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John’s Journal: 80 Years Old And 60-Plus Years Of Officiating

St. Cloud’s John Lieser Continues To Set A High Standard

Posted: Wednesday, October 11, 2023 - 6:22 PM


John Lieser (center) with his fellow officials from the 2022 Prep Bowl: (left to right) Scott Lange, Brandon Kruse, Lieser, Matt Kleis, Jeff Wollak.


John Lieser estimates that he has officiated 2,000 to 3,000 football and basketball games.

John Lieser isn’t exactly a Forrest Gump-type character, but the longtime MSHSL football and basketball official has seen a lot in 80 years of life in Minnesota.

--In 1960, Lieser was a senior starting guard on the Melrose basketball team that played in the state tournament. The Dutchmen finished third at the famous event, which was won by Edgerton in a real-life Minnesota version of “Hoosiers.”

--Sixty-two years later, in 2022, Lieser was the referee on the officiating crew for the Class 3A Prep Bowl, in which New London-Spicer defeated Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton on a miracle play as the game ended. 

And Lieser has seen a lot more than that. This is his 60th season as a high school football official, and when basketball season starts he will mark 63 years officiating that sport. He has been the football assignor for the St. Cloud Officials Association for 25 years.

“With my longevity, I think people are just happy to see me alive,” he said with a laugh.

Ask anybody in central Minnesota about John Lieser (LEES-er), and the replies may vary because he has done so many different things. He is a retired history and English teacher at St. Cloud Apollo, he coached high school golf for many years and wrote a golf column for the St. Cloud Times for 44 years. He is a Civil War buff who enjoys visiting historic battlefields. Every day, he tries to complete four crossword puzzles and get in 10,000 steps. He is a frequent and talented golfer who always walks instead of using a cart.

Matt Kleis remembers Leiser officiating his games when Kleis was in high school at St. Cloud Tech. Klies, who is half Lieser’s age, was a member of Lieser’s football crew for the last six years before moving from St. Cloud to Northfield because of a job change.

“John is probably the most passionate official out there,” Kleis said. “He’s a student of the game even at 80 years old. He’s very meticulous about his preparation, about everyone being mechanically sound. He wants everyone in the right place to make the right call. He hones in on the very basics, and that starts with appearance and finishes out with a great product at the end.

“He says the same things year in and year out. One of his sayings is, ‘If you strive for perfection you’ll end up being excellent.’ That sticks in my mind. No one’s perfect but you’re going to be excellent.”

Another person who played when John officiated and later worked with him is Jason Nickleby, who is the MSHSL coordinator of officiating services as well as a Big Ten football official. Lieser was one of the officials when Nickleby's Woodbury team played in the 1998 state football semifinals, and Nickleby later worked with Lieser during one of the young official's first college basketball game in 2003.

"John is the consummate pro," Nickleby said. "No one takes the craft of officiating more seriously with an unparalleled commitment to excellence.

"I've always felt that the game would be well-managed and the kids would have a great experience because of John's insistence on doing things the right way.  Our member schools are fortunate to have someone like John who has committed the majority of his adult life to officiating high school sports."

Lieser’s life has always been focused on sports. In high school, he was on the Melrose football, basketball, baseball, track and golf teams, and he played college golf at St. Cloud State. 

He began officiating while in high school, often working games involving elementary teams. At St. Cloud State he officiated recreation-league games; on Sundays he would earn $10 by officiating four grade-school basketball games.

“That money would sustain me for the whole week,” he said.

All these decades later, Lieser’s honors are many. He is a member of the Minnesota Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame, was named Minnesota golf coach of the year in 1991, he won the prestigious Pine to Palm golf title in 1971, and on and on.

He estimates that he has officiated 2,000 to 3,000 football and basketball games, including varsity and sub-varsity contests, along with years of working college events.

Most weeks in the fall, his schedule includes a varsity football game and several junior-varsity contests, which provide important opportunities to mentor young officials. Many Saturdays have included officiating a college game.

“So I keep busy,” he said.

Staying busy and staying sharp are important to Lieser, whose 80th birthday was Sept. 21.

