Duluth basketball coach influenced decades of playersFormer Duluth Central basketball players remembered Jim Hastings on Sunday as a strict coach who imparted his philosophy on them and taught them lessons that lasted a lifetime.
By: Rick Weegman, Duluth News Tribune
Former Duluth Central basketball players remembered Jim Hastings on Sunday as a strict coach who imparted his philosophy on them and taught them lessons that lasted a lifetime.
Hastings, who coached Central to three state championships and 541 victories in 31 seasons, died Saturday night at Solvay Hospice House in Duluth. He was 90.
“He was Central basketball,” said Duluth Denfeld activities director Tom Pearson, who played for Hastings’ final state tournament teams in 1985 and ’86 and coached the Trojans from 1994-2007. “As a kid growing up, you wanted to play for coach Hastings and that was the bottom line. You wanted to play for him because he represented what Central basketball was.”
Mike Zwak played on Central’s 1977 state runner-up team, was an assistant under Hastings from 1982-86 and replaced him as head coach for the 1986-87 season.
“He had so much influence over so many players over four decades — the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s,” Zwak said.
Hastings suffered a stroke and atrial fibrillation last spring, but he returned to his beloved lake home on Devil Track Lake near Grand Marais to recuperate. He went to a doctor’s appointment in October and was diagnosed with lung and liver cancer. He entered Solvay about 10 days before his death, said Barb Kresal, his partner of more than 20 years.
“(The stroke) didn’t seem to hinder him much. He had slowed down, but was still able to enjoy it up (in Grand Marais),” Kresal said. “He lived a healthy life and was never sick. He was a very, very lucky man.”
Hastings also is survived by four daughters. In lieu of a funeral service, a memorial is planned for May 3 at Hermantown Community Church.
Hastings graduated from Two Harbors High School in 1942. He played basketball at Minnesota Duluth, spent three years in the Air Force and coached North Dakota high school basketball in Mandan and Jamestown before coming to Central in 1955. He posted a 541-236 record and won state titles in 1961, 1971 and 1979, along with second-place finishes in 1969, 1977 and 1986. The ’61 team went 27-0 — the only undefeated Duluth team in history — and when he retired, his victory total ranked second in state annals and still ranks 16th. He was named to UMD’s athletic Hall of Fame in 1995 and the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.
He worked as a social studies teacher at Central and spent 44 years at Como Oil and Propane, staying active with the company in public relations until recently. Hastings also enjoyed trout fishing on the North Shore.
“He used to trout fish by the streams — that’s the way he always fished,” said younger sister Kathleen Leist of Two Harbors, who as a cheerleader used to cheer her brother on at Two Harbors basketball games. “He loved living up at his lake in Grand Marais. And he loved working at Como Oil — those guys were so good to him. He had one of the best lives until he turned 90 (last fall).”
Hastings first made his mark on the court with the 1961 team, which many to this day say was Minnesota’s best team ever. The team that included future pro Terry Kunze, Roger Hanson, Dan Howard, Chuck Bradburn and Chet Anderson stormed through the schedule until nipping Bemidji 51-50 in the one-class title game.
“We had some good athletes; we had three guys who played at Minnesota, playing basketball, baseball and football,” said Hanson, who later played basketball at UMD.
The next title came in 1971, when the Como Pontliana-led Trojans beat North St. Paul in the first Class AA championship and went on to top Class A winner Melrose in a special playoff game. In 1979, silky-smooth guard Greg Downing led Central past St. Paul Central for another AA crown.
In a 2008 News Tribune interview, Hastings was asked what stood out most in his career.
“I’ve been asked to name my best moments in coaching, or my best players, but there are just too many good things that happened to me,” he said. “I’d have to have at least 25 fingers and toes to list everything.”
What some remember most is an infusion of discipline that Hastings provided.
“He was an old-school, strict coach,” Hanson said. “You dressed nice and your hair had to be short. But he was a very good coach and a nice person.”
For Gary Madison, a sophomore guard on the 1979 champions, his relationship went from player-coach to friends in later life. The longtime area dentist even counted Hastings among his patients.
“Coach was very demanding — a disciplinarian — and wanted us to strive to achieve,” Madison said. “He pushed us a lot and we learned a lot of good lessons. Later on in life, it became more of a friendship and we went to games together or went to lunch.
“You realize with that discipline and dedication, good things happen. It takes hard work to be successful.”
Despite the tough approach, Pearson says he never heard his coach swear.
“Not even on accident,” he recalled. “I think that’s a testament to his character, to be around young men and be in heated games and heated halftime speeches and never swear once in four years I was around him.”
Hastings’ coaching demeanor impressed fellow coaching legend Bob McDonald, who closes his 59-year career this winter at Chisholm.
“Deep down, I thought I would like to be like him,” said McDonald, the only Northeastern Minnesota boys basketball coach with more career victories at 1,000-plus. “I don’t know if I could have copied him exactly, but he was always dressed well and had a discipline about him that commanded attention from his players, the fans and the other teams. I always appreciated that about Jim. If there were an icon that I would like to pattern myself after, it was Jim.”
Other coaches patterned their styles after Hastings as well. At an all-Central reunion in 2012, Zwak and Pearson discussed that with their mentor.
“We talked with him about some of the elements that influenced my coaching and Tom’s coaching,” Zwak said. “We say it’s the Central way, where we demand a lot of our players on the floor and have high expectations about how they act and behave off the floor. That stems from how we were coached by him.”