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January 04, 2011 10:00 PM

Always A Coach

Mitchell, SD

The game of basketball has only been around for 110 years. But Gary Munsen has lived and breathed the sport for more than 40.

The Mitchell High School basketball coach is still going strong at age 68, well past retirement age and well into the record books, recently notching his 600th career victory for the Kernels.

You can hear it in his voice.  Gary Munsen puts more air on the court than what's needed to inflate the ball 

"He really pushes discipline," Mitchell senior forward Nick Young said. "Practices are hard every day and he makes you get after it and that's why he's successful. He pushes discipline and it pays off in the end."

Since taking the Mitchell boys head coaching job in 1974, the end for 32 of Munsen's 37 seasons has been the state tournament. And nine of those appearances have ended in championships. Couple that with more than 600 career victories for the Kernels and paying the price seems to have its rewards. 

"We get there because of the kids," Munsen said. "It's not all about me or about the coaching staff, it's about the kids and how dedicated they are and how hard they work to achieve that goal every year."

Munsen says there isn't any particular team that stands out over the course of his coaching career, but there's definitely one player: NBA journeyman Mike Miller.

"He'd come and get my keys at 10:30-11:00 at night and want to go shoot, over the weekends, Sundays, it didn't make a difference," Munsen said. "It was just shoot, shoot, shoot and be in the gym. I knew he was a good player."

Yet despite Miller's success, Munsen knows he'll never coach another like him. It's not meant as a sign of disrespect toward his current team, it's just the reality of the basketball flow.

"They're only going to play so long," Munsen said. "They're not all Mike Millers, they're only going to play so long. Whether they're fortunate enough to play in college or not, in four years, they have to get a job when they're 22 or 23."

It's that understanding that makes Munsen's coaching so unique. He still preaches fundamentals in an age where style often trumps substance. Some call it old school, but his players call it like it is.

"He just knows how to work his teams," Mitchell senior guard Ryan Yackley said. "He's a good coach, he knows how to coach his teams to win things and he does such a good job with that. We've fallen into that, knowing what his role is as a coach and what our role is as players and we're just kind of falling into that."

"I think I've become a better coach every year," Munsen said. "But I can still learn. It's amazing, I'll go to camps and I'll do this or that and I'll go to clinics in the summertime. It might be the same old thing that I heard 20 years ago, but you can always learn something about the game or about life in general."

Coach Munsen says his experience over the years has undoubtedly helped him connect with his players, class after class. All they need to do is look up at those banners for proof of his success.

"It's good to be a part of that tradition," Yackley said. "That Mitchell Kernel tradition and that's just a great feeling. And me coming in to this thing is just a great deal."

"My older brother played in this before I came and he gave me a little idea on what it was about," Young said. "And it was everything I expected. It was hard, but it was good though. It makes you a better player."

Yet all the accolades and championships pale in comparison to what Munsen calls the biggest victory, seeing his kids move on to better things.

"I like it when kids write to me and tell me, 'hey, instead of going to a party here at college, I stayed and studied because I want to become a doctor or a dentist,'" Munsen said. "When they write and say that, that's pretty cool. I appreciate that as much as anyone hitting a three-pointer to win a basketball game as far as I'm concerned."

But soon, there won't be any more kids to write him letters. Despite many thinking he would never leave the bench, Munson says he's retiring after the 2011-2012 season when he turns 70. 

"I'm excited about letting somebody else take over," Munsen said. "I hope one of our assistants get the job and I told them I'll do anything you want me to do. I'll go scouting, I'll do this, I'll do that. The only thing is I won't be sitting on the bench, I'll be sitting on the soft seats or up in the corner of the bleachers watching. I'll still enjoy Kernels basketball for the rest of the time I live."

It's a game that has, and will continue, to define his life. But given the same look, it's the only shot Munson would ever take.

"I'll never regret what I've done," Munsen said. "It's one of those things where maybe I didn't have a nice house or a nice car, but I affected some student-athlete becoming a better person and that's what it's all about."

So, it doesn't really matter what play is called. The bounce of the ball and the bounces in life share the same court.

Back when boys and girls basketball were played in separate seasons, Munsen actually coached Mitchell's girls to three state championships. All told, Munsen has more than 900 victories over his career.

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