John's Journal: Basketball Is A Family Affair In Annandale
In Skip Dolan’s Final Season As Boys Coach, Everyone Is Cheering For The Cardinals
Posted: Saturday, January 13, 2024 - 6:02 PM
ANNANDALE – Inside the spacious high school gymnasium in this Wright County community of 3,370 souls, a family gathering is held whenever the Annandale Cardinals boys basketball team plays. It’s an extended family, beginning with coach Skip Dolan and his wife Cathy.
They have three kids and eight grandkids, and the whole lot sits a couple rows behind the Cardinals bench. Above the bleachers, up on the wall, is a very fitting sign: “Home.”
Skip Dolan, 68, has announced that he will retire from coaching when this season ends, and that announcement has cast a sweet sense of history and memory over the 2023-24 season. Skip has been leading the basketball team for more than four decades, and his impact over all those years and all those kids simply cannot be measured.
Yes, things will be different when Skip is no longer coaching. But some things never change.
“He’ll still be the same great guy,” Cathy said after the Cardinals lost to Dassel-Cokato 59-55 on Thursday night.” Only I’ll get to sit next to him.”
Skip grew up in Renville, and Cathy’s hometown is also in southwest Minnesota. One day when they were 14 years old, Cathy and her friends from Sacred Heart made the seven-mile trip east to Renville for a dance. The scene has all the makings of a Hallmark movie: Young Skip saw a pretty girl sitting underneath one of the baskets in the tiny gym and worked up the nerve to talk to her.
“I saw her at church the next day and never looked back,” Skip said.
His real name is Donald David Dolan Jr. His mother, growing tired of phone calls for Don and not knowing which Don was needed, simply declared one day, “I’ve always liked the name Skip. That’s what we’re calling you from now on.” (Today, when the phone rings and someone asks for Donald, Skip knows it’s a telemarketer.)
He was a three-sport athlete and all-state basketball player at Renville before graduating in 1974. He and Cathy attended Bemidji State and studied elementary education. Upon graduation in 1978, Skip was offered teaching jobs and assistant coaching positions at Forest Lake and Alexandria, but he wanted to be a head coach. The Dolans went to the little Mentor school district – now part of the Win-E-Mac district – because they offered Skip jobs as head basketball and head football coach.
Three years later, in 1981, Skip and Cathy moved to Annandale. He taught sixth grade for most of his career and Cathy taught fourth grade. They retired from teaching a few years back, and after this basketball season all their time will truly be theirs.
“I’ve been really blessed, having the chance to go out on my own terms,” said Skip.
For most fans outside of Annandale, the Cardinals’ 2022 Class 2A state championship stands out. Indeed, that was a glorious time for the Dolans and everyone else in town, but Skip’s response when asked about memories never mentions winning.
“It’s the kids who keep e-mailing me, who send me things,” he said of hearing from kids who played for him … some of them now in their 50s and 60s.
“Kids want to belong, and in coaching you can get pretty isolated in some ways,” Skip said. “After a game, somebody may suggest going to the bowling alley or whatever. I tell them I don’t do that, I go home with Cathy.
“I love the parents and the people, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve appreciated the older people who come to the games, the diehard fans, from the elderly on down to the students. Whether we’re playing at home or St. Cloud State or St. John’s or Williams Arena or Target Center, I’ve been fortunate to see the sea of red start filling in. That’s something that will always just warm me.”
The Dolan family is part of everything during games, from their kids Sam, Dan and Aimee down to the grandkids, including Emmitt, a sophomore basketball player, to granddaughter and team manager Ava to all their siblings and cousins.
One of those grandkids is Henry, an energetic first-grader who cheers harder than anyone. Everybody seems to know Henry, who was born with heart defects and was not expected to live beyond one week. He underwent a heart transplant and was hospitalized for most of his first year, but here he is in the Annandale gym, clapping and jumping and cheering for the Cardinals.
One of the most memorable nights in Skip Dolan’s coaching came in February 2017 when the girls and boys teams from Hopkins came to town for a doubleheader on an evening designated as “A Night of Hope” for Henry, with lots of fundraising taking place. Henry’s parents, Sam and Mollie, were there while Cathy stayed with Henry in the hospital.
