Mitchell boys' basketball coach Gary Munsen reflects on his life, careerEverybody has an opinion about Gary Munsen. That’s inevitable, given his success and outspokenness.
By: Luke Hagen, The Daily Republic
Everybody has an opinion about Gary Munsen. That’s inevitable, given his success and outspokenness.
In 39 years of coaching varsity boys’ basketball at Mitchell, his teams have missed the state tournament only five times. He’s won a combined 896 boys’ and girls’ varsity games and 12 state titles.
“I’ve kept this job because we’ve gotten to the state tournament and won,” said Munsen, 68, who was fired from his first high school coaching position in Marion. “They call it the Mitchell Invite. They don’t call it the Class AA state tournament.”
Tuesday, the Mitchell boys’ basketball team (15-3) hosts Watertown at the Corn Palace in what will be Munsen’s final regular-season home game. Before the start of this season, Munsen announced this would be the last campaign of his 47-year coaching career. As the season has progressed, he’s been honored by several teams across the state.
As the postseason approaches, basketball fans have dwindling opportunities to see the white-haired, fiery coach barking out instructions, molding young players and questioning officials’ calls.
What many people don’t know about Munsen is how he became the passionate, intense coach he is today.
“Some people don’t like me because they think I’m a hard-a— or a bad-a— or I beat … women,” Munsen said, referring to an assault charge years ago that was dropped. “I’m nothing but an old teddy bear after I walk off the floor.”
The Mitchell School District has organized a ceremony for Munsen following Tuesday’s game, inviting former players, coaches and anyone who’s been connected with Mitchell High School basketball. A social will also be hosted at the Corn Palace after the game.
Munsen’s older brothers, Eddie and Ronnie, are both making the trip and Mitchell High School Activities Director Geoff Gross is expecting a big crowd.
“His name throughout the state has been synonymous with basketball, and in Mitchell, specifically,” Gross said. “When you have someone who has that longevity, he has a connection with a lot of people. That keeps people young in a way, because those people can always relate back to high school and the community. That’s going to be lost when coach Munsen leaves.”
White Lake native
As a child, Munsen lived in a four-bedroom house with his brothers and his parents, Charles and Hazel, in White Lake. The house had no indoor bathrooms — only an outhouse.
Gary Munsen was not born in a hospital, but in the house on the farm where he grew up. His father farmed about 650 acres, and everyone helped with chores.
When Munsen was young, he started showing signs of the temper that later became famous on the basketball court.
“One thing I remember, he was in the fourth grade, and he was mad at the teacher one day,” Eddie Munsen said. “He left class and walked home six miles, but then dad loaded him back up and brought him back to school.”
Munsen said he had gotten whacked in the head by his teacher with a wooden ruler, which angered him.
The Munsens planted and harvested crops and raised pigs and cattle, but sports were Munsen’s main love. Some of his first basketball memories are of being brought to Mitchell by his father to watch Kernels athletics. In 1955, Munsen went to the Huron Arena and witnessed his first state basketball tournament. He was 13 years old, and his father brought him nearly each year thereafter.
“I had great parents,” Munsen said. “They were hardnosed.”
Munsen’s organized basketball career began when he was a fifth-grader. By the time he was a freshman, he was a standout and was coming off the bench during White Lake varsity games. He was playing for coach Jim O’Boyle, a Huron College graduate and ex-Marine.
O’Boyle coached football, basketball, track and baseball.
“He coached like he was a drill sergeant in the Marines, which was good,” Munsen said. “He was the one who really got me interested in being a coach.”
Munsen started his sophomore, junior and senior seasons on the basketball team. He was an all-state player in both basketball and football.
In those days, White Lake played six-man football. It wasn’t until Munsen’s junior year — he was a running back — when the state switched the smallest class to eight-man football.
Eddie, who’s now 74, was a standout football player. He was recruited by Dakota Wesleyan University but decided to stay on the farm after graduating from high school. Munsen’s other brother, Ronnie, also stayed on the farm after graduation.
Munsen had the same option. He could have taken over part ownership of the family farm, but an offer from O’Boyle during Munsen’s junior year changed his life.
O’Boyle asked Munsen if he wanted to coach the fifth- and sixth-grade basketball team during his final two years of high school. Munsen gladly accepted.
