DWU basketball coaching legend Fosness dies at 85

Presho native is the winningest coach in Tiger basketball history

Dakota Wesleyan University basketball coach Gordie Fosness speaks to his team in a huddle during a 1977 game. Fosness coached the Tigers for 22 years. (DWU Athletics photo)

Gordie Fosness, a South Dakota sports legend and the winningest coach in Dakota Wesleyan University men’s basketball history, died Tuesday in Sioux Falls.

Fosness was 85. His family said he died of natural causes. Private funeral services are being planned for later this week.

Fosness coached DWU’s men’s basketball team for 22 years and was known throughout his life for the close connections he made with players and coaches, friends and family, building stronger relationships through his Christian faith.

His family characterized his life as “a race well run,” with oldest daughter, Valerie Melmer, saying that her father that “just had his greatest victory.”

“No need for a scoreboard. No need for a time clock,” Melmer said. “He just won his most important victory. And everyone that was his friend over the course of his life knows what that means to him.”


Born June 6, 1935, Fosness, who grew up in Presho, made his name as a young basketball player for the town’s high school team, scoring more than 1,400 points before his graduation in 1953. That included a stretch of 40-point games as a senior, including one contest at the Corn Palace that drew the eye of Dakota Wesleyan University coaches. He was also a talented six-man football player in high school, and played football for the Tigers, as well.

His basketball prowess continued as a scorer for DWU. He was selected as an all-conference player for four years and when he graduated in 1957, Fosness led the state’s college players all-time in scoring with 1,805 points. That included setting the school’s single-game record for made free throws with 19, a mark that still stands more than 60 years later.

He was a draft pick of the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers in 1957, a selection of coach George Mikan but returned to South Dakota later in the year. He was a coach and teacher at Cavour and Gregory before becoming DWU’s basketball coach prior in the summer of 1961. He was age 26 when he was hired, as DWU leaders looked to get a household name in the job.

In 22 years on the job, Fosness coached the Tigers to 10 South Dakota Intercollegiate Conference championships and 351 wins. His teams were popular for having talented scorers and skilled local players, making DWU basketball games an attraction. Even starting as a head coach at a young age, Fosness demanded respect from his players, even if he was only a few years removed from the bench as a player.

"It was very scary," Fosness told this newspaper in 2006. "It was kind of like when I went away to college. I know I didn't know a whole lot. I didn't have any experience and you can't buy that. So what do you do? You work hard."

At the end of the 1982-83 season, Fosness left his post as the DWU coach and followed one of his other passions, becoming the state director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in South Dakota. Starting in the mid-1960s, Fosness began his involvement with FCA on the DWU campus and brought his experience with God and Jesus Christ into the locker room.

After coaching, he was also involved with fundraising and development at DWU, helping get the on-campus Christen Family Wellness Center built in 1986. Fittingly, the building’s arena is now named after Fosness.

Fosness has been honored around the state, including the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame and being inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in Chamberlain, one of less than 50 sports figures to be inducted.


A campus connection

For more than 60 years, Fosness associated himself with DWU in Mitchell, long after his playing and coaching days had ended. He continued to regularly talk with former coaching colleagues in coffee shops in Sioux Falls and was closely associated with his former players for life.

Current Tiger men’s basketball coach Matt Wilber said growing up in South Dakota and loving sports, one name was needed to identify with Dakota Wesleyan basketball, and that was "Gordie."

“When you heard the name Gordie, you thought about Gordie Fosness and Dakota Wesleyan basketball,” Wilber said. “He’s the identity for this basketball program.”

Wilber said the DWU men’s basketball team intends to honor Fosness on their team uniforms in upcoming games.

Curt Hart, DWU’s former athletic director, said he recalled watching Fosness play basketball in 1957 when Hart was just 9 years old.

“That was one of my first experiences with DWU,” Hart said. “It was amazing how many people knew Gordie Fosness and his players just adored him. Even late in his life, if Gordie could make it, he was going to be on campus.”

Hart said Fosness continued to get out the word about what Dakota Wesleyan was up to, trying to encourage young people to consider attending the school.

“He was so much more than a coach,” Hart said. I don’t know how many of his former players have said he was like a father or a second father to me. He followed up with so many of his former players and he was a such a great ambassador to the university.”


Chris Fosness said it was his father’s loyalty that kept him in touch with DWU throughout his life.

“They gave him that foothold and opportunity,” Chris said. “He never forgot about that and he said, ‘They showed loyalty to me and I will show it back. Always.’”

For the family

Fosness had five children. His only son, Chris, said Tuesday was a celebration of their dad’s life, even if there was some pain.

“I think for my family, it was just his boldness and his courage that stood out,” Chris said. “He had a Christian walk of life, without question. … Anyone that was in need, that he could help, he would go after. If the house was on fire, so to speak, he would help that player or person in need, whether it was with health or with life.”

Fosness’ relationship with Christ was a big part of who he was. He wasn’t afraid, his children said, to tell people he loved them, even if it was from one grown man to another.

“He would walk into the uncomfortable area and he would ask the hard questions,” daughter Tonja Lezon said. “That is where he excelled. When things got hard, that is when he stepped in.”

His friends and family spoke about Fosness as a prolific letter-writer. Those closest to him would receive frequent notes or words of encouragement on what they’ve been up to, often on DWU or FCA stationary. Recently, he would write stacks of letters to people from his living room recliner at his home in Harrisburg.

Lezon said she recalled being with her father at cafes around the state and her father would take the paper placemat and write out the note and send it off to whomever he needed to write to.


“He was all about the old-fashioned connections,” she said. “He would write to whomever was on his mind.”

In 1964, Gordie attended an FCA Camp in Estes Park, Colorado, which would start a Fosness summer tradition of heading there every June as a family. One of daughter Valerie’s favorite memories of her dad came from those trips, with all the members of the family piled into a station wagon, with the suitcases on the roof.

Gordie, she said, would sing all of the songs they learned at camp with his kids on the way home.

“It’s the best memory of all for me,” she said.

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at
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