My most vivid memory of Gary Munsen stems from an early March afternoon in 2012, as the legendary Mitchell High School basketball coach was preparing for his final state tournament before retirement.
He sat in the Scoreboard Sports Bar across the street from the Corn Palace in a black-and-gold Mitchell jacket, assessing his team’s chances while reflecting on a coaching career that included 672 victories and nine state boys titles over 43 seasons, including 39 in Mitchell.
Munsen smiled at some of those memories but was somber as well. He was having hip problems that would require surgery and had recently lost his brother, Ronnie, to a fatal car crash in Nebraska.
When I brought up the state tournament, traditionally the highlight of Munsen’s year, he brightened for a moment and said, “You know, it’s times like these when you really need basketball.”
It really was that simple for Munsen, who died of a heart attack at age 72 on Tuesday morning at his Mitchell home, leaving behind a legacy of on-the-court triumph, off-the-court turbulence and a lifetime of devotion from those who played under him.
His strict adherence to team-first, fundamental basketball while forging a passion for the game created bonds that remain unbreakable after his death.
“He made basketball in Mitchell something everyone wanted to do,” Denver Nuggets forward Mike Miller, a 15-year NBA veteran who helped lead the Kernels to a pair of state titles, told me recently.
“He developed that program into a must for kids coming up through the ranks. It’s what you went to the gym for, what you trained for – to be part of that championship tradition.”
Munsen, a White Lake native who finished 672-254 to rank second in all-time state boys wins behind Larry Luitjens of Custer, also coached the Mitchell girls from 1989-2001, compiling 230 wins and three state crowns.
His fatal heart attack came as a shock to close friends and former players who saw him regularly at the Corn Palace and at basketball games across the state. After developing standout players such as Bart Friedrick, Scott Morgan, Tyson Theeler, Ryan Miller and Mike Miller, the game was part of his persona and he couldn’t stay away for long.
“I went to a game with him last year at Brandon Valley and it was like walking in with a rock star,” says Jim “Jocko” Johnston, the owner of Harve’s Sport Shop in Mitchell and a longtime Munsen friend. “Everybody wanted to talk to him and everybody knew him.”
In many ways, Munsen drew more from basketball than the other way around. His desire to keep coaching helped him get through problems with alcohol that led to an intervention and a rehab stint in the 1990s, and he stayed tethered to the game in retirement.
At the Mike Miller Classic in Mitchell last month, Munsen arrived early to the Corn Palace and stayed to the end, watching games that were part of the “Gary Munsen Tournament” that honored his legacy alongside that of his most famous player.
“He was so thankful that we named it after him,” says event organizer Ernie Kuyper, who played for the Kernels at the same time as his cousin, Mike Miller. “He gave me a big hug and seemed fired up to watch basketball.”
If there was a soft side to Munsen, it emerged after his retirement in 2012, following a runner-up finish to O’Gorman in his final state tournament in Rapid City.
During his career, it was natural for opponents to view the Mitchell coach as an irascible sideline presence who thrived on intimidation. Those who played for him, though, saw a man who stressed playing the right way and relying on shared responsibility rather than personal glory.
“In a culture that has become more individualized, he chose to emphasize things like toughness, discipline and preparation to help create championship teams,” says Ryan Miller, a former Mitchell and Northern State standout who is now an assistant coach at UNLV.
In keeping with Munsen tradition, Ryan didn’t start until he was a senior, and his younger brother Mike – who went to lead the University of Florida to the NCAA finals and become NBA Rookie of the Year – didn’t become a full-time starter until he was a junior.
“It took individual sacrifice to make it happen, and those lessons carried on,” says Ryan. “He was the sort of coach who would put you in tough situations to see how you responded, not just in basketball but in life.”
Ryan talked of receiving a text from a former Mitchell teammate Tuesday as a far-flung fraternity of Kernel alums shared memories.
“This was a guy who didn’t play – he never even got on the court,” says Ryan. “And he texted me and said, ‘I’m crying right now.’ That shows the phenomenal impact that Coach Munsen had.”
After getting his coaching start in Marion, Munsen arrived in Mitchell as an assistant to Tim Fisk in 1969 and took the head coaching reins three years later. He became known as an old-school coach who would just as soon berate his players as praise them, but always with a mission in mind.
