Steve Kueter is at his desk at O’Gorman High School on a Tuesday afternoon, where he has been the head football coach for 33 years, and lists the number of things going on that night within a few hundred yards of where he’s sitting.
Kueter the athletic director tells you there is a freshman football game at McEneaney Field, two seventh-grade football games on the practice field, a state girls semifinal soccer game at McEneaney following the freshman football game, and it’s also parents night for a play going on at the school in which his daughter is a featured performer.
“That’s just tonight,” he says laughing. “And where are we? Practicing with four other teams down by the long jump pits.”
Listening from the other side of the desk, you know you’re getting vintage Kueter. At his best when the joke is on him. Ultimately he was the one who made most of the decisions that will force the Knights to practice where they’re practicing on the other side of the fence at 41st and Kiwanis. He knows you know that, which makes it something worth rattling on about for mutual amusement.
“All that going on,” he says. “And we’re over by the swamp trying to get ready to play Rapid City Stevens.”
A win in that game against Stevens was going to be his 285th at O’Gorman and eclipse the legendary Max Hawk of Yankton as the winningest high school coach of all-time in South Dakota football history.
As expected, there wasn’t a lot of doubt involved, nor was there much of any suspense about 2015 being the year Kueter would set a new mark. He was consistent in crediting the players and the school for hitting 285 prior to actually winning it and he was consistent in coaching them to get it done.
“He has no problem getting players hyped up and ready to play,” said former Knights standout Adam Juhl, now a junior defensive back at South Dakota. “The kids really want to win for him. That’s the thing – he’s always had the respect of the players.”
But you coach 33 years, you win almost 300 games. Coach Kueter, how much longer are you going to do this? I had to ask. He laughed, knowing the question was probably going to come up.
“I don’t know, I really don’t,” he said. “It’s year-to-year and it’s been that way for quite a while. There has been many a time where I thought, you know, that this should be it. But the youth around you keeps you going.”
He’s the second-oldest from a farming Catholic family of 12 from rural Humboldt. He went to Dakota State to play football for Joel Swisher and broke his leg as a sophomore. In a hurry to return, he broke it again and decided he was done with that part of the game.
Swisher encouraged him in his first days at school to be a math major because they were the only kind of teachers getting hired back in those days, and sure enough, four years later at age 22, he got a math teaching job and was named head football coach at Webster. He went 4-4-1 that first year, largely unsupervised because of an inordinate amount of staff turnover the year before.
“Somebody gave me the key to the equipment room right after I got there and I discovered all the jerseys were stolen,” Kueter remembered. “What do I do?”
He asked around and aimed his suspicion at the seniors from the year before.
“Back then 18-year-olds could get into bars,” he said. “I went to this place called ‘The Polka Dot Club’ and I see some guys wearing our jerseys. So my start in Webster on August 2nd is ripping jerseys off last year’s seniors in a bar. And I’m thinking I better find out where the rest of them went. Let me tell you, I was well-received. New young guy in town threatening to kick everybody’s butt because he needs those jerseys back.”
He rounded up 20 of them, all white. He got through the season by calling schools every week and telling them to wear their dark jerseys.
He left Webster to join Bob Burns’ staff at O’Gorman with the promise the job would be his in two years. He ended up waiting five on that count with Burns serving as his offensive coordinator for another two.
“If Bob didn’t make me wait so long, we could have taken care of this interview a few years ago,” he joked.
Valuable lessons were passed along, however. His two mentors were Swisher, who was a friend of Burns, and Burns. It was a striking contrast in coaching styles.
“You can play football and think you know something but you aren’t going to know it like Joel knew it,” Kueter said. “Joel’s deal was that you prepare for everything. His entire offense could be audibled to on the line of scrimmage. Bob was the opposite. Bob had three plays. Run these three plays and you’ll win and stop these three plays and you’ll win. I was somewhere in between. I had two great guys to work with.”
Brad Salem, a former Knight who went on to become a head coach at Augustana and is now quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator at Michigan State, remembers a positive presence who got them revved up.
