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Best Of 2019-20, Number 10: Fifty-Plus Years Of Football: Stolski, Mahlen and Lundeen

Posted: Thursday, July 16, 2020 - 11:41 AM

The annual process of selecting my 10 personal favorite John’s Journal stories from the past school year is complete. As always, it’s fun to go back through the archives and re-visit hundreds of entries and difficult to whittle the list down to 10 stories.

The 2019-20 school year was dramatically different because winter seasons were cut short and spring seasons never happened due to Covid-19. I was happy to turn John’s Journal over to students, coaches, administrators and others for their personal submissions about the situation during the spring, and those posts could easily be a category of their own.

The Top 10 stories are a mixture of celebrations, triumph over setbacks, lifesaving efforts, inspirational individuals and more. The subjects range from teenagers to people who were teenagers more than 50 years ago. 

We begin today with the story that is No. 10 on my list. It focuses on three coaches who have been doing that job for a combined total of 159 years. But their impact goes far beyond mere numbers. This story was originally posted on Oct. 17.

The numbers tell the story -- at least numerically – of the three longest-serving head coaches in Minnesota high school football history. Brainerd's Ron Stolski is in his 58th season, Verndale’s Mike Mahlen is in season 51 and Becker’s Dwight Lundeen reached season No. 50 this fall.

More numbers: With the 2019 regular season now ended, the three have been head coaches for a combined 159 years and 1,629 games. That game total will continue to climb as the postseason begins in a few days, and the number of victories will also rise.

No other head football coaches in Minnesota history have been on the job for 50 years. Add the fact that Mahlen, Stolski and Lundeen also rank first, second and third in career victories, and the numbers mean even more.

But their stories are much more than mere numbers. Factor in lengthy teaching careers (from which all three have retired) and there is no way to quantify their positive impact on young athletes and students. They have coached three generations in some families, giving Grandpa, Dad and Son/Grandson the opportunity to compare their experiences under the same coach. They have mentored generations of young coaches. They have set high standards in their communities. 

Mahlen was 20 years old when he was hired to teach and coach in Verndale, and Lundeen was 21 when he joined the faculty and coaching ranks in Becker. Stolski took a more circuitous route, with coaching stops in Kensington (in 1962, when he was 22), Slayton, Princeton and Park Center before moving to Brainerd in 1975.

All three are Minnesota natives. Stolski, 80, grew up in north Minneapolis and graduated from Patrick Henry High School and Macalester College; Mahlen, 71, is a native of Erskine who went to Mayville State in North Dakota; and Lundeen, 71, graduated from Cokato High School and St. Cloud State. All three coached other sports and served as athletic directors.

"And the years just keep coming by,” said Lundeen, who has never missed a practice or a game.

Mahlen reached a milestone with his 400th career victory when the Verndale Pirates defeated Rothsay 44-6 in Wednesday’s regular-season finale, giving him a career record of 400-123-3. Stolski is next at 388-181-5 and Lundeen’s record is 366-160-3. (The national record for football coaching victories is 621.)

All three say they have learned to be more patient over the years. As a young coach, Stolski broke a hand more than once while punching a wall or blackboard.

Mahlen said, “I know I have a lot more patience. I think I'm still pretty fiery, but I’ve got more patience with the kids, a little more understanding of what they're going through. And you know, when you're first coming out of college, you were sort of gung ho. I'm a lot more mellow than I used to be.”

Lundeen echoed that, saying he learned about putting things in perspective over the years.

“You can't put all your joy into the outcome of Friday night. That just can't be,” he said. “And I keep telling the kids that Number 1, we're going to play hard. And if (the opponent) plays well and we play well and we lose, so be it. And we're going to practice Monday the same way, whether we lost or we won.

“You're trying to teach them the skills of a game and you're also trying to teach them all the other things that you've been taught by people who have been in your life. And when they graduate, I hope they reflect what we taught, what we modeled. And that's the part that's really enjoyable; we want them to be great husbands and great fathers who work in the community. Not only should they learn to block and tackle, but to be that citizen that we want them to be.”

All three love working with high school students, and as long they are healthy and able to contribute to their player’s lives, they plan to continue coaching. They have grown accustomed to being asked if they plan to retire.

“I say, ‘Well, if I get sick of going to practice or get sick of game planning (I’ll retire),” Mahlen said. “I'm looking down at the junior high; ‘Who's my quarterback here?’ I'm looking at the fourth, fifth, sixth grade and saying, ‘We’ve got some players down there.’ It's just fun.”

Lundeen is the only head football coach in Becker history, starting the program in 1970. That then-21-year-old coach now has an artificial hip and artificial knee. His parents were missionaries and he lived in Canada, France, Belgium and the Congo as a child.

“I knew this is what I wanted to do, and fairly early I traveled all over the world,” he said. “And athletics was a big part of helping me get adjusted to the new school and new community. And so I wanted to pay back, and right away I knew that I was going to coach.”

After graduating from Macalester, Stolski wore the only suit he owned (which he had worn to the prom in high school) to a job interview in Kensington, a little town in western Minnesota that no longer has a high school. The football field had no goalposts and no scoreboard and only three kids showed up for the first practice. The squad ultimately included 13 boys, although two had to quit when farm chores took precedence.

When Lundeen began his career, he was the only football coach on a team with 17 players. “I coached all the positions. And one kid, I remember, had to know all the offensive positions because he was the first offensive sub, and then another kid had to know all the defensive positions. And now I have 10 quarterbacks, so that's changed, that’s been a huge change.”

Verndale, well-known as a Nine-Man football powerhouse, had enough kids to play 11-man football for Mahlen’s first 16 years. During those early years he often had just one assistant coach, with a rotating cast.

“One thing I learned when I first started out is that you need assistant coaches,” he said. “Because my first 16 years I had a new assistant every two years, and I wouldn't give them any responsibilities.”

From those early days of small rosters and tiny coaching staffs more than half a century ago, important lessons have been learned and taught.

“What you learn is preparation,” Stolski said. “You have to have passion, and passion lasts a lifetime. But you must be prepared before you decide to kick the doors down. That's what you learn. You can't always do it all on fire. You prepare your team as best you can.

“First, care about your kids. Secondly, learn as much about your profession as you can. And thirdly, have patience. Don't be hard on yourself. It's a process. Coaching is a splendid way to spend a life.”

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio. 

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Best Of 2019-20, Number 9: One Coach, Two Teams: A Busy Season At Mountain Iron-Buhl