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College sports: Holquist and Stromme to retire after a combined 75 years of service to UMD

Duluth couple started out coaching basketball before making an impact in administration.

After 75 years combined service UMD athletics administrators Karen Stromme and Gary Holquist announce retirement
Karen Stromme, left and Gary Holquist hang out with Champ, the mascot of Minnesota Duluth Athletics on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, at Romano Gymnasium in Duluth. Stromme and Holquist, administrators in the UMD athletics department and former basketball coaches, are retiring after a combined 75 years at UMD.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The Minnesota Duluth men’s and women’s basketball teams had just swept Bemidji State in their home finale Feb. 17 at Romano Gym, and everyone had already left, even the janitors, when Gary Holquist and his wife, Karen Stromme, sat down to talk in the place they had devoted so much blood, sweat and tears.

“We talked about what this place has meant to us in our life,” Holquist said, his voice choking up with emotion. “We talked about all the relationships that we’ve had with all of our student-athletes and people in the community, and we just thought that it was the right time and that we should step away now.”

“We both kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Oooohhh,” Stromme added. “And when we were talking, I kind of got this profound sadness, just looking back and forth. Oh my goodness, this is it.”

Holquist, 65, and Stromme, 62, made their UMD retirement official at a press conference at noon Thursday at … where else? Romano Gym.

“For both of us, it’s poetic that we end our career in that space,” Holquist said.

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Gary Holquist and Karen Stromme wave
Karen Stromme, left, and Gary Holquist wave to the crowd inside Romano Gymnasium on the campus of the University of Minnesota Duluth on Thursday following a press conference announcing their retirement from UMD athletics.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

A lifetime of devotion

Holquist and Stromme have a combined 75 years of service to Minnesota Duluth athletics ... 75 years, at the same place.

“I don’t know how often that happens in college athletics anymore,” Holquist said.

Holquist, a native of Marinette, Wisconsin, has spent 36 years with the Bulldogs, starting out as a men’s basketball assistant under Dale Race from 1986 to 1998 before taking over the head reins for 14 seasons.

Holquist has spent the past 10 years as an administrator, serving as UMD’s senior development officer. He has been influential in helping athletic director Josh Berlo increase the Bulldogs’ fundraising and scholarship efforts.

“I’ve been in college athletics for 47 years, and if you do it the right way, you do it 24/7/365,” Holquist said. “People always talk to Karen and I about our jobs at UMD. We never had a job here ever. We had a lifestyle, and that’s what it was.”

Stromme, a Duluth native and 1978 Duluth Central graduate, has been with the Bulldogs for 39 years. Stromme spent 21 seasons as UMD’s women’s basketball coach and is the winningest coach in Bulldog basketball history, compiling a gaudy 440-184 record.

Stromme stepped down in May 2005 to take a full-time position in administration and has served as senior associate athletic director for internal operations and senior woman administrator. Her scope and influence have gone beyond UMD, as she has extensive experience serving on national committees.

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“Even if you love something and you’re passionate about it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right time to make a move,” said Stromme, who suffered a heart attack on Jan. 31, 2021, but came back more vibrant and determined than ever. “We wanted to respect UMD and the amount of energy and passion and time it takes somebody to be really really good at this job. We kind of thought, ‘Are we ready right now?’ No, but it’s time, and now it’s somebody else’s turn to have this awesome job.”

Holquist and Stromme’s last official day is June 17. Stromme said she has been flooded by memories packing things up at the office, every newspaper clipping, trophy and photo with its own story to tell.

They informed their staff Wednesday.

“Talking to our staff, that’s when it hit me,” Stromme said. “These are the people you grew up with, they’re your friends, and then all of the sudden, your life is turning. Gary and I are really happy but it is very emotional, no question about it.”

Karen Stromme and Gary Holquist standing at a podium in front of an audience
Karen Stromme, left, and Gary Holquist acknowledge those in attendance at Romano Gymnasium on the campus of the University of Minnesota Duluth on Thursday during a press conference announcing their retirement from UMD athletics.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

From humble roots

Holquist, who went to the now defunct Milton (Wisconsin) College, where he was roommates with future NFL quarterback Dave Krieg, remembers when he first arrived on the UMD campus.

