Prep boys basketball: Hibbing's Joel McDonald hangs up his whistle
The former Bluejackets' coach spent 23 seasons on the bench and in 2021 guided the team to its first state tournament since 1989.
HIBBING — Back when he was a student at Hibbing High School, Nicholas Milani remembers seeing his then-coach Joel McDonald focused on a notecard while he was at his classroom desk.
“I would see him up at his desk scribbling away on a little index card,” Milani said. “I would walk up to his desk and say ‘Coach, what’s up?’ He wouldn’t let me see what he’s writing on that index card because that was his practice plan. Down to every minute of every practice, he knew exactly what we were doing at that time — I think that’s very Joel.”
Recently, McDonald, 49, decided to step down as the Hibbing boys basketball coach, a position he’s held for 23 years.
McDonald, who also spent six years as an assistant on the Bluejackets’ bench before taking the top spot, said it was a combination of things that led to his decision to step away from the bench.
MacDonald’s son Ayden, a two-time News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year, is starting his college basketball career at Augustana.
McDonald, who led Chisholm to the 1991 Class A championship under his father and Minnesota coaching icon Bob McDonald, played his college basketball at St. Cloud State. His mother, Darlene, was able to attend many of his games, but his father missed many of those games because of his own coaching commitments for the Bluestreaks.
In addition, McDonald’s own battle with bladder cancer over the past three years led him and his family to “prioritize things a little differently,” he said. He still goes down to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for monthly checks to ensure the cancer hasn’t returned, but the his health issues did factor in.
“A big part of it was being able to follow Ayden and Sioux Falls — the trip is a lot different than St. Cloud was for my mom and I didn’t see my wife Carrie making that trip to Augustana by herself,” McDonald said. “It came down to a family decision, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t at all health-related. With the things that I’ve been through the last three years have led me to take a little more inventory on priorities and the way life can throw a curveball at you.”
While McDonald had plenty of accomplishments on the court as a player and coach — he spent 15 years as Minnesota’s all-time leading scorer and led the Bluejackets to the Class AAA tournament for the first time in more than 30 years in 2021 — it’s the impact on players’ lives and the relationships he developed that stand out.
Much like his father, McDonald did things “a little differently,” requiring players to dress up on game days, keep their hair short and mind their behavior in school was held to a higher standard.
“We held guys accountable,” he said. “When kids mature a little bit and they come back and tell you how much that meant to them, it makes you feel good. It makes you feel like there’s a purpose beyond the season’s record.”
Milani, now the football coach and junior varsity basketball coach at Chisholm, said his old coach’s focus on “everything non-basketball-related” was influential.
“Setting us up to be better men rather than just better basketball players, I think, was always his top priority,” Milani said. “From my experience, I’m still friends with most of the guys I played with — I would say that’s his biggest success.”
Steve Battaglia, the head coach at Cloquet and himself the 1998 News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year, said he and McDonald had similar backgrounds. Both were college athletes and both grew up with fathers who were coaches. When Battaglia began coaching, he said he learned a lot from McDonald.
“He obviously played college basketball, I played college baseball and football,” Battaglia said. “You think coaching is similar to playing and it's really nothing at all like that and it takes a minute to figure that out. You take things in stride a little bit and I learned to tone things down and deal with the reality of the situation in terms of what kind of talent we have.”
McDonald said retiring after just 23 years isn’t really the way his family does things. His father coached at Chisholm for 53 years before retiring in 2014. His brothers Mike and Tom are coaches at Cambridge-Isanti and Ely, respectively, and his brother Paul coached at Vermillion Community College for 29 years.
“They’ve been going at it for a long time, but I feel good about this,” McDonald said. “I feel like it’s the right time.”
Battaglia will miss seeing McDonald on the sidelines next winter, but he supports his decision to step away.
“I’m happy for him and I wish him well,” he said. “I think it’s really cool he’s going to get away a little bit and be able to follow his son playing college basketball. That’s a great decision and I think he’s making the right call. He’s given a ton to basketball and he’ll still be in gyms, just in a little different role.”