(You can read a story from that event in 2017 by clicking here: https://shorturl.at/gBKZ2)
If anyone thinks the Dolan kids are sad about their dad leaving coaching, Sam put those thoughts to bed after Thursday’s game.
“It's going to be awesome because he's going to coach my son and my two daughters,” he said with a smile.
Indeed, Skip already holds “Grandpa Camp” for all his grandchildren, with basketball, fishing and other activities taking center stage. Everyone lives close by so family gatherings can happen anywhere, including at basketball games.
While the Annandale and Dassel-Cokato girls teams played prior to the boys contest, Skip joined his family in the bleachers for the first half. Henry sat on grandpa’s lap, asking questions and offering his own strategic thoughts. It was quite a sweet scene, especially for anyone who was in the gym on that special night seven years ago.
Grandpa Camp sometimes takes place at a family cabin north of Staples. Skip likes to hunt with a bow and fish through the ice, which he will have more time for when he is not coaching. The cabin is also where the family gathers for big occasions like Thanksgiving and the deer opener, and where the basketball team gathers for special time together.
Along with boys basketball, Skip also coached girls basketball, football and softball – with nearly 90 seasons total -- for a while serving as head coach for three sports at the same time. He coached softball for 31 years, taking six teams to the state tournament. He was inducted into the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2017, and in 2022 became a member of the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Skip was asked to write a speech for the MSHSCA induction ceremony, but when he had trouble putting his feelings into words, Cathy took over the writing job.
Her words included these passages …
“He has taped thousands of ankles in the years previous to the trainer era, and those stories he heard in that room and getting to know the kids, are what is important to him. The locker room dance competitions, the hunting and fishing updates with players, the laughs, the team coming to the cabin, the pancake-eating contests are all examples of Skip’s kind of stats! Another stat that I tease Skip about is that he can’t go into a grocery store or restaurant without some kid or parent giving him a hug! Skip has a room full of trophies, but the tub full of letters from former athletes means the most to him! Other stats he cares about are wedding invitations from former athletes or even being asked to walk his player down the aisle at her wedding.”
“He is a very softhearted person, some of his most emotional moments are walking onto a field when no one is there and just taking it in or going into the gym before practice and turning the lights on and looking around in the quiet and reminiscing about everything that has happened there. Someday, he will turn those lights off in the quiet of that gym for the last time and feel very satisfied with his life as an educator and a coach. He will have enjoyed it all.”
Sam Dolan, a 2001 Annandale grad who played for his dad, said Skip has changed his coaching style to some degree over the years.
“I would say he was a little bit more strict back then, but he had to adapt to the new style of the game. The game has changed since I played. It’s a lot more physical, there’s a lot more talent and a lot more bigger kids.”
Skip has always held a parent meeting before every season, in which he explains his philosophy of coaching. He credits all the parents of all the kids over the years for buying in.
“I could tell you on one hand or less the serious confrontations I’ve had with people in 90-some seasons of coaching,” Skip said. “We say you’ve got to be your own school, not just old school, and that school has to change with the times. It’s we, it’s Annandale.”
Skip is ready to spend more time fishing on the 28 lakes inside the Annandale school district’s borders, including the Dolan home on a peninsula on Clearwater Lake. His grandchildren – Hunter, Henry, Nora, Ella, Ava, Alex, Owen and Emmitt – will he happy see even more of him.
The Cardinals’ game against Dassel-Cokato was a barn burner between Wright County Conference rivals. Annandale’s loss gave the Cardinals a record of 7-3 heading into a Tuesday game at New London-Spicer. Annandale’s last regular-season home game is scheduled for March 1 against Watertown-Mayer, and Skip will be honored that night for all he has done for so many people. And it will surprise no one when he deflects the praise and offers thanks to all his players and assistant coaches, their families and everyone in Annandale.
Some coaches decide to step down when they realize that their team is facing a downturn, but Dolan doesn’t think like that. He knows the Cardinals will remain strong without him on the bench.
“If I waited to retire until we didn’t have a good team,” he said, “I’d be 100.”
--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]