A new book tells the stories of Jim Musburger, who coached boys basketball in Strandquist and Karlstad from 1956 until 1979. The author is Jill Musburger Johnson, who gathered stories from Strandquist and Karlstad at the suggestion of Jim Musburger's athletes. Here are excerpts from the book ...
This is the story of a coach, Jim Musburger, who taught and coached in two small towns, Strandquist and Karlstad, in northwest Minnesota. Jim grew up in Bemidji, played football and basketball for the Lumberjacks and earned honors as a member of the state champion 1948 Bemidji basketball team. The stories told in the book, A Tale of Two Basketball Teams and Their Coach Jim Musburger, recall a golden era in small town basketball when a steady caravan of fan buses and cars traveled through blizzards, sub-zero temps and floods to pack high school gyms in remote Minnesota. Basketball, often the only winter sport in small towns, provided countless thrills and excitement for players, fans and coaches. The Warriors and the Rabbits are now history but their spirit and pride live on in all the athletes, coaches and fans, who poured their hearts and souls into every game. Typical of Jim Musburger's entire coaching career, his athletes and peers came through for him and ended up writing the book in their own words - poignant and often hilarious memories of "the best of times."
The book’s value lies in the culture and camaraderie that sports provided in small towns. As small towns and schools disappear, their stories are a valuable legacy in Minnesota history. It is important that future generations understand how sports united an entire community and cemented lasting friendships and memories. Our newspaper editor, Dane Nordine, said it best: Sports are a wonderful thing and there are some wonderful people in them. The stories are endless and I expect to hear many more now that the book is published. Here are a few examples from the over 80 stories submitted by athletes, coaches and fans.
Donnie Carlson ’57 remembers the first year Jim Musburger coached in Strandquist: Our previous coach would throw out a basketball, tell us to practice, and then leave for a cup of coffee downtown. When Mr. Musburger arrived in town, he took control and taught us how to play basketball. He made us work really hard and told us, “The way you practice is the way you will play.” Every boy in the school went out for basketball except for two, and they ended up the team managers. After the first win, we knew we could win, and after the second win, the town was behind us all the way. Chet Boen was left-handed and I was right-handed so we could shoot from both sides of the court. When we defeated Argyle in the sub-district on a last second desperation shot by me as the buzzer went off, our team gathered in the locker room and just hugged each other. This win was a dream come true. Coach made us believe in ourselves.
When Coach Musburger started the “S” Letterman’s Club, we were so proud to wear our sweaters with the chevrons and letters. We served potato dumpling dinners to earn money for the state basketball tournament and the whole town turned out to support us. Mr. Musburger drove the four seniors in his Ford station wagon down to Williams Arena in the cities. We all wondered how many hay bales you could put in an arena that big! Teammate Chet Boen ’57 echoes Donnie’s memories: We knew that he came from Bemidji and had played for Bun Fortier’s Lumberjacks and they always won the region and went to state. There was only one class back then.
Allen Rasmussen ’61 recalls when Jim Musburger started a baseball team in Strandquist: Some of the Polish kids did not always come to school in the spring as they worked on the farm during planting season – this was a real problem for the baseball team as many of the players were Polish, and they were really good at baseball. Most hailed from Florian, where Jerry Szczepanski’s dad, Stanley, coached the Florian Falcons summer baseball team, and Coach Musburger depended on him and Charlie Krantz, the mailman, for coaching assistance.
Superintendent Orcutt loaned me his ’58 Dodge(I was a sophomore) to drive out to the field, get the player off the tractor and take him to school for the game. When the Strandquist School closed in 1991, I gave the last commencement address, told this story, and ended the speech, “We were the only baseball team that showered before the game.”
In 1961, Jim Musburger headed north to Karlstad to trade in the Warriors maroon and white for the Rabbits blue and white. He coached the B team for three years and in 1966, the Rabbits won the district championship in thrilling play. Bemidji physician Neil Skogerboe ‘66 tells a story: Musburger moved up to A team coach when I was a junior. He frequently said we should play for the fun of it, and would add, “It’s no fun to lose.” Practices were serious but fun. We all knew he was good hearted, but he also had a temper that no one wanted to trigger. He treated everybody the same. In the spring of my junior year, after the basketball season, he gave me a key to the school and the equipment room. He told me to keep everybody in the gym or locker room. We played many hours of basketball - late at night, early morning, whenever we could get together. This lasted through the summer. I don’t think he asked anybody about this, but just did it. Many of the games we played would be fairly close after three quarters. Then we would turn up the tempo and run away with the game. We were in better condition than most of the teams we played. One game I was not being very productive and at halftime, he turned to me and said, “You have a hundred moves - use some!” I had a good second half - 20 points. He was a great motivator. We played in the District Championship game and won - only four turnovers, and we were off to the Region 8 tournament. Coach got a call from the Minneapolis Tribune and was asked to describe our team. He said, “We’re small - but we’re slow.”
Eldon Sparby, Middle River athlete and coach, remembers his first year coaching: When I started coaching as a rookie, I was competing against Coaches Musburger, Deere, Keller, Ron Ueland and Gary Schuler. Talk about jumping into the fire and not knowing a damn thing about coaching. I quickly learned that if you want to beat the best, you better figure out what they are doing to you and how are you going to compete. Coach Musburger was my first model who I tried to emulate. First because of my experience as an athlete and secondly, I appreciated his game coaching behaviors and the way he always treated his athletes with respect. You always knew what was coming when you played the Rabbits: sagging man to man and always taking away your best player option. The comment made about teams thinking they were playing against a zone because his kids sagged so much, is absolutely true. I remember scouting his team and seeing other teams trying to beat him with a zone offense. I believe he won way more games than his talent should have won. Coach Musburger’s teams always outworked their opponents and this proved a formula for success for him and I tried to do the same with my teams.
A Tale of Two Basketball Towns and Their Coach Jim Musburger by Jill Musburger Johnson is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Nordisk Helmsjold in Karlstad and bookstores.