VERNDALE, Minn. — Minnesota’s all-time winningest high school football coach is nowhere near ready to hang up his whistle.
Verndale head football coach Mike Mahlen became the first coach in state high school history to win 400 games on Wednesday, Oct. 16, as his Pirates defeated Rothsay 44-6 in their regular-season finale.
After 51 years of coaching, with a career that spans back to 1969 when he took over the head job as a 20-year-old, the now 71-year-old Mahlen is still going strong with no end in sight.
He is one of three active coaches in Minnesota who have been coaching for at least 50 years. The trio makes up the top three in all-time wins. Brainerd’s Ron Stolski is in his 58th year and is second in all-time wins with 388, while Becker’s Dwight Lundeen is in his 50th and is third all-time with 366 wins.
“Everybody asks me when I’m going to retire,” Mahlen said. “When I get sick of going to practice, then I’ll retire. The games are always fun, the game is still enjoyable to me. I’m still looking down at the seventh-and-eighth grade and the fourth-and-fifth grade and saying who’s going to be my quarterback coming up. What kind of players do we have. If I’m blessed enough to keep coaching, I’ll keep coaching as long as I can. It helps keep a guy young.”
If wins and losses are any indicator, there’s no reason for the long-time head man to step aside. This year’s Verndale squad posted a 7-1 regular season mark and is the No. 3 seed in the Class 9-man, Section 4 playoffs beginning Tuesday. It opens the tournament by hosting sixth-seeded Ortonville (3-5).
But wins and losses are not everything to Mahlen.
“I didn’t set out to set records,” he said. “That is not the biggest part of it. The biggest part of it is the different players I’ve coached over the years and to see them go on and become successful young men and women — we’ve had girls go through this program too. That’s the biggest joy I see out of it. Obviously it’s great to win. It beats losing. But it isn’t the sole reason I’m coaching.”
Many of those players were at Wednesday’s game to congratulate Mahlen on his milestone win. And many more have reached out to him from afar via phone call, email and text message.
“That’s fun and it’s nice to hear from those guys,” Mahlen said. “Most of them say they really remember playing and they really enjoy playing and being a part of it. Those kids are all a part of this. It’s not just this year. They’re all part of being responsible for that record. It’s the community of Verndale. The school system and the parents. They’ve all bought into the program and helped out over all these years. The record belongs to them as much as me.”
Two of those players that Mahlen coached have had a hands-on responsibility with the football program as assistant coaches for about the last 15 years. Defensive coordinator Greg Johnson and defensive assistant Lance Edin both played for Verndale before joining Mahlen’s staff. And assistant coach Jeff Moore — who has been on Verndale’s staff for 25 years — played against Mahlen’s Pirates in high school at Bertha-Hewitt.
Prior to his current staff, Mahlen had near-constant turnover in his assistants. For his first 16 years, he says, he only had one assistant and he had a new one every other year.
“It’s been a lot easier on me the last 15-20 years to have those good assistants and have them there for awhile,” Mahlen said. “You’re able to lean on them and give them responsibilities. When they’re coming and going every year, you don’t give them those responsibilities.”
In his 51 years, Mahlen's record is 400-123-3. The first of those three ties is the one game the coach says sticks out in his memory ahead of any other game he coached. All the way back in the first game he ever coached in 1969, his Pirates tied Clarissa 0-0 and neither team even came close to scoring.
“Neither team crossed the other team’s 30-yard line,” Mahlen said. “And I thought what am I getting in for. So it was quite a start. I still remember that first game.”
The scoring has increased for his Pirates in the intervening five decades — this year’s team averages 35.75 points-per-game and scored 50-or-more points three times. But the coach says not that much else has really changed in his time coaching. Even when Verndale moved from 11-man football to 9-man 16 years into his career, he says it wasn’t all that different.
“It’s still football,” he said. “You’re still just blocking and tackling. There’s just two fewer guys out there.”
The student athletes, he said, have also pretty much always been the same, and he treats them the same way he always has. As long as he treats his players with respect, Mahlen said, they reciprocate that respect. And that’s how it’s always been.
“Everybody seems to think the kids are getting worse,” Mahlen said. “But I think they’re getting better. Some years you’ll have a group that’s just outstanding and then you’ll have a couple years with kids that aren’t quite there. But I’ve never had a bad experience with any kids.”