Three Mn HS coaching legends retire

by Tom Fenton

Replacing a coaching legend at any level of football can go both ways. It certainly worked for the Dallas Cowboys when Jimmy Johnson took over for Tom Landry. The same is true when Bill Cowher replaced Chuck Noll for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Gerry Faust replacing Dan Devine at the University of Notre Dame? Not so much. The University of Florida’s choice of replacing Steve Spurrier with Ron Zook was equally disastrous for a proud Gators’ program.

Regardless of results, the process of replacing a successful coach in high school football is a process that can be enduring, frustrating and rewarding. Among the names to debut as head coaches in Minnesota this season are Jason Freed at Brainerd, Mark Esch at Minnetonka and Jay Anderson at Totino-Grace.

Throw in the fact there almost wasn’t a season due to COVID-19 and then having to prepare for a shortened season in two weeks is a recipe for overwhelming stress. But, it’s all part of the job for both rookie and veteran coaches.

“I am just excited to be the coach of the Brainerd Warriors,” said Freed, who is in his 12th year on the Brainerd coaching staff. “I know the job comes with its own challenges and I knew that when I took it, but I am excited to get to work with the staff and build upon the tradition that is Brainerd Warrior Football. I think the transition has been pretty seamless.”

Taking the reigns

Every coach has their own philosophies. Finding that balance of respecting their predecessor and implementing new strategies are among the many challenges.

Replacing Ron Stolski in Brainerd ranks among one of the more difficult tasks. Stolski was Brainerd football since 1975 and coached for 58 years before retiring last fall. Stolski confidently, intently and sometimes nervously roamed the sidelines of Central and Northern Minnesota with his Warriors.

Seeing him lead his sea of blue, white and silver-clad players down the steps from the high school to the field was an intimidating site for visiting teams. Stolski finished his career with a 389-182-5 career record – which ranks second in all-time wins behind Verndale’s Mike Mahlen’s 401. Stolski’s Brainerd teams also won 10 section titles and reached the Prep Bowl in 2013, where the Warriors were beaten by Owatonna.

Filling Paul Bunyan’s shoes on the north side of town might be easier than replacing such success on the gridiron.

“Stepping into the role as the head football coach at Brainerd High School, the first name people think of is Ron Stolski. He established an extremely strong foundation for what Warrior football is all about,” said Freed, who spent five seasons as head coach in Houston, Minn., and led his team to a state Nine-Man championship. “I am not intimidated and I know what my style and personality is as a head coach. Like anything, you’ve got to feel things out and find your niche with the kids and program.

“Having been in the program for the past 11 seasons though has allowed me to establish those relationships with kids and coaches on the staff.  Also knowing the foundation that Coach Stolski left creates a peace of mind as well.  I always say I know one way on how to be a football coach and that is ‘all in’ and my philosophy is very much like Coach Stolski’s which is to create a football experience that kids want to be part of.”

Freed went to high school in Northwest Iowa before attending Luther College, where he helped coach for one year before heading to Houston, which was a struggling program.

Added administrative duties are heavily increased as head coach, such as hiring seven new coaches in Grades 9-12. Those duties tend to get in the way of game-planning, but Freed said it’s all part of the process.

“Like anything, you’ve got to get back into the role of being a head coach, but having did that for five years prior gave me the confidence of where I needed to start with the program and then make a detailed plan from there,” Freed said. “I am excited to be able to get the new coaches involved and mixed in with the staff members who stayed on with the program. We hit the ground running in March and have been sprinting ever since.”

Skipper of the Skippers

As familiar as Stolski was in the North Country, Dave Nelson had the same swagger in the Twin Cities area. Nelson coached for 42 years, winning a state championship at Blaine in 1988 and leading Minnetonka to the big school crown in 2004. He was at Minnetonka for 17 years and earned 267 career victories before handing over control to Esch, who grew up playing football in tradition-rich Caledonia.

