Tournament-goers reflect on Munsen’s legacyRAPID CITY — On the court, Mitchell boys’ basketball coach Gary Munsen seems intimidating and serious. That’s because with basketball, he’s all business.
By: Claire Meador, The Daily Republic
RAPID CITY — On the court, Mitchell boys’ basketball coach Gary Munsen seems intimidating and serious. That’s because with basketball, he’s all business.
Munsen, who’s been at Mitchell since 1969, has raised eyebrows with his coaching style. He’ll frequently scream at players and occasionally curse on the court, but his success is unquestioned.
Whether people like him, hate him or love him, most people agree he’s an exceptional basketball coach.
Today, Munsen will coach his 1,227th and final varsity basketball game, having announced his retirement before the season. In Rapid City at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, players and fans who are attending Mitchell’s games will have a memory forever of seeing Munsen’s last state tournament. It’s clear there’s a lot of buzz about the coach, whose resume includes nine boys’ state titles.
“Obviously, he’s been around for a long time, and he’s had a tremendous amount of success,” said Bob Lowery, assistant executive director of the South Dakota High School Activities Association. “Like him or not — I think there’s a lot of people that do and a lot of people that don’t — his record speaks for itself. I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Munsen and what he’s done for basketball and South Dakota and in Mitchell.”
Almost everyone associated with basketball in South Dakota knows of Munsen. Some have personal memories, while others don’t know much besides that he’s been coaching in Mitchell for what seems to be forever.
“The only thing I know about him is that he’s a really good basketball coach,” said Ashley Stang, a ticket seller at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.
Paul Sterling, a former assistant boys’ and girls’ basketball coach for Mitchell High School, has plenty of memories about the legendary coach. Sterling is now the events coordinator for the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.
“For South Dakota basketball, I think he’s allowed it to grow,” he said. “He’s helped build it, because people had to get better to beat him. People knew if they were going to beat Mitchell, they had to get better.”
Sterling also mentioned the way Mitchell native Mike Miller — now an NBA player for the Miami Heat — helped grow Munsen’s and Mitchell basketball’s reputation. Sterling said coaching with Munsen is something he’ll always remember.
“There were so many good things that we did and so many good times that we had as far as working with the program,” said Sterling, who left Mitchell 13 years ago. “I guess … the thing that I really love about him, is when he talks to me, he still calls me ‘Coach Sterling,’ and to me, that’s an honor coming from somebody of his character and ability. … He has a lot of respect for the people he’s worked with.”
One thing that’s certain is that wherever Mitchell showed up to play basketball, a lot of people were interested in Munsen and his team. No matter whether it was a regular season game at the Corn Palace or a state-tournament game, people wanted to see Munsen in action.
“He grabbed the essence of what high school basketball is in South Dakota,” said Duane Whalen, former athletic director for Rapid City Stevens High School. “He was able to develop teams and bring them along to the point where they played the best at state tournament time, and as a result they won a lot of state tournaments. It was to the point where if Mitchell was in the tournament, everyone was in anticipation of what Mitchell would do and how well they would play.”
Whalen met Munsen when they were assistant coaches. Munsen was at Mitchell in the early 1970s, and Whalen was at Rapid City Central. Whalen said the thing that struck him most when he met Munsen was his passion for basketball.
“He was just a basketball junkie,” Whalen said.
A lot of people remember Munsen for his fiery nature on the court and his sometimes unpleasant interactions with referees during games. But there are some who see him differently.
Jim Aberle, who’s been officiating basketball since 1976, said Munsen has always been a class act.
“I’ve refereed for Gary at several state tournaments, and the thing that I always noticed about him was his teams always came out and played good basketball, but he very seldom got on the officials,” Aberle said. “He adjusted to the way his team played based on the way we called the basketball game. That’s what really made it nice. He didn’t blame us for the things we did. He got his kids to fix it.”
Aberle said he knows other referees might not feel the same way, but no matter how the game was called, Munsen always put his team first.
“I think he’s been a real gentleman and sometimes that’s hard to find any more on the bench,” Aberle added. “The thing with Gary is that he always put the game out front and the kids out front, and he did everything he could within the rules to be successful.”
No matter how people will remember Munsen after he retires, he will be a major figure in South Dakota basketball history.
“Munsen’s done a lot for South Dakota basketball, and I think that he’s raised the bar for all of us that are continuing to coach and to stay in one place for such a long periods of time,” Brookings girls’ basketball coach Lynn Frederick said. “I think that says a lot about him and who he is. Hopefully, he has fun in retirement, but for some reason I don’t really think he’s going to stay in retirement for too long.”
Munsen came to Rapid City this weekend seeking his 10th and final boys’ state tournament title to top off his already impressive basketball career, which also includes three girls’ state titles.
“He is what he is,” Sterling said. “Gary Munsen knows basketball … He truly cares about the program. You know you’ll hear people say all kinds of things about Munsen, but Munsen never gave up on it. He always loved Mitchell and he always loved Mitchell basketball.”
Here are some other comments from people around the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center at Munsen’s final state tournament:
• Marty Johnson, former freshman basketball coach at Mitchell High School: “I had three years there and I appreciated all three years,” Johnson said. “When I got the freshman job in Mitchell, I was very new there, so what I would do is go to his 6 o’clock practices in the morning and watch his practices. I tell you, I learned more in those mornings watching him coach than I ever could anywhere else. It was a great experience for me just watching him and how he handled his kids and how he dealt with them and challenged them, and how he made them better. It was just a great experience for me.”
• Paul Anderson, a spectator at the Class AA tournament: “I used to work with a gal who had two kids that went to Mitchell High School. They both had Munsen as teacher. One of them hated him and one of them loved him. The one that loved him, loved him because every morning for driver’s education, he’d let her drive through the doughnut shop to get breakfast.”
• Greg Henderson, assistant coach for Sioux Falls Roosevelt: “Coaching in today’s society is tough. Everyone wants their kid to play no matter if they’re 5-foot or 7-foot. You know they want them to play and they want them to get time. You have to decide as a coach which players are going to play and which players aren’t. And sometimes you hurt people’s feelings because you don’t play their kid. I’m sure a lot of the people who don’t like Munsen are parents, and he got beat up for a lot of years as a coach. But, like I said, if you really got to know the guy, he’s a very loving guy, and he treats people with respect and dignity.”
• Jim Noyes, an assistant boys’ basketball coach at Rapid City Central who formerly coached at Huron: “Everyone does things kind of the way they want to. And the thing is, a lot of people didn’t like Mitchell because Mitchell won. And a large reason that Mitchell won is because Munsen was the coach. Munsen is a great coach, I have nothing but respect for him and his record speaks for itself. If you talk to all the kids that have played for him, they have nothing but good things to say about him. ... He’s a good guy, and he’s done a great job and we’ll really miss him.”