“I was surprised,” Holquist said. “I had been an assistant for some very good coaches. I worked at Wisconsin-Eau Claire for six years for (NAIA hall of famer) Ken Anderson and I came up here at 28 years old. I had been a seven-year collegiate assistant and all of the sudden, I realized that the head coach of the women’s program at UMD was 25 years old (he laughed), and got the job when she was 23 (and laughed again).”

Hey, maybe he could do this, too.

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Holquist became good friends with Stromme and her brother, Dave Stromme, a UMD women’s basketball assistant coach, who he said have “great basketball minds.”

Karen Stromme and Gary Holquist laugh
Karen Stromme, left and Gary Holquist share a laugh while standing at a podium inside Romano Gymnasium on the campus of the University of Minnesota Duluth on Thursday during a press conference announcing their retirement from UMD athletics.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

In a match made in hoops heaven (and Bulldogs heaven, for that matter), Holquist and Karen Stromme were married July 5, 2007, so they’re going on 15 strong years here.

While not a case of opposites attract, they’re certainly an interesting contrast. On one hand you have Holquist, who as a coach was so intense stalking the court that a fan in the upper deck at Romano could see his facial veins pulsating, about to pop after every bad call or lack of hustle. And then on the other hand you had Stromme, as warm and sunny and upbeat as a July day in the Rose Garden.

“You really couldn’t have one without the other,” said former UMD men’s basketball player and assistant coach Matt Hockett. “There were times I went into Gary’s office and Karen would come in and sit down and take over the conversation. There were times when I went into Karen’s office and Gary would come in and take over the conversation. I don’t know if there is a better dynamic in all of college athletics than what those two have brought to the University of Minnesota Duluth and Bulldog Country.”

Hockett said Holquist and Stromme were the inspiration for a motto he loves to use, “four for 40,” meaning when a recruit makes a decision what college they’re going to attend, it’s a commitment not just for college, but for life. The couple attended Hockett’s wedding and have stayed in touch.

Hockett was an overachiever, hardworking and unassuming, just the type of player Holquist loved. Holquist paid him back for the effort.

Hockett is convinced the only reason he got his first real coaching job — at 24 years old, and after being an assistant coach on a team that went 2-21 — is because Holquist called the athletic director and said, “You would be making a big mistake not hiring this guy.”

Hockett wasn’t completely surprised by the retirement news, though it doesn’t make it any easier. Still, he’s happy for them.

“That’s a huge loss for Bulldog Country. Oh my God, having played and worked there I can’t see that place functioning without them but they’re going to have to find a way,” Hockett said. “Words don’t do justice to what each of them meant to me both personally and professionally. Their impact on me, beyond the basketball court, was greater than what it was on the court. It was never just basketball.”

Karen Stromme and Gary Holquist listen to a speaker
Karen Stromme, left, and Gary Holquist listen as colleagues and friends deliver remarks inside Romano Gymnasium on the campus of the University of Minnesota Duluth on Thursday during a press conference announcing Stromme and Holquist's retirement from UMD athletics.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Stromme and Holquist reside in Duluth Heights and enjoy fishing trips to Lake of the Woods, traveling — they’ve been to the likes of Bali (Indonesia), Costa Rica and New Zealand — and their home away from home, their cabin in Port Wing, with spectacular views from their patio overlooking Lake Superior.

Stromme says they can even see “the antenna farm” in Duluth.

“UMD is certainly woven into all of our being but it’s not every part of us,” Stromme said. “We have adventure and a lot of things that we love.”

You can bet the couple will be spending plenty of time in Port Wing this summer.

“We’re not done,” Holquist said. “We’re just going to catch our breath for two months and see what’s the next step in our life. We’re always going to be connected to Bulldogs athletics, but what that looks like I’m not sure at this point. We aren’t done with our careers, but we need to catch our breath.”

And exhale.

Holquist reiterated his sentiment that it was never a job, but a lifestyle. He and Stromme were grounded by one simple thing, and that was putting the student-athletes and teams first.

“We’ve had the privilege. Any successes we’ve ever had were built on the backs of the teams that worked hard and labored for their success,” Holquist said. “We’ve constantly talked about how lucky we were to be around this place.

“In return we had to keep working as hard as we could to make sure we kept paying back this place for what it’s provided in our life. We showed up every day and loved this place. You battled and worked hard and got into arguments because you were fighting for the greatness that our athletic department produces all the time, and we wanted to have that story told. It’s been a work of love, it’s been a passion.”

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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