Polson’s coach Gunderson gets a well-earned break

By FRITZ NEIGHBOR of the Missoulian

Bob Gunderson retired this summer after coaching track and field for 35 years at Polson High School. He’s still teaching at Polson and will be an assistant coach with the boys’ basketball team but says he’s looking forward to spring break: “Everybody tells me how great they are.”

Bob Gunderson thanks Mike Ogden for introducing him to tapering, Mike Geer for going all Edwin Moses and Karen Gunderson for going to that wrestling match.

Everything that has happened before or since was pretty good too.

Gunderson says he has coached his last track team at Polson High School, or any place else. The 64-year-old figured three and a half decades was enough.

“I’m still teaching,” said Gunderson, who will also still be a boys’ basketball assistant to Brad Pluff, one of his former runners. “I enjoy the teaching part of it.

“Teaching without coaching is a lot easier. And I’ve never had a spring break in 35 years. Everybody tells me how great they are.”

Some of them were his athletes. A new century brought Gunderson and the Pirates to Missoula for a meet, but with the same old complaint: A couple of key cogs were on vacation.

The guy loves track and field, and even now he has a hard time believing he’s stepping away.

“It’s going to be crazy,” he said. “I think I’m going to miss it.”

When he got to Polson in 1977 – after teaching and coaching basketball in Havre, Chester and Plains – the high school teams practiced on a cinder track. Yet his boys still narrowly missed a state title in 1979 and won the State A crown in 1981.

For meets, he said, “It was not uncommon to spend 5-6 hours in preparation. You’d have to get the water trucks from the city to wet it down.”

“We just ran on the grass,” Gunderson added. “We wore a grass path on the inside of the curb, and that’s where we trained.”

But by the time he hung up his stopwatch Polson had an all-weather track (built in 2003) and three more state titles (boys in 1996, girls in 2008 and 2010).

If nothing beats winning, everything beats training on one hurdle.

“I hauled kids to Missoula and Kalispell for practice,” he remembered. “Sometimes on a Sunday. We went to Sentinel’s track more than anywhere else.”

It was at Sentinel, Gunderson said, that Geer made his greatest strides in a literal sense.

“Kids, if they got really good, get in 15 strides in the 300-meter hurdles,” Gunderson said. “He could run it in 13. That was what Edwin Moses was doing.”

That partly led to a tremendous turnaround at the 1981 State A track and field championships. The week before Polson had fallen flat at divisionals.

“We actually got our butts kicked,” Gunderson said. “Whitefish had 70-some points. We were in Butte and I was sitting in the middle of that field trying to figure out what went wrong.”

But when Gunderson starting doping out times from the other divisionals, he found hope.

“I told the kids I thought we could win this thing, and they were like, ‘What?'” he said.

Geer was a critical part, surging to wins in both hurdles as well as the high jump (clearing 6 feet, 6 inches), and leaping from fifth to second in the long jump on his final attempt.

Ogden was another crucial cog; Gunderson remembers the senior wanting to quit as divisionals approached. In the end he missed some workouts, but then placed second in the 400 and tied for second in the pole vault at state.

State came down to the 1,600-meter relay, and Ogden anchored a team that surged to the victory and gave Polson 44 points – two more than second-place Whitefish.

“He was kind of a wild thing,” Gunderson said of Ogden, who went on to get a doctorate in psychiatry. “He had some of the dangedest excuses for being late.”

But, Gunderson added, “I learned a lot from him. And we do a lot more tapering now than we did.”

You always remember your first, but “Gundy” has plenty of good memories.

The 1996 team, led by Cameron Cole, Kyle Wies and Jace Harwood, cruised to the State A crown, leading Gunderson to crack, “I’m expecting a phone call from President Clinton at any time.”

In 2008 Gunderson took over the girls’ program when Bruce Thomas stepped away, and Polson – which won girls’ state crowns in 2003-04 under Thomas – sprinted to two more championships.

Gunderson has been an assistant as often as he’s been a head coach, and he notes he’s had plenty of help from coaches like Mike Ellis as well as Rob Kelley, a member of his 1981 title team, and Jenny Brown.

“They never did a workout that she (Brown) didn’t do with them,” he said.

The workouts paid off when a youthful team that included Nicole Davey, Breanne Kelley, Sierra Pete and Loni Havlovick won it all in 2008 – and then came back as veterans to do it again in 2010.

“We had some really good young girls who never really got to all compete together,” he said. “Someone was always hurt. But they were just neat kids. I was glad to stick around long enough to coach them.”

Gunderson can take the good with the bad, including narrow boys’ losses in 1979, ’84 and ’95. Should he have let one guy run the relay, or maybe made another skip the 400?

“I’d run in the mornings and I’d think about all I could’ve done to make us win one more meet,” he said. “But you know what, when they’re seniors and they’ve qualified, it’s hard to tell them they can’t do something. It’s been fun.”

Now that part of it is over, though Gunderson remains the computer teacher at Polson. He has been married as long as he’s been teaching, which is 42 years. He met Karen at Montana State.

Their first date was at an intramural wrestling match. She was a stay-at-home mom until they became empty-nesters.

“She’s been teaching 20 years,” Gunderson noted.

Upon review, the two aren’t really empty-nesters: They have nine grandchildren to go with a son and two daughters. To that end Gundy looks forward to putting his new double-lawn chair, with the cooler in the middle, to use.

“I’m going to be watching a little softball,” he said.

And maybe a little track and field. It’s hard to imagine he won’t be hanging around some; old habits die hard.

“Rob (Kelley) and I have been going to breakfast together for 6 1/2 years, before meets,” Gunderson said. “If he still wants to go to breakfast, I’ll get up and go with him.”