Their coaching experience dates back at least five decades; their relationship as peers, and friends, nearly that long. During that time, they have a combined 725 victories and three state championships, and have touched thousands of lives.
Yet, when Becker hosts Brainerd on Friday evening, it will be a first time Hall of Fame coaches Ron Stolski of Brainerd and Dwight Lundeen of Becker will have faced each other.
“We’ve been friends and have done a lot of things together over the last 40-some years, but we never thought we’d match up with them because we’re quite a bit different in size and school enrollment,” Lundeen said. “When the district reshuffled and we saw this 18 months ago, we got pretty excited as a coaching staff. We’re looking forward to it.”
Stolski, 78, is the Grand Old Man of high school football. He’s in his 56th season, having started at Kensington High School in 1962 and moving on through stops at Princeton and Park Center before landing at Brainerd, where he’s been for the past 43 seasons. He’s second in career victories in Minnesota with 374, two behind Verndale’s Mike Mahlen.
Showing no signs of slowing down, Stolski remains motivated by the chance to shape lives and is always ready to give a passionate defense of the sport he loves.
“Football,” he says with confidence borne of experience, “has never been safer. The equipment is safer, the way we practice is safer. It’s at a critical stage, but change is a constant. You either manage change or it manages you. But there will always be football.”
As the executive director of the Minnesota Football Coaches Association, Stolski has traveled the country, his eloquent support of football making him an in-demand speaker. But Stolski wouldn’t have had his remarkable longevity without listening as well as he speaks. He cites a presentation given by Lundeen about 10 years ago with clarifying his rationale for sticking around as long as he has.
“I went to a little clinic up in Mahnomen and Dwight was speaking up there. He said, ‘Passion lasts forever. Excitement is temporary.’ Like a lot of truths, it reminds you of something you already know,” he said.
Lundeen, 70, started the school’s football program in 1970 and has led it since. His 351 career victories rank him third in the state, and he’s guided the Bulldogs to state championships in 2005, 2014 and 2015. He was the school’s athletic director for 14 years and says that over the years, “I’ve probably coached every sport we’ve had.”
He retired from his daily school duties a few years ago but could not leave the football team. It’s inextricably tied to who he is.
“I’m on to coaching my third generation of players,” Lundeen said. “I’ve coached grandpas and I’ve coached dads and now I’m coaching their kids. It’s been a wonderful journey.”
For all he’s accomplished, Lundeen remains humble, crediting Stolski with a message that has stuck with him since he started coaching.
“In my very first coaches association meeting, he talked about the benefits of high school football that have nothing to do with wins and losses,” Lundeen recalled. “He talked about how football is a great classroom for teaching life lessons on a daily basis. I remember thinking, ‘He’s right on. That’s what I want to do.’ ”
The thrill of Friday night, with the lights and the crowds and the anticipation, still casts a spell over Lundeen.
“The rush of emotion, coming out onto the field, with the lights and the grass … that’s really special. I would miss that the most,” he said.
For everything Stolski and Lundeen have accomplished, both stress that the focus of Friday’s game is their athletes, not themselves, no matter how unique the matchup. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This game needs to be about the players,” Stolski said. “It’s not about Dwight and Ron. When you realize the game is not about you but about the kids, you coach better.”