Community college football: Mesabi Range coach Lysaker remembered as a people person
When Rory Johnson retired as Proctor's athletic director in 2017, it had been more than 40 years since he played football for Herschel "Pepper" Lysaker at Mesabi Range College. And yet, Lysaker was the first person to arrive at Johnson's retirement party.
Chris Vito credits Lysaker for helping him get started toward his master's degree and becoming a college baseball coach, which he is at Mesabi Range. Lysaker got Vito hooked up at North Dakota State, where the AD at the time was Bob Entzion, who played on Lysaker's Norsemen team that went to the Aztec Bowl in 1970.
Relationships were everything to Lysaker, the Mesabi Range coach from 1968-98 who died from cancer Feb. 15 at the age of 80. It's why he was able to get colleagues from across the country to don clown costumes and walk in Eveleth's Fourth of July parade every summer.
During an interview with ESPN after being hired as Minnesota Vikings head coach, Brad Childress mentioned that he "liked walking in the Eveleth Fourth of July parade with clown makeup on," said Vince Repesh, a former coach at Minnesota Duluth and one of Lysaker's longtime friends.
Childress made the candy-tossing march while an assistant at Wisconsin.
Eleven days after Lysaker's death, his wife of 56 years, Margaret, passed. Their funeral is Saturday at Resurrection Catholic Church in Eveleth.
The turnout is sure to be tremendous. That's because it's only a slight stretching of the truth to say that Lysaker knew everybody.
"If you met Pepper, he was your friend," Repesh said.
A three-sport athlete at Crookston Central High School, Lysaker played two seasons of football at the University of Minnesota, then two at North Dakota. A brief teaching and coaching stint in California preceded an apprenticeship at North Dakota State under Ron Erhardt, who spearheaded the Bison's transformation into a national power.
Lysaker came to the Iron Range in 1968 and never looked back. He amassed a career record of 153-107-1 while leading the Norsemen to three state championships, a pair of runner-up finishes and three bowl games. The physical education teacher also had stints coaching slowpitch and fastpitch softball, as well as track and field, at the college.
Lysaker had varying levels of success in those other sports. He led the slowpitch softball team to a state championship in 1987, but other springs weren't as prosperous. He'd occasionally explain the struggles by saying, "The pitching machine won again this year," Repesh recalled.
As motivation, Lysaker was fond of telling his softball players, "Three more outs and it's happy hour, girls."
On the gridiron, the consistent winning made Lysaker a member of several halls of fame. He was the first inductee of Mesabi Range's athletic hall. And, in 2002, he joined his father — Herschel Sr., a legend in his own right, and for whom Lysaker Gymnasium on the Minnesota-Crookston campus is named — in the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Being a coach and educator, though, never was about the accolades for Lysaker, who was always "perfect" when asked how he was doing.
"Pepper had no idea what his record was; I'll guarantee it. Not that he wasn't a competitor, but there was more to it," said Vito, who was a student manager for Lysaker in the early 1990s. "What he bragged about was what his players went on to do afterwards. He wanted to know that they became good people, good family men."
That was the enduring lesson for Vito as he charted his own path in coaching.
It was always about the people. That's why whenever Repesh, and plenty of other coaches, were recruiting on the Range, they'd end up sleeping at Lysaker's house on Ely Lake, the one built by Norsemen football players, or so the story goes.
Johnson says Lysaker just had a way about him. He made others feel good about themselves. He and so many others, Johnson says, "loved playing for Pepper," who each fall would turn dozens of teenagers from "all over the place" into a formidable outfit ready to compete in the then-Minnesota Community College Conference and beyond.
"He took a bunch of boys and made 'em into young men," Johnson said.
That ability helped to explain some of Lysaker's success. Then there was the fact that he was, those who played for and worked with him say, ahead of his time. He ran the option offense before it became popular to do so. He was always learning, always striving for any little parcel of information that could give him an edge.
He believed there was always a better way of doing things, Vito said.
While he loved to learn, the innovative Lysaker also loved to teach. So if he happened upon the office of current Mesabi Range football coach Tom Inforzato, he was apt to grab a marker and hold court in front of the whiteboard.
"He was in his element when he got on the board," Vito said.