Bob McDonald, the Chisholm boys basketball coaching legend who won more games than any coach in any sport in Minnesota history, died Wednesday morning at age 87.
McDonald, who coached basketball for 59 years — 53 at Chisholm — won 1,012 games and three state titles with the Bluestreaks.
He coached sons Mike, Paul, Tom and Joel — all of whom starred at Chisholm — and took the Bluestreaks to 11 state tournaments, winning in 1973, 1975 and 1991. McDonald also taught history, social studies and physical education for more than 40 years and was a track and field coach for 47 years.
His daughters, Sue and Judy, also starred in basketball at Chisholm, while many of his 17 grandchildren also became involved in the sport.
“It’s hard not to use the word perfect with him,” Joel McDonald said. “I know that’s not possible, but with how good of a guy he was and how morally strong he was and committed to his convictions to faith, family and his community — and I am sure he would be upset with using the word perfect with him — but I don’t think I could find a nicer, more honest man than he was.”
Joel McDonald said his father tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 19 and eventually moved from Guardian Angels Health & Rehabilitation Center in Hibbing to nearby Fairview Range Medical Center, where he died.
“Over the course of two weeks he seemed to be doing OK,” Joel said. “He didn’t seem to have anything wrong other than fatigue, but I think, ultimately, fatigue is what wore him down and tired out his body.”
Funeral arrangements were pending as of Wednesday afternoon but any visitation will adhere to COVID-19 restrictions, his youngest son said. An extended visitation throughout the weekend is possible or a celebration of life may be held next year.
“With (COVID-19) being something he suffered from, we want to be mindful of doing things the right way so it doesn’t become an event that causes problems for others,” Joel said.
Legend blooms at Chisholm
McDonald was born out of wedlock to Mary Perkovich at a home for unwed mothers in New York in 1933. He never learned who his father was when he moved back to Chisholm to live with his grandmother, though he later fervently believed that O.J. Belluzzo, the Chisholm administrator and basketball coach he replaced, was his birth father.
McDonald played basketball for Harvey Roels, who coached Chisholm from 1921-54, and later used many of Roels' philosophies while coaching four years at McGregor and two at Barnum in the 1950s and early '60s.
McDonald received a scholarship to play at the University of Michigan but left after one semester to play at Hibbing Junior College. After leaving Hibbing, he attended Macalester College in St. Paul briefly and then played basketball at Minnesota Duluth, where he led the team in scoring for two years and earned teaching degrees in social studies and physical education.
But it was at his alma mater where the legend blossomed, starting in the fall of 1961.
Joel Maturi, who later became athletic director at the University of Minnesota, was a 5-foot-9 forward on McDonald’s first two teams. Maturi says those years molded him into an adult.
“The thousand-plus wins and championships are how people are sometimes measured, but when you played for a guy like him I don’t remember the wins,” he said Wednesday. “And quite frankly, the two teams I was on didn’t win any championships. What I do remember are the life lessons.”
McDonald was a noted disciplinarian, who required short haircuts, nice attire and strictly-adhered-to curfews. He admonished smoking and swearing among other vices.
“He could undress you like nobody else but he never used inappropriate language,” Maturi recalled. “You eventually realized it was all for you, to make you a better person.”
McDonald says he instituted those rules — and stuck to them throughout the various generations — so the players could benefit in life, not just athletics.
“Sports really exemplify what society is; sports are competitive, society is competitive,” McDonald said in a 2015 News Tribune interview before being inducted into the DECC Hall of Fame. “Young people have to be aware of the fact that their lives are going to be competitive.”
Maturi said McDonald sometimes would patrol the streets of Chisholm after dark to make sure players were adhering to curfew and even call their homes.
“My mother would answer the phone and say, ‘Joel is upstairs studying.’ And he would say, ‘I want to talk to him.’ He wouldn’t even believe your mom,” Maturi said, laughing. “Some people didn’t accept that and didn’t like that, but you learned to understand that was the definition of who he was.
“He always expected you to be the best person of yourself.”
