Don Larson – The Interview
By Joe Kerlin
Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
[dropcap][/dropcap]We sat down with head track coach, Don Larson, to talk about the new track facility, good coaching and success.
Tell us about the story behind the building process and the remodeling of the BSA.
“I started in Concordia in the mid-70’s. When I came here in 1979, then athletic director showed me a scale model of a domed indoor football stadium. It gives you an idea what his visions were. Back then there were already talking about that and this project really came about because we were originally looking at building a basketball facility, the original thought was ‘well hey, we’ll just put a big addition on the dome’ and there were kind of drawing that showed the addition on the dome off of the southeast corner at an angle, then a skyway from there to the Bison Sports Arena and then just redo the BSA do the track and things in there. The price tag was a little hefty. There was a concept to NDSU basketball facility down there in conjunction with the ice rink. Then we thought, ‘Well not a good idea to build a basketball facility that far away from the university.’ Because, I mean, how are you supposed to get students there? Here, students can walk across campus. Then we had the concept: let’s remodel the BSA. Just have it for basketball and then have track in a different building. It was technically only in recent years that the idea of building a separate building for track then redoing the BSA. When I say recent years, I mean, I’m sixty, so recent years isn’t a long period of time, but for you guys it’s an eternity. (laughs) We hosted the conference meet up here in 1980, track was in despair. We didn’t host another meet on campus until 1997, when the new outdoor track got built. That was also built entirely by private funds. Alumni and friends donating money to build the track. And you know the track is named after Fred Sr. His son, Freddy Jr., put in a lot of gifts and time, so the track was named after him. There were a lot of different entities that were put into that. Well, it was the same thing with this facility. It was built with private funding. And so to be able to have the loyal support of your alumni and friends to build a building of this magnitude is pretty significant.”
What makes this building a lot more convenient than the BSA?
“The scheduling for one thing, the fact that the BSA, there is less space. Basketball court on the infield and then your dealing with the bleachers that are constantly broken over there. Then just like this year would be an example of a complicated matter because the Summit League went to mirror scheduling in basketball, so you notice last weekend our women were home against the same team our men were playing on the road on the same night. It used to be every other weekend you would have a weekend with no games, now every Thursday, Saturday there’s games. And so that creates a nightmare in trying to schedule, you know in our sport when you have a just Friday or a just Sunday events. You can do it on a rare occasion, but there’s just not enough meets you can go to that are on the weekends, so your not really missing much for school or not competing on a Sunday. So one, for having a place to train. And two, obviously have a place to compete on campus. Well, people say, ‘what’s the advantage of that?’ It makes it so you’re not traveling all of the time, you’re not missing as much class time. Then you having some ownership and things like that. It doesn’t matter what level, high school, college or professional, you have to be a good road team too. If you want to have a good program, you have to be able to win on the road. But it is nice to have a place like this.”
What are some of the challenges with being a track coach at a University where so many other sports are important?
“A lot has to do with the philosophy of your administration towards your program. One of the huge advantages of being in this program is that the assistance. You know, we have had great assistants through the years, but this is the largest collection of, not just quality coaches, but of people. Justin (St. Claire) having joined us a year ago and Stevie (Keller) has been with us for what it seems like forever now. Its fun to his kids. They just had a new little girl, can’t wait to see her running around the track like mine were. Mine are grown. I have a Senior in high school the other a Senior in college. They grew up around Bison track and field. Kelsey is finishing at Northwest Missouri, just finished her volleyball career. And Kira will play for Nebraska next year, she goes to Fargo North. Justin, Stevie and Ryun (the women’s coach), Myron Loberg, he’s a volunteer assistant, in his fifth year here. Hall of Fame high school coach at Devils Lake, just decided to retire and move to Fargo. There are lot of numbers, but when you get people that, in addition to having the ability to coach, they have people skills. And the athletes have tremendous respect for them.”
What’s the one track and field event, that you can pinpoint, that’s your favorite to run?
“They’re all my favorite. Track is a really unique sport. There is a lot of individual sports when you think about it, but they are all doing the same thing. Like wrestling, they all wrestle, or boxing, they all box. When you have an individual sports from everything to the Hammer, running the 10k meter, and I think through the course of the years we have had some extremely elite athletes and had some athletes that my not be as talented, but I wouldn’t trade any of them for the world. All we ever ask is work hard, train hard both academically and athletically.”
You also coach Cross Country correct?