One of Munsen’s early pupils was former Dakota Wesleyan men’s basketball player and coach Jim Martin, also a White Lake native. Martin, who coached at DWU from 1983 to 1987, grew up about two miles from Munsen, and their parents were friends.
“He was just one of those guys who needed to be a coach,” Martin said. “He’s so good with kids and working with them. All of his players are always disciplined.”
Martin said he clearly remembers Munsen’s athletic talents. When Martin was still in elementary school, Munsen and a few players on the varsity went to Martin’s farm and played basketball inside the barn.
“When they were done with practice, they would come to the barn and play basketball all the time,” Martin said. “They were always one player short, so I just got to play. … Munsen, he could stroke it from way downtown, but of course, at that time there were no 3-pointers.”
White Lake never made the state tournament during Munsen’s time there. Chamberlain was too good and the rival town was always in the same district or region.
“My junior and senior years, I had the green light,” Munsen said. “I could shoot it when I wanted.”
Munsen decided Dakota Wesleyan was the right place to play collegiate basketball, but his career there didn’t last long.
DWU’s most successful men’s basketball coach was Gordon Fosness, and his first year with the Tigers was in the fall of 1961, Munsen’s first and only year at the Mitchell college.
Munsen’s father got sick during the middle of the school year, causing Munsen to return home to help the family milk cows. After that, Munsen worked on the railroad for a year. He said he decided to work instead of returning to school, so he could “purchase a nice, newer car.”
When he finally got back into basketball, he went to General Beadle State Teachers College, now known as Dakota State University, in Madison. Munsen had some friends playing basketball at the university, where he earned a degree with a double major in business and physical education.
He joined coach Ed Harter’s basketball team immediately, but there wasn’t much playing time for the former White Lake star. Mostly, he sat on the bench.
Like O’Boyle, Harter was a disciplined coach. Harter led General Beadle to two conference titles when Munsen was with the team from 1963 to 1966.
“I learned a lot from Ed Harter,” Munsen said. “He was a very, very good mentor. I loved his practices. He was outstanding.”
During Munsen’s senior year, Harter asked him to coach the school’s junior varsity basketball team and be an assistant on the varsity squad. From there, his coaching took flight.
No stats on Munsen’s collegiate playing career are available, according to the Dakota State University sports information staff. The school couldn’t find records or stats during Munsen’s career despite The Daily Republic’s requests.
After dabbling in coaching as a high school student, and then getting another coaching position in college, Munsen knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
He wanted to coach.
Fresh out of college, he was offered a job with Marion High School; his contract for teaching six classes and coaching three sports was approximately $3,800. Today, he earns about $7,000 annually for being Mitchell’s basketball coach. He isn’t otherwise employed by the school.
At Marion, he was the assistant football coach, head track coach and, of course, head boys’ basketball coach. One of his boys’ track and field teams finished second at the state meet, although Munsen admits he didn’t know what he was doing.
“All I knew was run like h—- and turn left,” Munsen said.
In the spring of 1969, Munsen was due for a contract renewal. Back then, Munsen said the teachers would negotiate in front of the school board, superintendent and secretary for a salary increase. Bud Yopp was the school board president, and his son, Danny Yopp, was going to be a senior at Marion the next fall.
“Yopp stands up … and he said ‘Well, coach, if you’re going to be the head coach in basketball this fall, you will start my son and he will play a lot. If you don’t want to do that, you’re going to be the assistant coach, and we’ll find a new head coach,’ ” Munsen said.
“I was dumbfounded. But I just got up, found my contract and ripped it in half. I dropped it right in the trash can.”
Munsen said he felt forced to resign, so he considered it a firing.
Two choices were presented to Munsen after leaving Marion. He could either take a job in Mitchell to teach business classes, or he could go to Northern State University and do graduate work under Bob Wachs.
Munsen and his first wife, Cheri, moved to Mitchell on the Fourth of July, 1969. Munsen said he made about $10,000 in his first year at Mitchell. The late Bob Brooks, the principal at the middle school, claimed credit for the hire.
Munsen taught general business at the middle school for four years and coached eighth-grade basketball for one year, freshmen basketball for two years, sophomore basketball for one year and earned the varsity job in the spring of 1973. He also coached sub-varsity football and track.
