Ron Stolski, head football coach at Princeton from 1965 through 1970, announced his retirement Wednesday after 58 years of coaching, the last 45 at Brainerd High School.
Stolski, who had a 32-13-3 record at Princeton and two conference championships in his six years, was a head coach for all 58 years and finished with a 389-182-5 record, the win total leaving him with the second-most wins ever in Minnesota.
He coached at Kensington for two years after graduating from Macalaster College, spent a year at Slayton, and then came to Princeton in the fall of 1965. He moved on in 1971 to Park Center, a new school in the Osseo district, and was there until 1975 when he took the job of football coach and athletic director at Brainerd. He kept the job of athletic director until 2000 and compiled a record of 317-147 at Brainerd.
His list of accomplishments is a long one. He is one of only three coaches in the state who was a head coach for 50 or more seasons. He took Brainerd to the state tournament 11 times, won 10 section championships, had 10 section runner-up teams, and won 15 Central Lakes Conference championships. Stolski had four seasons where the Warriors were unbeaten and only six of his 45 teams finished under .500.
The 80-year-old Stolski will remain as executive director of the Minnesota Football Coaches Association, has been president of the Minnesota Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, and was a member of the board of directors of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. He is a member of eight halls of fame and in 2005 received the American Football Coaches Association's Power of Influence Award, an award presented annually to only one high school coach in the nation.
When Stolski came to Princeton in1965 he was following in the footsteps of Pete Finelli who had some good teams that included two players who went on to be starters at West Point. The first year was a tough one, with a 2-5-1 record and only one win in the Rum River Conference. But over the next five years he compiled a 30-8-2 record (.789), was 22-8 (.733) in the Rum River with two titles and an unbeaten season, and had an 18-game unbeaten streak.
He said in an interview with me in October 2017 that he had no thought of leaving Princeton. He had made good friends among fellow teachers and fishing buddies Chuck Johnson, Conrad Belfiori, Mike Skavnak and Ken Johnson. But he was asked by the athletic director at Park Center to apply and was hired over others who had applied. When the Brainerd job opened up in 1975 he turned it down the first time. But when Brainerd superintendent Bob Gross made another overturer, Stolski accepted and he told me this week the chance to be athletic director was part of the reason for accepting.
He came to his decision to retire about two weeks ago, he said Thursday, and It's been an emotional time. "I cried a lot the last couple weeks," he said. He had a difficult 2019 season, the team finishing at 3-6 and losing a couple close games. "That had nothing to do with it," he told me in our conversation on Thursday as he made plans to respond to the many emails he's received.
"I just feel like this is the time," he told Mike Bialka, retired sports editor of the Brainerd Dispatch who broke the story on Wednesday. He told Bialka that the program is in good shape and has a bright future. "You never think you're going to live to be 80, much less coach 58 years," he told Bialka. "It doesn't seem like 58 years to me. Every year is a new year - it's like the first year."
Speaking of the first year, Stolski, who characterized himself as a brash young coach when he came to Brainerd, met with freshmen players and told them that if they stayed they stayed with the program, they would be champions. Three years later that group lost 7-0 to Edina in the playoffs and Edina went on to win the state title, Brainerd giving the Hornets their toughest game.
"When you choose a life in teaching and coaching, you choose to make a difference in the lives you touch," he said Thursday as we reminisced about his years in Princeton. He said what he's most proud of now is hearing in the last 24 hours from former players in all walks of life. "My email has been going crazy," he said.
He met with Brainerd players on Wednesday to tell them he was stepping down, saying he has an endearing love and respect for all of the kids he coached and that Warrior football will be at the "very heart and fabric of my life." But he told me he will "always be a Princeton Tiger. I remember the character of the kids there. I remember the 18 straight (without a loss)."
A game that sticks out in his mind is a dominating 28-7 win over Northfield at Princeton in 1966. Northfield was from the Big Nine Conference, with schools such as Rochester, Austin,Winona and Mankato, a conference considered at that time to be the strongest in the state before the Lake Conference took over. "Don Hill, their coach, asked me after the game if he could talk to our team," Stolski said, being surprised that a coach would ask to do that. "But I said yes and he told our players, 'We play in the Big Nine and you guys are the best team we've played.' "
Another memory is of the final game of the season on a cold, windy night at Elk River in 1966 that was for the Rum River Conference title. Elk River players had their red capes on to ward off the cold and after Stolski talked to a Princeton captain, who then talked to the players, some rolled up their sleeves to show they weren't worried about the cold. Princeton won 6-0 in a classic struggle on a frigid October night, long before there was a playoff system in Minnesota.
He had many memorable games at Brainerd, of course, such as a 12-10 win over 3rd-ranked Cretin-Derham Hall in the 1990 state quarterfinals, and a 14-10 win in the last minute of the 2007 state quarterfinals over 6th-ranked Wayzata. There was an overtime win over 6th-ranked Centennial in the 2009 state quarterfinals, Brainerd scoring 14 points in the last seven minutes of regulation.
