Lasting Legacy

Polson hall of fame track coach Bob Gunderson
wins his fourth coach of the year award

by Aaric Bryan of the Valley Journal

"I'm a teacher first and coach second. Teaching is my vocation and coaching is something I get to do because I teach."

Polson track coach Bob Gunderson was awarded the Montana High School Association’s Coach of the Year Award in Great Falls Aug. 5. Now, he’ll just have to find a place to put it on an already crowded mantel.

This year was Gunderson’s fourth time winning the award and the 2000 Montana Coaching Hall of Fame inductee’s 12th time being nominated for it. He was also nominated for the national coach of the year in 1997.

“I think you have to be a motivator. You have to care for kids individually because there are a lot of one-on-one discussions that go on in track. They have their ups and downs and you have to keep them going,” Gunderson said, describing what it takes to be a good coach.

Though he has spent 41 years coaching high school sports, Gunderson still brings the same enthusiasm to the table as he did as an assistant coach in Havre in 1969. The 63-year-old father of three and grandfather of nine was told this season that he was over excited and admits to still liking to get “in the middle of it” when there is controversy.

“You get a relationship with the kids and so when they are doing well and have personal bests they get excited and you get excited. They’re actually extended family,” said Gunderson, who up until last year had an eight-foot high and 30-foot long wall dedicated to the athletes he has coached. “It’s hard not to get excited about kids who are excited…It kind of keeps you young.”

In his first year as a high school coach and coaching three events he had never participated in, Gunderson won his first of seven state championships. The next six would come in Polson, four of which when he was a head coach.

“Each one has their own story, they’re all different…There’s a story for every team,” Gunderson said before laughing as he seemed to recall specific memories of past championship teams while gazing at their pictures on his classroom walls Wednesday. “There’s a story for every team.”

Gunderson’s first championship as a head coach in 1981 may have come as a surprise to everyone, except for him and his team. After finishing fourth at divisionals, Gunderson told his team that they could still be state champions. Behind the performance of Mike Geer, who Gunderson said was probably the most outstanding athlete he has ever coached, and a surprise win in the long relay, the Pirates edged out Whitefish by a single point. Geer won the high hurdles, long jump and was the anchor in the winning long relay team. In the long jump, Geer edged out a Whitefish jumper by a half inch and in the long relay, the Pirates beat Dillon, a team that had beaten them by about 20 meters.

The Pirates scored 44 points at the state tournament compared to 43 at divisionals.

“I don’t think any team has scored more at state than at divisionals. It just doesn’t make sense to do that. I don’t think that’s ever been done in Montana.” Gunderson said.

Gunderson’s next title came in 1996 and with the help of a converted discus thrower. Cameron Cole came to Polson from Colorado as a lacrosse player. When Gunderson saw that the big-framed Cole wasn’t playing any sports in the spring, he recruited him to be a thrower on the track team. Near the end of Cole’s first season in a meet in Libby, Gunderson made all his throwers run sprints in the novice division. Cole won the 100- and 200- meter dashes. The next year Cole was a sprinter for the Pirates, winning the 100, 200, 400 and anchoring the winning relay team at the state tournament.

“We took this discus thrower we accidentally found at a track meet and he turned out to be the top sprinter in the state.” Gunderson said, laughing again. “That’s why we won in ’96. We already had a good team; he just put us over the top.

Unlike in ’81, Polson’s championship in ’96 came as a surprise to no one. They never lost a meet, scored over 200 points in every large meet and won the state championship by 27 points.

Gunderson’s next two titles came as the head coach of the Lady Pirates. In 2008, Gunderson and the Lady Pirates had to wait to almost the midnight hour to claim the state title. The girls’ state championship came down to the pole vault, but because of rain, the pole vault was moved back and indoors. The pole vault didn’t start until 10 p.m. and it wasn’t until 11:30 p.m., when two Lady Pirates were ensured a top six finish, that the Lady Pirates secured first place.

“We were a young team and just kind of built as the year went on. I could see the potential after the first meet. I told them if they kept working and kept improving they could be state champions,” Gunderson said of the 2008 team.

The Lady Pirates’ championship this year was a collective effort. Led by super seniors; Nicole Davey, Christa Red Crow, Loni Havlovick and Natasha Lafferty, Polson outdistanced Hamilton by 31 points, despite only winning one event – the Lady Pirates finished second in seven events.

While every championship is different, Gunderson said there are some constants in every championship team.

“There’s always that beast. There’s always that one kid. That super athlete that can compete in four or five events,” said Gunderson, who has coached 47 individual state champions, with many of the 47 winning multiple championships. “You can’t win a championship with just that kid, but you need that, plus you need kids that will buy into that every point counts.”

You also need good assistant coaches. Something Gunderson has always had in his 34-year tenure at Polson.

Gunderson likes to say he grew up in Montana. As a son of a superintendent, Gunderson went where his father’s job took him. He spent his high school years on the Hi-Line at Hingham High School, a school that no longer exists. At Hingham, Gunderson was smarter than his six other classmates and was valedictorian of his graduating class. Gunderson ran track at Hingham, but basketball was his sport.

After high school, Gunderson decided he wanted to be a teacher and stopped playing basketball. It’s a decision he has never regretted.

In his computer lab at Polson, amongst the pictures of his athletes and his coaching accolades, there is a 2002 Technology Teacher of the Year award and a 2003 International Society for Technology Outstanding Teacher Award.

“I don’t think you can be a good coach if you’re not a good teacher. I think coaching is teaching…most good coaches are good teachers,” Gunderson said, who has coached basketball or track in all his 41 years of teaching. “I’m a teacher first and coach second. Teaching is my vocation and coaching is something I get to do because I teach.”