“He was tough on kids,” says Johnston, a longtime basketball official. “They practiced hard and he was not shy about telling them what they did wrong. When it was all said and done, though, they would go through a wall for him.”
The athletic director who hired Munsen told him that reaching the state tournament was the key to sticking around. The coach more than met that goal by making the boys tourney in 34 of his 40 seasons.
He didn’t get his first state title until 1984, when all-state guard Kyle Adams led the Kernels past Washington 54-48 at the Sioux Falls Arena for the school’s first state title in 20 years.
The Kernels, sparked by 6-foot-10 Friedrick and 6-4 Chad Anderson, went 27-0 the next season to forge the school’s reputation as a perennial postseason power and fuel a Class AA-record 40 straight wins.
“By that time, he had matured as a coach quite a bit, just in the way he related to kids,” says Friedrick, who went on to star at Drake. “He kind of caught on to the job of coaching, and there was no turning back.”
When Mitchell rose again in 1986 – the first year of the three-class system – it became the first South Dakota school to win three straight boys basketball titles since 1924. The Kernels rose again with a dramatic double-overtime win over Lincoln in 1990 and added a title in ’91.
The next wave of success came in the 1990s, when the Miller family arrived. It was common knowledge that Tom Miller, a former Dakota Wesleyan standout, had three sons that were going to be fine players. The problem was that Miller was an elementary school principal in a neighboring district, but he was soon hired as an educator in Mitchell.
“I told (principal) Bob Brooks that we needed to get Tom Miller (in our school system) because he’s got some boys, and that’s what we did,” Munsen told me.
The boys were Ryan, Jared and Mike, and they helped lead a resurgent Mitchell program to state titles in 1994, ’96 and ’97. Mike, known then as “Skinny,” sprouted to 6-foot-8, introduced South Dakota to big-time national recruiting and became easily the most accomplished player in state history.
The future NBA lottery pick helped lead the Kernels to a state title as a sophomore and rose again as a junior the following year, beating Lincoln in the state finals as top-tier college coaches followed his every move.
“A lot of people were recruiting me, but the way (Munsen) treated me never changed,” said Miller. “He still yelled at me and called me a prima donna, and those are things that keep you grounded and help you along the way. If anything, it got worse. I sort of joked that I didn’t want coaches to come recruit me anymore, because the practices got tougher.”
The Kernels lost to eventual champion Brandon Valley in the semifinals of Miller’s senior year, starting a six-year string of seasons without a state crown.
It was the longest drought for Munsen since his breakthrough title of 1984, signaling that times had changed. The Sioux Falls schools were starting to assert more authority, and talent was harder to find.
When the Kernels arrived in Sioux Falls for the 2005 state tournament, there were serious doubts about whether Munsen would be able to match his old magic. Roosevelt and O’Gorman had been the big story all year and were expecting to face off before a hometown crowd for the championship.
When Mitchell’s black-and-gold supporters settled into their seats, though, it was just like old times. After a first-round win over Yankton, the Ryan Krome-led Kernels knocked off Roosevelt (featuring Wisconsin recruit Joe Krabbenhoft) to set up a title clash with O’Gorman, seeking a first title for departing coach Mike Begeman.
“The ultimate compliment as a coach is when teams play really hard for you,” says Begeman. “When you faced Mitchell, you needed to understand that their kids were prepared and that they’d come after you for 32 minutes. I always worried more when (Munsen) had less talent, because he seemed to get more out of those teams.”
After building a big lead, the Kernels held off a furious O’Gorman rally and held on for a 69-64 victory before an exhausted crowd of 7,000. Munsen hoisted the trophy for the ninth time, sending a roar through the Mitchell section and striking a chord for Eastern South Dakota Conference pride.
No one knew then that it would be his last championship, despite three more trips to the finals. His biggest disappointment came in falling short in the final game of his career at the 2012 state tournament, denying a storybook ending to a remarkable coaching run.
Those who knew him best, however, shake their heads at that notion.
“He did what he did and impacted many, many lives in a positive way,” says Ryan Miller. “If you ask me, it’s a storybook ending the way it is.”
Argus Leader Media city columnist Stu Whitney can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @stuwhitney