“I’m back to being the coach for Cross Country. The former women’s coach left and we kind of restructured. Ryun took over as the cross country coach for the men and women then I became the oldest manager in the world. It was the right thing to do at the time. I am back this year, although I did have an alumnus volunteer to coach that was instrumental in assisting and hes been around the program, Eric Loeffler, he’s been around training with the guys the past few years.”
Track and field and cross country have such long seasons, is it tough to prepare you runners for it?
“A strength coach asked me, ‘you start training when school starts and you go through finals and breaks. You even have some athletes competing in the fall and they’re still competing in June and July depending on US Juniors and stuff, so how do you manage that?’ So I said, first of all, you have to find kids that have passion. My attitude has always been, anyone can practice, but its finding kids that can lineup and compete and there’s a difference in that. I think that you have to give a lot of credit to everyone that is involved in your program from your full-time assistants, voluntary assistants, your upperclassmen. You work hard and train hard, but there’s times you just try to have fun, be light-hearted. It sounds cliché, but you don’t want to be hardcore all the time. I know that some people would disagree and that’s there coaching philosophy is to hammer away. Yeah, there’s a time to be serious. Most of all, the kids need to realize you have an interest in them more than how fast they can run, how far they can throw, or how high and far they can jump. There’s life as an athlete, there’s life as students and there’s professional lives. We want them to go on and be successful after they’re are done here.”
“Me personally, Homecoming week or when we went down to the cities, a bunch of alums came down there and of course all their kids. Seeing Stevie and Aaron, you know there both alums. It’s a family affair.”
“Desire’e was a volunteer, an assistant for years and then she was a, what you call, part-time paid assistant. Working in the private sector, our own children and they’re busy schedule made her involvement less and less, like this year she hasn’t really been involved that much. We met at the ’84 National Meet, spent a lot of time together at the ’84 Olympic trials. She had three girls that qualified for the trials in LA and kind of got to know her. I won the recruiting battle so we lived in North Dakota instead of Texas. (laughs) It worked good for us.”
“Fortunately, lucked out, had two kids that turned out to be “jocks.” Kelsey went to a division-two school, but it didn’t cost us anything for her education. With Kira, it’s a whole different game there. Shes a three-time defending state high jumping champion, two-time defending National high jump champion, first team all-state in basketball, Gatorade player of the year in North Dakota, Under Armor and Mizuno all-American volleyball player. By time she finished her Sophomore year, she had about 70 division one schools in the mix, narrowed it down to a couple, chose Nebraska over Florida. She liked Florida but it was too far, too humid. Our oldest daughter had a great high school experience too, she was a three-sporter. Had a great career, was heavily recruited by a lot of division two schools. She got a college education paid for.”
Talk a little about the tradition you have built here.
“We’re in this to be successful but to do it, you have to do it the right way. And the right way is with a lot of dignity and a lot of pride. People talk a lot about tradition but tradition is just what people think of ya. You have to it with character. And character is what you’re really all about. Do you really mean what you stand for? My two favorite team rules: No whining and be polite. Some kids don’t really understand that right away (laughs).”
“I started at Concordia in the Fall of 1976 and I came here in the Fall of 1979. Been here for thirty something years, you kind of forget after awhile (laughs). I was glad Bucky (Maughan) was still coaching because I wasn’t the oldest. But somebody said they added up the years of the other head men coaches and the other head women coaches and I had one group beat by like nine years and another group beat by eleven if you add up the years I have been here.”
“(Bucky) is retired, he is still raising money, but he’s done coaching. It was kind of nice when Buck was around cause then you didn’t feel so old but Bucky told me that just means you are getting old. But I sure as hell don’t feel old (laughs).”
“I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to be at NDSU. When you look at NDSU, and I’m sure a lot of coaches feel the same about their institutions, for me, personally and professionally the support you got from the administration and very fortunate to know a lot of the faculty members and a lot of staff people from not only our department, but from other departments on campus. Many of which I’m proud to call friends. Number of alums regionally and across the country have been so supportive of the program both financially and general support. Fargo-Moorhead has been a great place to raise kids. Met my wife through the sport. She was an all-American at Michigan State and then of course a coach at Texas when we met. The people that I have gotten to work with. The number of assistants and all the Mark type people. Trevor (Barry) is our new jumping coach just finishing up the paper work.”
You have been tremendously successful at NDSU, whats your secret?
“Staff. The biggest thing is your staff being able to get kids to reach their potentials. Having kids that are going to lineup and compete. Everything from your athletes to your coaches of the individual events and administration being supportive of your mission too.”
Whats one thing you can point at and are most proud of?
“That’s a difficult question. 9 NCAA post-grad scholars. Not too many people can boast that.”