Perhaps the most memorable was a 13-10 win over 3rd-ranked Eden Prairie in the 2010 state quarterfinals that was ranked as a huge upset. I remember talking with an Eden Prairie acquaintance later on and he said, "They would never do that again." "Yes," I answered,"but they did that night." Stolski heard from lots of coaches around the state after that win.
Some readers may remember the name of Chet Stevenson, an all-state tackle at Princeton on the 1969 team. I believe Stolski called him "Chet The Jet" at the time. After being a starter at North Dakota for three years, along with PHS running back Mark Blaske, he ended up being the offensive line coach with Stolski for 44 years. He has also resigned.
When I interviewed Stolski back in 2017 after a win over over Becker, where Dwight Lundeen coaches and is one of the other two Minnesota football coaches who has coached for 50 years or more, I asked if he thought he'd be coaching that long. Part of his answer was: "As long as I think we can still do good things for kids I'll keep going. You do better when you coach for the kids. You need to teach life lessons."
As our interview ended Thursday afternoon, I asked Stolski what would be next.
"When August rolls around I'll find a field in Brainerd with kids in junior high and I'll coach," he said. "I don't remember a fall without football. It's a great metaphor for life."
PRINCETON SPORTS MEMORIES
Jan. 28. 1965 - Senior Dave Duncan scored 16 and sophomores Steve Cartwright and Tim Enger 9 apiece in a 51-48 loss to Ogilvie . . . A plan was announced in Mora to form a girls softball league for those ages 7 to 20..
Jan. 28, 1970 - Mike Barg had 18 points as Princeton rallied to beat Braham, 59-58, and then Pete Metcalf, Mark Jacobs andBargeach had 14 as the Tigers rallied to beat Elk River 58-53. Jacobs had 13 rebounds.
Jan. 30, 1975 - Tim Sautter won floor exercise and parallel bars, John Boik the side horse, Tony Burke the high bar and Jim Peterson the trampoline in a win over St. Cloud Tech . . . Brad Ekstrom completed a rare double (never done before or since in Princeton), placing in two gymnastics events in the afternoon against Tech, and pinning a 256-pound Cambridge heavyweight in wrestling that evening.
Jan. 31, 1980 - Jud Erickson won the 200 IM and 500 freestyle, although Princeton lost to Rocori in swimming . . . Princeton beat Foley 56-49 as seniors Todd Knutson, Don Andrews, Joel Johnson and Mike Doyle all scored in double figures, Knutson adding 10 rebounds. Knutson also had a PHS first, completing the first dunk in PHS history.
Jan. 31, 1985 - Goalie Butch Vanderhoff got his third shutout in a 10-0 win over St. Francis, and the Tigers (12-1) beat Pine City 8-2 as Dan Voce scored twice to get to 22 goals, one better than his school record from the previous year . . . Tom Blomberg scored 40 points in a 68-57 win over St. Cloud Cathedral. It was the second-best total in PHS history.
Feb. 1, 1990 - Senior Paul Sather, averaging 24.8 points, 11 rebounds and 4.4 blocks, was chosen to play in the state all-star basketball game . . . Princeton lost 60-56 to Concordia Academy in overtime as senior Rachel Brown scored 16 and sophomore Tanya Dorr 13.
Feb. 2 1995 - Mandee Young had 14 points and Sandy Thompson 11 in a 46-37 win over Mora. Thompson had 11 rebounds . . . David Morisset had 24 saves in a 7-0 win over Chisago Lakes. The team had six straight wins, including a 9-3 victory over Moose Lake as Jeremy Miller had 3 goals and 3 assists.
Jan. 27, 2000 - Chris Anderson broke an 11-year-old school record, winning the 100 butterfly in :54.53, bettering the :55.29 of Matt Bohan in 1989 . . . Ian McVey had 20 points in a 59-53 win over Sauk Rapids and Darrick Weissenfluh 11.
Jan. 27, 2005 - The girls basketball team beat Mora 52-49 as KayCee Dehn had 12 points and Lisa Patnode 11 . . . Princeton (9-7-1) beat Pine City 10-3 in boys hockey as Steve Sainio and Bryan Osmondson each had two goals.
Jan. 28, 2010 - Mariah Clarin scored 23 points to go past the 1,000 mark as Princeton beat Becker 60-46. She had 11 rebounds. Clarin had 21 points and 10 rebounds in a 61-48 loss to St. Michael-Albertville . . . Lydia Cameron won the all-around for Princeton in a gymnastics loss to Buffalo.
Jan. 29, 2015 - WrestlersTim Bialka (138) and Jake Pramann (170) won individual titles in the 18-team St. Croix Falls (Wis.) Classic . . . Buffalo beat Princeton 4-2 in girls hockey in the game that decided the Mississippi 8 title. Princeton was 7-1 in the M8 at that time and 17-5-1 on the season
Dorr is the former editor of the Princeton Eagle (2 years) and Princeton Union-Eagle (31 years), and has covered sports in the Princeton area for 52 years.