Gary Munsen: “If I wouldn’t have won some state titles, I don’t think I would have been in Mitchell that long. I don’t know. Maybe I would have gotten fired, or run out of town.” — 1999 interview.
In South Dakota, you don’t have to be a basketball fan to have heard of Gary Munsen.
He was probably the best known high school coach in the state over four decades until retiring in 2012.
Munsen died in 2016, but he’s been back in the news as the community of Mitchell has struggled with a proposal to name the court in the Corn Palace after him.
The City Council twice has tabled the idea and now the Mike Miller Foundation says it will honor Munsen at a ceremony on Dec. 29.
Over the 17 years our family lived in Mitchell, I had the opportunity to observe Munsen on and off the basketball court. That he was a gifted coach was never in dispute. His record of nine state boys championships and three girls titles stands as evidence of his unusual skills. If someone stays in the same position and the same place as head coach for 39 years, it’s apparent that the fit is the right one.
What was it about Munsen? He knew basketball, of course. If ever there was a man made for coaching, he was. He motivated kids like few coaches are able to do, turning average players into good ones, and good ones into great ones. Would Mike Miller have made it to the NBA without Munsen as coach and mentor?
Many years ago, in 2005 after the Kernels had ended an eight-year drought and won their ninth state title, I suggested, partly in jest, that at some point the Mitchell community would erect a statue of Munsen in the lobby of the Corn Palace, such was his accomplishment. To get an idea of his contribution in a more concrete sense, the next time you’re in Mitchell stop at the Corn Palace and note the state championship banners for basketball hanging from the rafters. It’s an impressive sight. There are no banners for second place, which the boys achieved five times and the girls four, or for participation.
For Munsen, and for many in the community of Mitchell, it was about winning. Everyone is aware that Mitchell is known for the Corn Palace. For decades, right up until Munsen’s retirement, it also was famous for Kernel basketball. Munsen’s era was indeed the “golden age of basketball” and the Kernels’ success produced not only admiration but envy around the state, and some enmity, too.
Munsen’s legacy is assured, with or without a statue or his name affixed to the Corn Palace floor.
Dec. 6, 2017