“I was reading a book by Jimmy Carter. He said you’re old when regrets replace dreams. I always dream of working the next playoff game or the next state tournament. On the golf course, I shot a 71 couple weeks ago and I shot 76 on my birthday.

“I always look forward, and never look back. The biggest thing is staying active. I plan year by year. It’s all contingent on your health.”

Lieser had a health adventure in July. After not feeling well, followed by several rounds of tests and discussions with doctors, he was diagnosed with anaplasmosis, a disease caused by tick bites. A 14-day regimen of medication brought him back to good health but he lost 10 pounds; he was down to 159, less than his high school weight. Now he’s at 164 and feeling great.

“I can still move fairly well,” he said.

With the shortage of youth sports officials a problem nationwide, Lieser wishes more people would become officials, but he has noticed in recent years that officials have been treated better. After a junior varsity football game last week, all the players shook hands with the officials.

“It was amazing,” he said. “We never had that before. I think now with the shortage of officials, I think players appreciate us more than in the past. That’s the biggest change I’ve seen. People thank us for officiating, which never used to happen. Now if we could just get parents to let the kids play and forget about the officials.”

Lieser’s pitch to prospective officials is filled with positivity.

“It’s a great vocation, it’s a way you can stay involved in the game. You can become a rules expert or a mechanics expert but just go in with passion and try to be the best you can. Always have a goal. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere” (that’s another of Lieser’s sayings).

Lieser’s early goals included working high school state tournaments and college sports. He has officiated six state championship football games and six title games in girls and boys basketball, with more than 20 state tournaments in each sport.

On the college level he was a longtime official in the North Central Conference, which was one of the premier NCAA Division II leagues. He worked 16 NCAA football playoff games, including the 1987 Division II championship game.

He has helped train young officials for decades, a role he relishes.

“I’m just happy to be a mentor,” he said. “A lot of kids who had been on my football crews have gone on to the D1, D2 and D3 levels. I always say you’re a good mentor if your mentees go farther than you. You’ve got to really feel it, you want to be better. You never really arrive as an official, you’re always in the process of becoming better. Once you think you’ve arrived you start to regress.”

His regular football crew this season includes umpire Jason Kelly, down judge Jeff Wollak, line judge Chris Swenson and back judge Brandon Kruse. They had a longer-than-usual night recently at Becker, when kickoff was delayed 45 minutes because of lightning. Unbeknownst to Lieser, officials from the St. Cloud area gathered at a watering hole after their games that night for a surprise 80th birthday party.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “We don’t have many libations after games but I walked in there and saw 50 or 60 officials.”

In his role as a leader for the St. Cloud Officials Association, Lieser sends weekly newsletters to fellow football officials. They are always informative as well as entertaining. A recent email included these notes …

--From reports that were texted to me last week the only comment was that one school had a plethora of onside kicks so a good pregame reminder of what can/cannot be done along with the mechanics of officiating this play would be a good topic for a pregame agenda item.

--Here are some items to ponder as they are seven habits of highly successful officials: 1. Arrive at each game mentally and physically prepared. 2. Treat everyone with respect and fairness. 3. Practice preventive officiating. 4. Learn from others in your field. 5. Develop interpersonal communication skills. 6. Set realistic personal and professional goals. 7. Make every game the most important one. Finally enjoy and have fun as you enter the final weeks of the football season.

As a former English teacher, Lieser is also known for the verbiage he uses in his newsletter. And as a history teacher, he likes to teach lessons in that area, as well. Here’s another recent newsletter excerpt.

--Seven is supposedly a lucky number but Friday the 13th is purportedly not. Why? It was long considered a harbinger of bad luck. Friday the 13th has inspired a late 19th-century secret society, an early 20th-century novel, a horror film franchise but two unwieldy terms--- paraskavedekatriaphobia (Fear of Friday, the 13th) and friggatriskaidekaphobia (Fear of the number 13) that describe fear of this supposedly unlucky day. Good luck on Friday, the 13th at your assigned games!!!!!!!!!!

Lieser’s passion for officiating and officials is clear. He has worked with hundreds of other officials over 60-plus years, and his love of the job helps him keep going.

“That passion sustains me,” he said. “We want to be the best team on the field.”

--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] 

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