Former coach Gary Munsen dies

Gary Munsen, who for nearly four decades commanded the Mitchell boys basketball team, has died. He was 72. Munsen, a White Lake native, retired following the 2012 season and finished his career with 902 combined wins in both girls and boys basket...


Gary Munsen, who for nearly four decades commanded the Mitchell boys basketball team, has died. He was 72.

Munsen, a White Lake native, retired following the 2012 season and finished his career with 902 combined wins in both girls and boys basketball, most in South Dakota history. He won 12 state titles combined in both girls and boys basketball after 47 years on the bench, including 39 years as a varsity head coach.

Scott Munsen, Gary’s son, said his father was found early Tuesday morning by a friend. Scott said it is unclear exactly the manner of his father’s death, but some close to Munsen said it was an apparent heart attack.

“He taught me a lot of things growing up: How to be a man. How to be mentally tough. How to compete,” Scott Munsen said Tuesday. "I wish he had more time. But that’s not up to us. That’s up to the good Lord.”

Bittner Funeral Chapel is handling arrangements, but a funeral time or date had not yet been determined Tuesday afternoon.


On Tuesday night, the Mitchell boys basketball team planned to wear gold replica uniforms in tribute to the longtime coach, according to the Mitchell School District.

The uniforms the Kernels will wear tonight are a replica of the uniforms worn by the 1984 Kernels, who won coach Munsen’s first of 12 state basketball titles. There will also be a moment of silence for the coach.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Gary’s immediate and extended family, with his many friends and acquaintances,” Mitchell Activities Director Geoff Gross said in a statement. “Gary’s smile, laugh, and personality were like none other.  He retired after the 2012 boys basketball season as one of the winningest coaches in South Dakota Sports history.”

Munsen coached varsity boys basketball in Mitchell from 1974 to 2012 and his teams qualified for the state tournament 34 out of 39 years. His boys teams won nine state titles. He also coached girls varsity basketball in Mitchell from 1989 to 2001, making the state tournament 11 out of 13 years. His girls teams won three state championships.

Stacey (Munsen) Smith, while fighting back tears, shared memories of her father that weren’t basketball related.

“He was the best dad,” she said. “He spent summers with us and he took us everywhere he went. I remember how he made you feel like the most important person in the world. He made everyone feel that way, including my kids.”

Munsen - who had 12 grandchildren - retired from coaching in 2012, listing health and family for the main reasons he wanted to step down. He coached his final game for Mitchell High School on March 17, 2012, when the Kernels lost to Sioux Falls O’Gorman in the Class AA state championship game.

At the end of his career, Munsen tallied a total of 673 boys basketball wins and 229 girls basketball wins. Those numbers reflect Munsen’s 39 varsity seasons at Mitchell and three varsity seasons as Marion’s head boys basketball coach.


“I couldn’t have done it without the kids,” Munsen said in a 2012 interview after successful hip replacement surgery. “That’s the way I look at it. What’s more astonishing, I think, is since 1984 - 28 years - my teams have been in the finals 14 times. Half of those 28 years we’ve made it to the state tournament. I mean, that’s quite an accomplishment, too.”

In April of 2013, Munsen was inducted to the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame. Munsen trails only Larry Luitjens, a longtime Custer and De Smet coach, in boys basketball victories. Munsen finished his career with 672 wins. Luitjens retired with 748 wins in boys basketball.

Following his retirement in 2012, Munsen was succeeded in coaching by one of his former players, Tom Young.

“He was Mitchell basketball,” Young said. “Beyond his gruff and tough exterior, Gary had a really soft heart, especially his love for his family is what really impressed me. To me, that means more than the basketball part of it.”

The following are excerpts of a story that published in February of 2012, prior to Munsen’s final regular-season home game:

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.”

College days 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.

Young coach 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.

Mitchell 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 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 Denver Nuggets.

“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.


Luke Hagen was promoted to editor of the Mitchell Republic in 2014. He has worked for the newspaper since 2008 and has covered sports, outdoors, education, features and breaking news. He can be reached at
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