With two retirements, Minnesota lost a century's worth of iconic high school football coaching leadership in one day.
Ron Stolski, a head coach for 58 years — the last 45 at Brainerd — told his team Wednesday morning that he was stepping down. Stolski, 80, is the longest-tenured prep football coach in state history. He retired with 389 career victories, second only to Verndale's Mike Mahlen with 401.
"It was a very difficult decision," Stolski said. "I'm 80 but I feel 55. I believe I could still coach for a year or two, but it's time. The program is in good shape, and we've got a lot of good kids coming in."
Nearly the same time, Jeff Ferguson announced the end of his 42-year coaching career, the past 18 as head coach at Totino-Grace in Fridley. His Eagles won 187 games and eight state championships, the past two after moving up in class despite enrollment that didn't require them to do so.
"It has been a privilege to coach at this school and in this program,'' the 1974 Totino-Grace graduate said in a school news release. "Totino-Grace is a special place because of the people … teachers, coaches, administrators, parents, alumni, and especially the students.''
Their departures come in a winter that has seen several longtime head coaches depart from other big-school programs.
Dave Nelson left Minnetonka after a 36-year head coaching career, including 18 years at Blaine. Meanwhile, Derrin Lamker, who previously coached at Osseo, left Edina after three seasons to become head football coach at Augsburg. Rich Wilkie left Andover after 18 years to join Lamker as an Augsburg assistant.
Stolski grew up in Minneapolis and attended Henry High School. After college at Macalester, he began his high school coaching career at Kensington High School in 1962.
"We had three kids show up for the first practice," he recalled. "No goalposts, no scoreboard. We never measured the field, so we weren't sure how long it was. It was eight-man football. It feels like yesterday."
He also coached at Slayton, Princeton and Park Center before taking the Brainerd job in 1975.
"I never looked for another job," he said. "We did what we set out to do at Brainerd."
Stolski said he will remain executive director of the Minnesota Football Coaches Association. He figured prominently in shaping the current Prep Bowl playoffs.
''I expect to be involved with kids," he said. "When you choose a living in teaching and coaching, you choose to make a difference in the lives of young people."
Ferguson served as an assistant coach at Blaine and St. Agnes. He became the Totino-Grace head coach in 2002. Known as an astute defensive mind, he bucked the trend of private schools playing in classes for smaller schools, taking Totino-Grace, with an enrollment of roughly 700, into the highest classes of the sport.
After winning six state titles in Class 4A, the Eagles moved to Class 5A — then the largest class of football in the state — in 2011. After winning the Class 5A title in 2012, the year that Class 6A was added, the Eagles opted up once more, moving to Class 6A in 2013.
They made two trips to the Class 6A Prep Bowl in three seasons after that, losing to Eden Prairie 28-27 in 2014 and defeating Eden Prairie 28-20 in the 2016 final.
After that victory, Ferguson addressed the persistent complaining of a recruiting advantage that surfaces when a private school wins state championships.
"Do we recruit? Damn right, we do. We recruit students, not athletes. We have not and will never give one dollar in financial aid for an athletic scholarship," Ferguson said in a Q&A published in the Star Tribune.
Ferguson will remain in his current role as the school's associate director of advancement. Longtime Eagles offensive coordinator Jay Anderson was named head coach.
When asked what he'll miss the most, Ferguson paused, and his voice cracked.
"The relationships," he said. "It's not about the record. It's about the relationships you develop, the connections you build with the kids. That's what it's always been about."
Staff writer David La Vaque also contributed to this report.