Munsen said it was a tough decision to take over the varsity team in Mitchell, knowing the expectations and pressure that came with the job. But Cheri convinced him to agree to the position.
“She told me if I didn’t take the job, I’d regret it,” Munsen said. “I was worried about getting fired.”
In the Kernels’ first year under Munsen, they went 18-7 and took third place at the state tournament. That season was former Mitchell Christian head boys’ basketball coach Tom Young’s first year as a varsity player, when he was a junior. Young had Munsen as a freshmen and sophomore coach the previous two years.
“One of the memories I have is he used to play with us,” Young said. “You could tell he was very, very competitive. He really had an assortment of moves that we called ‘the White Lake moves.’ He’d shoot some one-leggers or a duck-up and under, things that he wouldn’t allow today.”
It took Mitchell 11 years to win a state championship under Munsen, who said he continued practicing with his players until he was about 50. The Kernels missed the state tournament four times in Munsen’s first nine seasons. Since then, Munsen has led the Kernel boys to 28 state tournaments in 29 years.
The boys’ team has won nine state titles under Munsen, including the renowned 1985 team that went 23-0. That year was sandwiched between two other state titles.
In that three-year run, the Mitchell boys went 66-3.
Bart Friedrick was a member of the 1984 and 1985 state champion teams. He was an all-state selection both seasons and went on to play four years of Division I college basketball at Drake.
Friedrick, who holds the school record for best field goal percentage in his high school career at 63 percent, said Munsen’s relationship with his players is the reason he’s had so much success.
“Coaching is something he loved to do,” Friedrick said. “He could have coached at most colleges, but Mitchell is who he is.”
In 1994, Munsen brought up an eighth-grader to the varsity who would eventually become one of South Dakota’s most recognized sports figures.
Mike Miller was part of three Mitchell state basketball championships in 1994, 1996 and 1997. He was an all-state selection three times and still holds five school records, including most points in a game (54), most points in a season (689), most points in a career (1,743), most rebounds in a season (317) and most rebounds in a career (826).
Miller credits Munsen for the player he’s become. Miller went on to play collegiately at the University of Florida and is now in the NBA with the Miami Heat, playing in his 12th season.
“Coach Munsen is unbelievable for growing kids as people and as basketball players,” Miller said. “He makes it easier on them in everyday life, not just basketball.”
Other years that the boys’ team won titles under Munsen were 1986, 1990, 1991 and 2005.
That success brought notoriety to Munsen, and other programs noticed. He has received several job offers at different levels, including Dakota Wesleyan University and South Dakota State. He once took a trip to Wisconsin and was hired for a job, but he declined the offer.
Instead of leaving, he added to his duties. In the spring of 1989, Brooks hired Munsen to be the head girls’ basketball coach at Mitchell. At that time, girls’ basketball was played in the fall and the boys played in the winter.
“I said ‘no’ about 17,000 times,” Munsen said. “He finally finagled me to do it one way or another.”
Had it not been for the season switch in 2002, when girls’ basketball moved to the winter, Munsen said he still believes he would be coaching girls’ basketball.
The MHS girls made the state tournament in 11 of 13 years under Munsen, who retired from teaching in 2000. After teaching business classes for many years, he had transitioned to teaching driver’s education.
Under Munsen, the girls’ team won the state tournament in 1990, 1992 and 1994. Those three years were part of a run in which Mitchell made six straight state championship games.
In his career, Munsen, who’s the second-winningest boys’ high school basketball coach in the state, has won 666 boys’ varsity games and 230 girls’ varsity games. Only Larry Luitjens has more boys’ varsity wins.
Overall, he’s 896-324, which equates to a .734 winning percentage. In the 1990-91 school year and in the 1994 calendar year, he led the boys’ and girls’ teams to state titles while coaching both teams.
Despite all those years of coaching and his legendary fire and passion for the game, he said he’s never been ejected by a referee.
Munsen has heard all the rumors. After coaching 43 years in the same town, there have been plenty.
The three biggest, he said, are that he’s an alcoholic, he beats women, and that he recruits players from other schools to improve his teams.
“People think I’m a rough guy,” he said. “I go to the bar too much. I drink too much. Do I like to drink? Yes, I do. But I’m not the heavy drinker that people think I am. You’re branded for that, and that’s the way it goes.”