Unlike Freed, Esch only had one year of experience with his new program. Esch hopes to use the lack of familiarity to his advantage as he implements his style, strategy and personality.

“I try not to focus on following coach Nelson,” said Esch, who played collegiately at Wisconsin-LaCrosse, where he also coached for one year. “I focus on doing what I do best and creating the best possible culture for success.

“My philosophy as a coach is simply to build relationships and create a culture of accountability. These are the building blocks for the ultimate goal of a ‘culture of character.’ A culture that takes care of itself and benefits everyone on the team. The community and football family has been great and totally supportive. The administration has been great to work with.”

Assistant in at Totino-Grace

Anderson was a longtime assistant for Jeff Ferguson at Totino-Grace. All Anderson has to replace is an 18-year era that included eight state titles. Six of those championships came in Class 4A, one in 5A and one in 6A as Ferguson believed in playing the best possible competition.

Ferguson’s final record of 187-35 is fourth all-time among Minnesota coaches for winning percentage (.842). He was a defensive-minded coach who earned accolades from his staff, including 12-year assistant Anthony LaPanta.

“Ferguson was the best defensive coach I have ever known. He understood the variety of offenses against whom we would prepare as well as anybody,” said LaPanta, who coaches the Eagles’ defensive backs. “He understood blocking schemes and how to defeat them. Whether it was an option team, the veer, Wing-T, or spread – he understood concepts and was as good at prepping a game plan and making in-game adjustments as anybody.

“But that was really just a part of his success. He created a team-first culture and had tremendous relationships with and respect from his players. We used the term ‘brotherhood’ when describing our program, and it was so much more than just a word, it was truly a way of life. There is always change and an adjustment period. Jay Anderson is going to do a great job taking over the program as the head coach, and we have so many talented coaches on our staff that I expect the transition to be smooth.”

Season different for everyone

Keeping the players motivated and interested in a season that does not have the carrot of playing at U.S. Bank Stadium dangling at the end of the line adds to the challenge for new and experienced coaches. In August, the Minnesota State High School League’s Board of Directors voted to postpone the season until March due to COVID-19 safety concerns.

That move was met by skepticism from coaches, parents and groundskeepers. Ultimately, the Board reversed its decision, allowing teams to play a six-game schedule with a to-be-determined playoff format and no more than 250 fans in attendance.

“It’s been an up and down year with COVID,” Esch said. “I’m proud of how our kids have handled the rollercoaster of having a season, not having a season, then having a season again. We have taken measures to implement social distancing and masks and done our best to prevent the spread. So far we have been successful. We take it one week at a time and do our best to have fun.”

LaPanta said the restrictions related to COVID-19, such as no summer workouts, no August two-a-day practices and no locker rooms have presented additional challenges for a staff that experienced some turnover.

“This season would have been a challenge anyway with the turnover on our staff,” LaPanta said. “But when you add the bizarre COVID world issues, and it has been remarkable. No June Camp, no summer workouts, and then the announcement that it’s canceled – ‘Oh wait, it’s back on.’ All of it presented challenges, and we are still dealing with them today. We are in a constant state of adaptation, and the kids have handled it very well.”

Lessons continue

For Freed, it’s yet another way to teach an important off-the-field lesson.

“Taking over as a head coach during COVID has probably been one of the hardest things I have had to do in my life, and any coach right now would probably say the same thing. It’s been a major challenge to say the least. We were excited to hear the season was coming back, I believe football belongs in the fall. Granted this fall might end up being a little more chilly than we are used to for a full season.

“Our message has been very simple with kids – we can only control what we can control in life and right now we need to embrace every day we get to practice and play the game of football. I really feel this generation is getting a real lesson in resilience in life and they are probably disappointed in the fact that the ‘Prep Bowl’ isn’t going to happen, but after last spring I truly think they are grateful to be playing more than anything. Motivation has been a challenge, but our philosophy has been since I took the job to create and maintain relationships with our players and then the motivation piece often can take care of itself.  It also takes great leadership with your team and staff to make that happen.”