“An incredible motivator,” Salem said. “He knows how to get kids ready to play to a football game and keep them going for all four quarters. You look at the stability of his staff over the years, too. They stay with him and I think that says a lot about how he does things.”
One of those who have stayed with him is John Fritsch. His son Luke is the quarterback of this year’s team and older brother Andrew also played. John, a former head coach at South Dakota, has been volunteering with the Knights since 2003.
“He’s very generous,” Fritsch said. “He told me that first year he couldn’t afford to pay me. Then the next year he doubled my salary.”
More seriously, Fritsch said: “His record speaks for itself. As far as dealing with the kids, he doesn’t coach football, he coaches people.”
A typical O’Gorman practice begins pretty loose. If you’re goofing around during the warming up part of the afternoon, you’re not going to hear the head coach yelling at you about getting focused. That part of the practice eventually arrives, though.
“I think he wants to give them a mental break before they get down to business,” said longtime freshman O’Gorman coach Ken Lindemann. “There is hooping, hollering, singing, all kinds of stuff.”
Eight state titles followed, with plenty of hooping and hollering. In the meantime, the Knights carved out a niche in big-school football that not everybody in the city or the state was 100 percent in love with 100 percent of the time. Over the years Kueter has dealt with the jabs with humor and the occasional wink that suggests having persistent protagonists isn’t the worst thing in the world.
“If you only went to public schools, there is a suspicion about private schools,” he said. “They really don’t understand how they work so they’ll suspect more is afoot than actually is. O’Gorman is hugely successful in academics, fine arts, you name it. There are going to be people looking at that with a wary eye. What’s going on over there? They assume something fishy is going on all the time.”
With a pride those same critics would be anxious to interpret as smugness, he’ll tell you the school where he’s won 285 games is indeed different than other schools.
“The type of kid we get has not changed much over the years,” he said when asked if he’s had to alter his style in three decades. “The kids are ambitious – they come from ambitious parents. They have futures and plans. They’re going to do well academically, they’re going to show up for practice. They’re going to do all the things they’re supposed to do. That hasn’t changed, we’ve always had that kind of kid.”
The landscape has changed, though. O’Gorman continues to be very good every year – with 2015 being no exception — while operating a run-based wing-T offense that is periodically tweaked to accommodate personnel. They’re most often not the feared heavyweight looming over the rest of the city anymore, though. A Sioux Falls public school did not win a big-school title from 1981, when the playoff system began, until 2006 when Roosevelt defeated the Knights in the title game. Since 2006, a city public school has won every single title in the state’s largest class.
“When the public schools split off with Roosevelt, they were at 1,400 kids per school or so,” Kueter said. “Now they’re up to 2,200. That made it tough. And the coaching at those schools has gotten considerably better. Most years we can put 11 on the field who are as good as their 11, but we can’t go as deep as they can some years. It’s tougher but not tough enough that I wouldn’t want to play them.”
Another question, then: In light of this, would O’Gorman ever consider dropping down to 11AA, where its enrollment would put them?
“That would not be an attitude you’d find anywhere in this building,” he said. “These kids play against the other city kids in everything – football, basketball, baseball – and it would be inconceivable to them to not play at the highest level. When they went to this ridiculous triple-A and double-A that was never an issue here. We have to be in triple-A.”
Kueter is 60 and he’s not that far from 61. A lot of guys keep going at that age, keep coaching, keep doing all the things they’ve loved to do, but a lot decide, too, that there comes a time when the generational distance between a prospective retiree and a 17-year-old is too far, and summoning up the energy required to lead them is no longer justifiable.
From the outside looking in, he’s not showing the signs that the wear and tear is too much or the kids or his assistant coaches are too young or getting in nine holes before dark is a better way to spend a fall afternoon than coaching high school kids over by the swamp at 41st and Kiwanis.
“Most people can barely remember what it was like in high school but if you’re around them all the time, you remember,” he said. “They make you young again. I’ve always had young coaches, too, who bring an enthusiasm that, if you’ve been around too long, it’s really hard to get there. They come in, though, they’re ready to go and they bring you back up. And away you go.”