Titles and life lessons
McDonald's teams became a yearly contender, posting back-to-back 21-2 seasons in 1965-66 and 1966-67 that corresponded to a switch to a fastbreak offense and a full-court pressing defense.
The Bluestreaks qualified for their first state tournament under McDonald's tutelage in 1973, where they edged Melrose 53-52 for the school's first state title since 1934. That started a 77-3 run that ended with two more tournament appearances and another state title in 1975.
His two eldest sons. Mike and Paul, were on both championship teams.
“Some of the best games we had in those years were the games we had in practice,'' Paul recalled in a 2003 News Tribune article.
Like all the children, Mike McDonald went into coaching and has been at Cambridge-Isanti for more than 30 seasons.
He learned a lot more than just X’s and O’s from his father, even though hearing about avoiding temptation and being an upstanding citizen at both school and home could get tedious.
“He stood for all those positive characteristics,” Mike said. “Maybe as a young person you didn’t like it all the time to get that type of message, you thought you could do it yourself. But as you look back, I learned a lot of life lessons and I think the thousands of people that he impacted through all the years were impacted (by those lessons) as well.”
Though over the many years the elder McDonald may have adapted how to invoke his disciplinary style, he never lessened his convictions.
“One thing he never lost track of was those character-building things and his morals,” Mike said. “How he presented the message may have changed a bit, but the message never changed.”
Chisholm returned to the state tournament in 1981 and 1982, led by 2,000-point scorer Tom McDonald, and again in 1991 when they won a third title as Joel McDonald became Minnesota's all-time leading boys scorer with 3,292 points.
Tragedy struck in 1997 when Darlene, his wife of 43 years, was diagnosed with bladder cancer and died shortly afterward.
In previous interviews, McDonald said his wife’s death left him depressed.
In a stroke of fatal irony, Carol Tiberurzi lost her husband, Robert, in a plane crash outside the Hibbing-Chisholm airport in 1993.
A cheerleader at Chisholm, Carol had gone to the prom 48 years earlier with McDonald. On Labor Day weekend in 1999, the pair attended Side Lake Chapel Catholic Church separately, grabbing the last two seats at the back of the church.
“I just felt vibes,'' Carol said during a 2003 interview. “There was no doubt that God was sending me a message.
“I really only wanted to talk to him on the telephone, that was as far as I was going to go. He said, `Would you like to go out for lunch?' I said, `I don't want to get married,' and he said, `How about lunch?' ''
They eventually married in June 2000 in a hospital intensive care unit, two days after Bob underwent colon surgery.
McDonald went as far as moving to neighboring Hibbing, Chisholm's biggest rival, to live in Carol's two-bedroom brick house.
Father and family man
McDonald retired in 2014, a couple months after compiling his momentous 1,000th victory.
In his retirement, he enjoyed watching his grandchildren play basketball and often painted landscapes of his visits to Dubrovnik on the Croatian coast.
When his former players achieved a milestone, McDonald would reach out to them and share his best wishes as he did when Maturi went into the DECC Hall of Fame.
“And we remembered him,” Maturi said. “Whenever I moved to a different position, he would congratulate me. He even came down to the press conference here (in Minneapolis) when I was named the athletic director (at Minnesota) and made an appearance at the DECC Hall of Fame. Coach did that for lots of people, and that’s just a measure of the way the man was.”
McDonald’s win total is likely never to be surpassed in state basketball annals.
“He leaves a legacy, no doubt,” his son Mike said.
But it was the father and family man who was remembered Wednesday.
Joel McDonald, who has battled bladder cancer and underwent major surgery this summer to replace his bladder, had been at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the previous two days before making it back to Hibbing late Tuesday to say his goodbyes.
On Wednesday, he was receiving nonstop texts and emails from former players and rival coaches expressing their condolences.
“I think that’s the proof of his legacy, just how far his influence reached over his career as a coach and a teacher,” Joel said. “He talked the talk and walked the walk so to speak. That’s why I’m not afraid to use perfection with him simply because I am amazed he had the ability to do that. I am in awe at the person that he was.”