Milestone year for high school football coachby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
Brainerd, Minn. — It's opening weekend for the high school football season across Minnesota. For one coach in particular, it will be a milestone year.
Ron Stolski is starting his 50th season as a high school football coach - most of that career has been at Brainerd High School.
When people speak about Stolski, they often bring up his storytelling before they mention anything else.
Ask him about his job interview right out of college in 1962 at the school in Kensington, Minn. After mistaking the janitor for the superintendent, and vice versa, Stolski and the superintendent walked out to a field with grass as tall as his armpits. This, he was told, was the football field.
"Before I could say anything, he said 'But we mow it in the fall,' " Stolski said. "And I said 'Well, you don't have goalposts,' he said 'We haven't scored in five years.' And then I said 'But it doesn't look 100 yards long,' and he said 'We've never measured.' "
Ask him about that team's first practice when just three players showed up, or about the goalposts his brother and he built in Kensington and what happened to those goalposts a few games later.
Raised in north Minneapolis and a graduate of Macalester College, the job in Kensington the only time he applied for a job; the rest were offered to him. He coached in Slayton, Princeton and Brooklyn Park before landing in Brainerd in 1975.
And there is a lot more to Stolski than storytelling. His record of 330 wins is more than any high school football coach in state history; Brainerd has advanced to three of the last four Prep Bowls at the Metrodome; and he's won a host of awards.
One lawyer in Brainerd describes Stolski as a 'Renaissance man.' School superintendent Steve Razidlo chokes up when talking about the coach, who also happens to be his father in law.
"I hope that I'm contributing when I'm 70," Razidlo said.
Stolski turned 72 last month. Razidlo marvels at the generations of young men in Brainerd whom Stolski has affected. Long retired as an English teacher, Stolski says coaching is about building relationships with each player. He doesn't demand Saturday practices like other big schools do. Stolski wants his players to have a life.
"I think if I had a strength, it's to take people to places they might not be comfortable going, and showing them that, along the way, it's just a hell of a lot of fun."
Not to underplay the accolades Stolski gets as a mentor, the teams he coaches are very good. Brainerd plays in 5-A, the class reserved for the state's largest schools, and usually dominated by suburban powerhouses like Eden Prairie, Wayzata and Rosemount. Yet Brainerd has proven one of a handful of outstate schools that can hold their own. The Warriors earned their 2010 trip to the Metrodome by beating Eden Prairie.
Bill Magnuson, football coach at Sauk Rapids Rice High School, south of Brainerd, said Stolski's success rests in the staff he's assembled. The two teams are in the same conference and Brainerd is the only conference foe Magnuson hasn't beaten.
"They're just so well coached and they have such good athletes," Magnuson said. "That's a culture he's developed up there."
Stolski agrees; he doesn't wear headsets during games because he trusts his assistants with the X's and O's.
Most of Stolski's assistants are also his former players and have worked for him for at least 15 years. "I've been retired for two years now in teaching, but I'll keep coaching as long as that guy still coaches," said Chet Stevenson, who played for Stolski during the 1960s in Princeton and is on his 36th year as an assistant.
Stolski says his contribution is admittedly cliche: what happens off the field is more important than what happens on it. So, the fact that he's never won a state title doesn't bother him.
"It would bother me a lot more if we had kids that were sloppy, not good in community," He said. "We got doctors and lawyers."
It's a culture Stolski calls the Warrior Way. Senior running back Nick Welch counts himself as a disciple.
"He just presents himself so well you have to respect him," Welch said. "He's there to teach you and make you a better person and a better player."
Stolski will tell you all about the Warrior Way. He'll also tell you he lost several seniors last year and this season will be a challenge. He may probably throw in a story about the swamp that used to exist where Brainerd's home football field now stands. It's only fitting that Stolski has a knack for clearing fields — that's where his classroom is.
- Morning Edition, 09/02/2011, 7:25 a.m.