Munsen met Cheri, his first wife, while they were in high school. They were married for 27 years and had four children: Scott, Stacey, Shana and Sam.
Cheri was diagnosed with breast cancer and was going through treatment during the same time Munsen’s father died in the late 1980s. Cheri died in 1991.
One morning in the fall of 1989, Munsen’s family had an intervention at his house. He said about 25 people were at the meeting, where friends and family members told him he was drinking too much.
He agreed to take a leave of absence from coaching to attend 28 days of treatment at the Worthmore Center in Aberdeen.
Scott Munsen, who played on the 1984 state championship team, was 23 at the time of the intervention.
“It was a real difficult time for him, because mom was sick and was dying, and Grandpa Charles died,” said Scott Munsen, now the head cross country coach at Mitchell High School. “I think the treatment thing, it made sense back then and seemed like the right thing to do. But I don’t think it was as much of a drinking problem as a coping problem.
“When I look back on it, it might not have been the best decision as a family to have him attend treatment. We maybe blew it out of proportion at the time, but we didn’t know it then.”
Munsen got remarried in 1997 to Pam Kiner. The two divorced in 2002 because of what Munsen said were personal problems.
The two were involved in an incident that resulted in a reprimand for Munsen by the school district. He was charged with an assault on Kiner, who accused him of striking her and kicking her in the ribs. The charges were later dropped. Munsen declined to comment on the incident for this story.
Munsen also has been reprimanded by the South Dakota State High School Activities Association at least twice. His most recent infraction was a coaching-out-of-season violation that landed the boys’ basketball team on probation through the end of this season. A past team was put on probation for illegally scrimmaging Dakota Wesleyan University.
“I didn’t know the rules,” Munsen said, speaking of both violations. “Should I know the rules? Absolutely. But I’d like to know how many coaches don’t know the rules.”
At least 20 students have moved to Mitchell specifically to play for Munsen during his time with the Kernels, according to him. SDHSAA rules do not allow coaches of a different school to entice players to move to a new school district for athletic purposes, and Munsen said he’s never done it.
Said Munsen: “I’ve never recruited a kid in my life, but have I turned them down when they ask to come play for me? No.”
Ending his career
The Kernels can get Munsen one step closer to a final Eastern South Dakota Conference title with a win Tuesday over Watertown at the Corn Palace. This season, Mitchell’s only losses have come against Pierre and Brookings.
If Mitchell beats Watertown, the Kernels will need to win their regular-season finale against Aberdeen Central on Feb. 21 at Aberdeen to claim at least a share of the conference championship. If that happens, it will be Munsen’s 16th career boys’ ESD title.
Beyond that lies the potential for another state championship. He wants it, he said, but not because it would be his 10th boys’ state championship or because it would allow him to finish his career on the highest of notes.
He said he wants it for the kids.
“The kids say they want to win it for ‘Muns,’ but I want to win it for them and the community,” Munsen said. “What’s another trophy in the trophy case to me?”
This year, it’s been more evident that the pain in Munsen’s ailing right hip is worsening. He’ll turn 69 in March, and he said as soon as this season is finished, he’ll have his hip replaced. During basketball games this year, he slowly walks from the Corn Palace locker rooms to Mitchell’s bench, a trek marked by his noticeable limp.
Munsen said two main factors in deciding to retire are his health and his age. Besides that, he said he wants to spend more time with his family. He has 12 grandchildren and another on the way, and his two daughters live out of state.
“If we don’t get to the state tournament, I’ll have it done right when we’re done,” Munsen said of the surgery. “Everybody already has their room for the state tournament. There’s no guarantee we’re going to get in. Should we get in? Yeah, we should, but anything can happen.”
Soon, the last buzzer will sound during the last game of the season. When that happens, it will officially end the career of a coach whose name has become synonymous with Mitchell High basketball, with success and, at times, with controversy.
Whatever will become of Gary Munsen?
He insists he’ll still go to Mitchell basketball games. He already has a spot picked out at the Corn Palace, near the court, nowhere near the Kernels’ bench. He simply knows it’s time to call it quits.
“I’ve coached a lot of really good players,” Munsen said while holding back tears. “I’d do it all over again if I could. It means a lot to me that I had an effect on a lot of players, and I’m very proud of that.”