John's Journal: 55 Football Seasons For A Coach Who Loves The Game
Verndale’s Mike Mahlen, State’s Career Wins Leader, Is Excited About 2023
Posted: Friday, August 4, 2023 - 2:20 PM
At 9 o’clock Monday morning in Verndale, a village of 500 or so residents where everyone is a football fan, Mike Mahlen will direct the Verndale Pirates in their first practice of the 2023 season. The head coach knows the drill, because this is his 55th year at the helm.
Mahlen was 20 years old and fresh out of Mayville (N.D.) State when he was hired as a healthy/physical education teacher and head football coach in Verndale the same year that Neil Armstrong put a foot on the moon’s surface, the Woodstock music festival was held in upstate New York and Sesame Street made its television debut.
That was 1969, and what Mahlen has accomplished since is incredible.
Coaching 11-man football for his first 16 years at Verndale and the nine-player version since, he owns more football victories than any coach in Minnesota history. He begins the 2023 season with a career record of 426-128-3. Second on the list is Becker’s Dwight Lundeen, who is beginning his 54th season there with a record of 390-166-3.
Mahlen and Lundeen are two of three active head coaches among the top 15 in career wins. Retired Brainerd coach Ron Stolski ranks third at 389-182-5 in 58 years and Eden Prairie's Mike Grant, the third active coach on the list, is fourth at 377-79 over 40 seasons.
Mahlen averages more than 10 victories per season, which is astounding when teams play only eight regular-season games.
Football seasons, whether in 1969 or 2023, have similarities. Mahlen will welcome 30-some players to the first practice as preparations begin for the Pirates’ season opener against Sebeka at Mahlen Field on Aug. 25.
Mahlen, who will be 76 years old before the season ends, also has served as the Pirates head baseball coach and assistant boys basketball coach. He was the school’s athletic director from 1977 to 2018; he retired from teaching in 2004 and loves spending time with his wife Sallie, their two kids and five grandkids, and devoting time to football. He has no plans to retire from coaching.
“When I get sick of going to practice, then I’ll retire,” he said. “I’d like to keep coaching forever but that’s not going to happen.”
Mike and Sallie grew up in Erskine, both attended Mayville State, and they have been married for 55 years. Mike jokes that it’s easy to remember how long he has been coaching because it’s the same number of years he has been married. Their wedding took place shortly before his first football season in Verndale.
Mike was a three-sport athlete in high school and played football in college, although the prospect of going to college at all was not a certainty until one of his high school coaches literally showed him the way.
The young man was doing yard work one day when Erskine basketball coach Lowell “Marty” Martinson drove up and told Mahlen, “Get in.” Mahlen remembers that day well.
“After 30 or 40 miles (of a 77-mile one-way trip) I said, ‘Where we are going?’ He said, ‘We’re going to Mayville State and you’re going to register for college today.’ When I got home my mom said, ‘Where have you been?’ Marty was a pretty big influence on my life, all around.”
Mahlen led the Pirates to the state football playoffs for the first time in 1981. Since then, Verndale has made 15 more appearances, winning state championships in 1997 and 2002 and finishing as state runner-up in 1987, 1994 and 1996.
He has coached three generations of several families. He hasn’t coached any fourth-generation players … at least not yet.
“I hope I live long enough to do that,” he said. “Who knows?”
Mahlen still gets excited about the future when he watches kids in Verndale’s youth football program. He likes to look a few years ahead as he evaluates young talent.
“I’ll be thinking, ‘Who’s my quarterback down here, who’s going to be a running back,’ ” he said. “I still enjoy practice and going to practice. Games? Anybody can do that because that’s the fun part of it. But you’ve got to enjoy practice.”
He has seen a lot of changes over the decades, going back to when football playoffs began in Minnesota in his fourth season at Verndale. When enrollment fell and the Pirates made the switch from 11-player to nine-player football, the field for nine-player was only 80 feet long, with cones often used to mark the goal lines.
“That got to be a little bit of a sideshow,” he said. The nine-player rules now stipulate a field that is 100 yards long and 40 yards wide (it’s 53.3 yards wide in 11-player football). “Nobody even notices that it’s 40,” Mahlen said.
Last season the Pirates had another strong year, finishing 9-2 with both losses to Wheaton/Herman-Norcross; in Week 7 and again in the Section 4 title game. Verndale lost a large, talented senior class of 12 players from last year, with five seniors on the roster this season.
Away from football, Mike and Sallie enjoy time at a lake place near Perham. Before Covid interrupted everything, they made regular trips to Arizona or Florida to relax in the sun and watch spring training baseball games. Their children both work in education: son Jason teaches business and is an assistant football coach at Chisago Lakes, and daughter Gena Sperling is a kindergarten teacher in Elk River.
The Mahlen family, and everyone in Verndale and beyond, will be watching the Pirates during Mike’s 55th year at the helm. When kickoff arrives for the season opener, it will mark Mahlen’s 558th game as the Verndale head coach.
“Football’s more fun than ever,” he said.
--MSHSL senior content creator John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected]