" she asked. "You ... and me?"
Yes, said Bill. Okay, said JoAnn.
Next, they went to a Blood, Sweat, and Tears concert.
They were married September 15, 1973.
In 1975, Bill explored landing
a franchise for an athletic footwear store.
He decided that if he did it, it needed to be
somewhere other than New York.
After scouting around, he decided the place to go was Denver. At
first, he was disappointed that the chain he was looking at had decided to go into Buckingham Square, with another owner already
lined up. Ultimately, his contacts and friends told him he should consider going into another new mall, the Aurora Mall, with
his own, non-franchise store. He rejected the suggestion that he call it Ficke's Feet and settled on Fleet Feet, scrambled,
and nervously opened the store. He and JoAnn, of course, moved to Denver, and she transferred to the Allstate office in the
Denver Tech Center.
She desperately missed her family, back in upstate New York, but her siblings eventually moved
to Denver, too.
"She would work at Allstate until 6 or 6:30, come over, and help me close
the shop," Bill said. "That was our life for two or three years. Then business got going and we were able to hire
Today, Bill laughs about his business naivete at the time, including the fact that
when mall proprietors asked him if he wanted a 10-or 15-year lease, he not only didn't say it needed to be shorter than that,
he said what the heck, sign him up for 15 years. As it turned out, that was his salvation, because his rent was far, far lower
than the going rate in later years. The sale of Orange Crush T-shirts during the Broncos' first Super Bowl run was a jumpstart,
too. Fleet Feet stores also ended up in downtown Denver and in the Westminster Mall.
a one-season stint with the Nuggets as an assistant coach to Doug Moe and also did some NBA scouting, and his circle of friends
in the sports world kept widening.
Dan, JoAnn and Bill's son, was born in October 1986. JoAnn continued
to work. Bill eventually sold Fleet Feet and opened Big Bill's New York Pizza.
At Allstate, JoAnn
continued to work in claims. Because of his flexible restaurant hours, Bill worked it so he could be with Dan in late afternoons
and served on various committees at his school.
In 1994, JoAnn had felt something on her
neck. Tests showed it was cancer. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
She and Bill were told it was in its
early stages and her prognosis was uncertain, but not immediately dire.
"She asked, 'Am I
going to be here for my son's graduation?'" Bill said. "The doctor said, 'You're going to be here for a long time.
I have patients who have lived with this thing for 25 years.'"
Initially, she continued to
work, even traveling to Chicago on a temporary assignment for several months each Monday and undergoing chemotherapy at the
Rocky Mountain Cancer Center on weekends. Her initial round of treatment lasted two and a half years before the cancer was
deemed to be in remission.
Reluctantly, because she liked her job and the people she worked with,
JoAnn did take a medical retirement from Allstate. Dan was in the fifth grade. JoAnn became a stay-at-home mother, except
for her treatments.
She rode the emotional roller-coaster of treatment, apparent remission, and
more treatment for 13 years, including a stem cell transplant in late 2006. I've seen a letter from her main nurse in her
later treatment at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center. In it, Megan Andersen says:
was a delightful patient. Although she had a life-threatening illness, her concerns were always directed toward others. When
she came into the office, she knew all of the staff members by name, and spent most of her visit asking each individual how
they were doing and what they had been doing in their life. She was genuinely concerned for the welfare of others and although
she was the person with the illness, she was always far more concerned about the health and happiness of those around her.
Additionally, her love of family was intense. She was often seen in the clinic with other family members, including her sister,
brother, father and husband. She cared for them and put her family members before her own needs and it was obvious how much
they loved and depended on her."
She was able to attend Dan's graduation
from Regis High School. She got to see him play basketball for Loyola of Maryland, including in New York. She traveled to
Ireland with her family and took what turned out to be a final trip to upstate New York to be with her father.
She passed away in February 2007.
The JoAnn B. Ficke Cancer Foundation honors her.
Dan and Bill Ficke at 2016 Day of Giving. Dan,
the president of the
JoAnn B. Ficke Cancer
Foundation, was a long-time assistant men's
coach at the University of Denver before being named head
coach at Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C., in July 2019.
Denver's own Dan Ficke
named head hoops coach
Ficke at Belmont Abbey
In Dan's first season at Belmont Abbey, he coached the Crusaders
to their first NCAA Division II national tournament berth since
of course, was scrubbed, but the season was an impressive
head-coaching debut for Dan. Then in 2020-21, the Crusaders were 13-3 to
win the Conference Carolinas
and 18-5 overall. So Belmont Abbey is
35-14 in two seasons under Dan.
The Ficke family has gone full circle at Belmont Abbey College,
just west of Charlotte.
