Fond farewell: Longtime Vermilion coach Paul McDonald turns to politics

When it comes to coaching longevity, three-plus decades is a heck of a run. Unless you're the son of Bob McDonald. "I would have to coach for 24 more years to coach as long as my dad," Paul McDonald said. "For me, it puts it all into perspective,...

Longtime Vermilion Community College coach Paul McDonald waves to the crowd before the 2019 Border Battle boys game at Romano Gym. (Jed Carlson /
Longtime Vermilion Community College coach Paul McDonald waves to the crowd before Tuesday's Border Battle boys game at Romano Gym. (Jed Carlson /

When it comes to coaching longevity, three-plus decades is a heck of a run.

Unless you're the son of Bob McDonald.

"I would have to coach for 24 more years to coach as long as my dad," Paul McDonald said. "For me, it puts it all into perspective, what he accomplished during his career."

Instead, the younger McDonald is getting out of the family business at a youthful 61. At that age, his father still had 19 years to go on the Chisholm bench in one of high school boys basketball's most decorated careers, which yielded 1,012 victories and three state championships.

No thanks, said Paul, who concluded his 29th and final season at Vermilion Community College last month. Previously, he had stints at Cotton and Tower-Soudan high schools.


McDonald was back at it one last time Tuesday night at Romano Gym, where he was tasked with guiding Team Wisconsin past a group of Minnesota boys in the 11th annual Border Battle all-star series. Before what became a 131-86 blowout for his club, McDonald was recognized in a brief on-court presentation.

Now, McDonald's focus shifts to politics over pick-and-rolls. Last fall, he was elected to represent District 4 on the St. Louis County Board, and started his four-year term in January.

Presumably, then, the profession changes but not the second-guessing.

"People told me when I decided to run for office - 'Geez, you don't have any experience in politics.' I said, 'Well, I've refereed and I've coached for the last 30 years, and I can't think of two better professions to become acquainted with being a politician,' " McDonald joked.

A methodical approach to preparation will suit him well, just as it has on the court.

"You try to do your homework and do your research, and make a decision," he said.

McDonald made the right decision more often than not at Vermilion. He started ominously enough, with four sub-.500 seasons right out of the gate, but the Ironmen didn't dip below the break-even line again until this past winter when they went 11-16, snapping the program's streak of 24 state tournament appearances along the way.

The 1976 graduate of Chisholm, where he helped his dad's Bluestreaks claim a pair of state titles, led Vermilion to three national junior college tournaments, including a runner-up finish in 1999. He amassed more than 500 wins.


And just as many memories.

The success elicited suitors and coaching opportunities elsewhere, but McDonald always has been content in Northeastern Minnesota.

"I looked at some things over the years, back in the days when my ego got in the way a little bit and thinking I could climb the ladder," he said. "But something always was in the back of my mind, that this was my calling. I was close enough to home yet far enough away.

"I love the Range. I've said this numerous times - when I went to the University of Nebraska (before transferring to South Dakota State), I vowed never to return to the Range. And as I got away and went around here, there and everywhere, I realized that this area is special."

The father of two daughters, whose wife, Tracy, has been "my rock," always made it a priority to teach "life skills through basketball." When his term as commissioner ends, McDonald will be 65. Definitely young enough to dust off his whistle and find a team in need of a coach. Perhaps, but McDonald is going to "take these next four years and dive head-first into helping people throughout St. Louis County."

McDonald, who wore numerous hats at Vermilion - athletic director, assistant football coach, instructor, director of intramurals, etc. - knows he'll have mixed feelings when a new season tips off next November.

"That's going to be when it really hits," he said. "If I need a fix, I know where to find it. I got plenty of relatives still coaching."

Familiar face


In the first game, Shannon (Bolden) Nelson made her Border Battle debut as coach of the Wisconsin girls. Basketball fans may remember Nelson as a defensive catalyst on the dominant Gophers teams of the mid-2000s. Nelson competed in four NCAA tournaments, including 2004 when Minnesota reached the Final Four behind stars Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville.

The 2002 Minnesota Miss Basketball, Nelson coaches Northland Community College in Thief River Falls. She is excited about the job Whalen did in her first year in charge of the Gophers, who were 21-11 and advanced to the Women's NIT.

Winning is the best sales tool, Nelson said.

"So much of it is, can you get the first kid to commit? Fifteen years ago when we were playing, we wanted to go there because Lindsay Whalen was there, because other really good players from Minnesota were going to the Gophers," Nelson said. "It's kind of fun to see that trend happening again because there's such good basketball in this state.

"And I'm hoping it really kind of rejuvenates the state of Minnesota and gets people excited about Gopher basketball again."

Nelson led Northland to a national junior college title in 2014 and a runner-up finish in 2016.

Opposing Nelson on the Minnesota bench Tuesday was Kate (Madrinich) Brau, coach at the community college in her native Hibbing. Brau tallied 1,770 points and remains fourth on the career scoring list at Minnesota Duluth, where she played from 1998-2002.

Brau got the last laugh as Team Minnesota, which came in 1-9 vs. Wisconsin all time in this series, jumped out to a 23-0 lead in the first quarter and rolled 95-56. Olivia Lane, a senior from Pequot Lakes, totaled 19 points and earned MVP honors.


• Superior's Mason Ackley poured in 27 points and was named MVP of the boys game. 

Boys All-Star Game

Wisconsin 60-71-131

Minnesota 44-42-86

Wisconsin - Mason Ackley 27, Xavier Patterson 7, Peyton Buckley 18, George Scharlau 11, Hunter Phillips 11, Jordan Brennan 6, Logan Mulhern 19, Tyler Robarge 14, Sam Risley 7, Alex Schmidt 11.

3-point goals - Ackley, Patterson, Schmidt 3, Buckley, Scharlau, Phillips, Mulhern 3, Risley.

Minnesota - James Flicek 12, Joseph Stokman 8, Connor Bich 5, Stacy Washington 8, Jayden Ruberg 16, Jace Hansen-Cochran 13, Luke Lundell 7, Camden Berger 3, Jon Stimmler 14.

3-point goals - Flicek 3, Bich, Washington 2, Ruberg 2, Hansen-Cochran 2, Lundell, Berger.


Girls All-Star Game

Wisconsin 11-15-12-18-56

Minnesota 29-30-22-14-95

Wisconsin - Mackenzie Correll 9, Jessica Massey 6, Morgan Anderson 5, Alison Leslie 21, Bailey Reardon 4, Kailey Ketz 6, Emily Neff 1, Sierra Raine 4.

3-point goals - Correll 3, Anderson, Leslie 6.

Minnesota - Taya Hakamaki 15, Grace Kirk 9, Olivia Lane 19, Ava Hill 8, Allie Negen 7, Hannah DeMars 8, Shyanne Loiland 11, Allie Wojtysiak 13, Abbey McDonald 5.

3-point goals - Hakamaki, Kirk, Hill 2, Negen, DeMars, Loiland 3, Wojtysiak.


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