“It’s still fun.” That was one of the answers Verndale football coach and athletic director Mike Mahlen gave when asked why he’d still want to coach high school football after 47 years. The other answer? The kids.
The following article appeared in the Fargo Forum on September 17. It is being reprinted with permission.
In his 47th year coaching Verndale football, Mahlen sees no end
For another man in his first game coaching, having three running backs get hurt and a center get ejected on the first play for fighting would make him want to turn in the whistle and clipboard.
Not Verndale football coach and athletic director Mike Mahlen.
"That game ended up being a 0-0 tie where neither team got past the other team's 30-yard line," Mahlen, 67, said. "It was the most boring game I've ever seen. I thought it can't get any worse than this."
If not that, perhaps getting taken off on a stretcher and in an ambulance after a player plowed into him on the sideline. That certainly would make a coach want to quit. Not Mahlen.
"No way," Mahlen said. "That was the only standing ovation I ever got."
There's been reasons for Mahlen to leave coaching in his 47 years as Verndale football coach, but none of them have been reason enough for Mahlen.
"If one day I come and can't stand being here at practice, then I'll hang it up," Mahlen said. "It's still fun."
That hasn't happened yet.
Mahlen has never had to write a resume in his life. In 1969, when Mahlen was 20 years old, Verndale's superintendent came to Galesburg, N.D., looking for teachers. Mahlen put his name on a list to meet with the superintendent, but Mahlen was told the superintendent would be leaving at 2 p.m. Mahlen couldn't get there until 3 p.m.
"I wrote by my name if he was still there, I'd love to talk to him," Mahlen said. "It was for a physical education and health job."
The superintendent waited to speak to Mahlen and the rest is history. At 20 years old, Mahlen was coaching Verndale football. He wasn't able to get a beer after a win.
"I don't think there were many of those that first year anyway," Mahlen said. "I think we won one game."
There's been plenty since. Mahlen is second all-time in wins in Minnesota high school football history. At 357-117-3, Mahlen is seven wins behind Brainerd's Ron Stolski's 364-160-5, who is in his 54th season currently at Brainerd.
Mahlen taught 36 years at Verndale High School before retiring from teaching.
"Now, I just do the fun stuff," Mahlen said.
Verndale senior fullback and linebacker Ethan Orlando has played for four seasons under Mahlen. Mahlen coached his dad, Mike, and his grandpa, Dave. Mahlen didn't even realize he was on his third generation of players until this season. But the second the names of the Orlandos were brought up he knew what positions they played and the year they graduated.
And there's the reason Mahlen can't find a reason to stop coaching.
For Mahlen, it isn't about his 75 percent winning percentage, the 15 trips to the state tournament, the five trips to the state title game or the two state titles. It's what nearly all coaches say as their reason for the late nights, early mornings and, for Mahlen, trips in an ambulance.
"The kids," Mahlen said. "I don't think (the game or kids) have changed a whole heck of a lot. The parents might have changed over the years. This year's team is the best bunch of kids I've had without a doubt. People say kids are getting worse and lazier. I don't buy that."