The Crusaders -- a Division II program playing
in the Conference
Carolinas -- named Denver's own Dan Ficke, 32, their new head men's
basketball coach, succeeding Billy Taylor, who
left to become an
assistant coach at Iowa.
Bill Ficke, proprietor of Big Bill's New York Pizza
in Centennial, is an iconic figure in the Colorado sports community --
and beyond. Bill
knows everyone and everyone knows Bill. And it's
not only because he's a former Nuggets assistant coach. His 9/11
"Day of Giving" at
Big Bill's, with free food for voluntary contribiutions
to the JoAnn B. Ficke Cancer Foundation, annually raises six figures
Colorado cancer organizations and his heart is huge.
In 2007, JoAnn and Bill's son, Dan, then playing for Loyola (Maryland),
delivered his mom's eulogy and there wasn't a dry eye in the church.
We felt, and still feel, as if we have watched Dan grow up, including
at Regis Jesuit and Loyola and
So now we have all the more reason to be proud.
Dan's hiring at Belmont Abbey hire has been in the loop for several
but Dan arrived at Belmont midweek and the official
announcement came Thursday.
Before his collegiate career
at Loyola, Dan played at Aurora's
Most recently, he has been an assistant for four
seasons at the
University of Denver, under Joe Scott and Rodney Billups.
Prior to DU, Dan worked in the
programs at Wake Forest and
Big Bill not only played at Belmont Abbey, he played there
under legendary coach Al McGuire, whose first
job was there from 1957-64. Bill already was ticketed for fall
induction into the school's Hall of Fame.
So this is a
Ficke family return to the school.
"It's hard to put into words how incredibly blessed I feel to
have that opportunity,"
Dan told me from Belmont on Saturday.
"My dad is probably, outside of my wife, my best friend and
he's definitely my role model.
I've walked in his very large
footsteps for a very long time. So to be able to go back there
to the school where he played and
has such great memories of,
it means everything for my first head coaching position to be
at the place where he played college
basketball. It seems like
a divine intervention to be there."
Bill was ecstatic.
to the day I got married to my wonderful wife, and
then when my son was born, and then when I saw him become a
I'd have to say it's all right up there," Bill told me. "Whoever
thought 57 years later, there'd
be a Ficke with the basketball team at
Belmont Abbey? . . . The best thing that happened to Dan was his
job was with Jeff Bzdelik at Wake Forest, and Jeff laid the foundation
for his work
ethic and knowledge of basketball. He really worked with
Dan and helped him grow."
also is the president of the JoAnn B. Ficke Cancer Foundation.
The Day of Giving, a salute of 9/11 victims
and first responders, predates
JoAnn's 2007 death and subsequent formation of the foundation, and has
raised $1.2 million overall.
Dan and his wife, Jordan, have 20-month-old twins, William Winslow
and Sloane Smith.
Belmont Abbey athletic director Stephen Miss announced Dan's hiring.
Dan had interviewed for the job when Taylor was hired in 2016, so he
was in the Crusaders' memory
bank when the job opened again.
"During what was a thorough and comprehensive national search,
Ficke emerged as the right individual at this time to lead Belmont
Abbey College's men's basketball program,"
Miss said. "In addition to
having benefited from playing for and working with many exceptional
Coach Ficke articulated repeatedly during the interview process
an appreciation of and conviction in our mission
that positions him well
to form and develop our students as they endeavor individually and
to realize their full potential: body, mind, and soul."
The fact that Dan played both high school and college basketball at
Catholic schools was a plus
for him in the selection process. Dan also
can benefit from Bill's and his own connections in the coaching fraternity,
and in the recruiting
networks. Plus, some of Bill's former teammates
are supporters of the program.
"Back in December of January,
I can't remember when it was, the
president of the university came out and told me they were going to
put me in the Belmont Abbey
Hall of Fame," Bill said. "That's going
to happen on October 12. So I said, 'Great 2019's my year.'"
He laughed and added, "Now
I've been upstaged by my son."
When Dan was playing at Loyola, his teammates labeled frequent
as "Thornton Mellon,'" after the Rodney Dangerfield character
in "Back to School." Ever since, I've pictured
Bill on the Tonight Show
couch, tagging on his tie and lamenting, "I tell 'ya, Johnny, I don't get
no respect. No respect at all."
Bill joked, "I'm going back to school," then added: "No,
I figure about once a month I'll go out and see him
and the grandkids.
During the season, I'll go when there's two or three games in close
proximity and see him coach."
UPDATE: Bill indeed was inducted into the Belmont
of Fame on October 12. Here are pictures
from that occasion.
Alex English, Big Bill, Bobby Jones, Larry Brown, T.R. Dunn
Jordan Ficke, Big Bill, Dan Ficke
Big Bill with his Belmont Abbey teammates
Big Bill with Dan and some of the friends to traveled to Belmont
to see his induction.