Legends of the ‘fall’ return to coaching

Hall of fame football coach George Thole stepped out of retirement this fall to coach an eighth-grade football team at Stillwater Junior High School. The legendary coach had not patrolled the sidelines since 1999. (Gazette staff photos by Stuart Groskreutz)
Hall of fame football coach George Thole stepped out of retirement this fall to coach an eighth-grade football team at Stillwater Junior High School. The legendary coach had not patrolled the sidelines since 1999. (Gazette staff photos by Stuart Groskreutz)

Tomorrow’s Stillwater football players received some old-school instruction this fall courtesy of hall of fame coaches George Thole and Jerry Foley.

The duo that helped build the Ponies’ program into a three-decade state power starting in the 1970s came out of retirement to guide the Stillwater Red eighth-grade football team at Stillwater Junior High School. Coaching players who weren’t even born the last time they patrolled the sidelines, Thole and Foley relished the opportunity for one last coaching hurrah.

“It was kind of thrilling because Jerry I and were very close in those 29 years we coached together and they were great years,” Thole said. “I really enjoyed my association with him and he’s one of the best.”

Jerry Foley
Jerry Foley

“It was good to put an exclamation point on our years together,” Foley added.

Those prior years together ended in 1999 following a run of 29 remarkable seasons in which the Ponies won nearly 80 percent of their games and captured four state championships to go along with 12 region/section titles and 13 conference crowns. Those achievements are even more impressive when you consider the school’s 33-88-4 record under three different coaches in the 15 seasons prior to Thole’s arrival in Stillwater as head coach in 1971.

Thole and Foley, who was his trusted offensive coordinator for 29 seasons, provided additional experience — and a track record that would leave all but a few varsity programs in the state green with envy — to a coaching staff that also included Rich Keller, Jason Roettger, Tony Polzin, Hans Larson and Nick Lee.

“Obviously I hadn’t coached except for an all-star team for 14 years, but what you have in Jerry and guys like Keller and Hans and others who played for us like Roettger and Polzin, is that I think we worked and played off each other pretty well,” Thole said. “Having that particular bunch of coaches around made it easier than if I had to work with people I hadn’t been around before.

“These guys probably had less contempt for me than a bunch of strangers or another crew might,” Thole quipped. “Some of the kids this year, their dads played for us and that was thrilling. I don’t plan on ever coaching again because I forgot how much energy it takes. Some days I was Woody Hayes and some days I was Woody Allen when I was out there.”

George Thole
George Thole

The eighth-grade coaching newbies provided a walk down memory lane for Bryan Venske, whose son Cody is among a group of six players with fathers who played football for the Ponies during the program’s glory years. The other players whose fathers played for Thole and Foley included Nick Gag (Rob), John Keller (Rich), Mark Roettger (Jason), Kevin Thole (Eric) and Nick Polzin (Tony).

“You’d hear some of the catch phrases (Thole) would say back then and the teaching skills you would catch were the same as what I was taught,” Bryan Venske said. “Cody would come home all the time and talk about what he learned, that was nice to hear.”

The elder Venske said Thole has perhaps mellowed a tad since turning 74, but showed no loss of enthusiasm or desire to win.

“Just the excitement and how excited he would get is the same when you’d watch him on the sidelines,” Venske said. “You could see the blood flowing in him again, probably not quite as much as at the high school level, but you could see the blood was flowing in him.”

Thole didn’t dispute that assertion.

“Was I cracking the whip as much? Yeah they heard my voice, but when I was the loudest it was always with praise,” Thole said. “I have a loud voice and I don’t apologize for that. It wasn’t always praise, obviously, but I want to make darn sure we were heard. I think from the feedback we got most of the kids had a very enjoyable experience. Let’s put it this way, we had an awful lot of fun.”

The message was received, according to Cody Venske.

“He’ll tell you what you’re doing wrong,” Cody Venske said. “They get to the point and (Thole) wants stuff done right. If it’s not done right he’ll tell you — and that if you hesitate you lose, he made that really clear.”

Jerry Foley
Jerry Foley

They were firm, but fair, said Jack Still, who said he enjoyed the season immensely.

“I feel like they always had a sense of urgency and would just get it done,” Still said. “Coach George and coach Foley taught me as much about life as they did about football. They gave me a lot of good lessons to learn.

“Coach Thole would chew your butt, but at the end of the day it always grew back. He would always have a compliment for every (firm) thing he said to you.”

The season even offered a few surprises, especially in the wake of a one-point loss against Forest Lake in the season finale to finish with a 9-1 record, which they both admitted gnawed at them more than they would have thought at the time.

“Yeah it did, I was amazed,” Foley said. “I said to George, you think you’d get over that type of thing, but some of the losses stick in your mind more than those victories.”

“Has it grinded on me a little bit? It wasn’t like getting beat at the Metrodome, but yeah, I thought that loss could have been a win, it was that kind of game,” Thole said. “It went the other way, but I think we handled it pretty well. You do the best you can and move on.”

The players and coaches both learned some things along the way.

11-13 spo-fb Thole 4Web“It was a fun experience for us and we learned a lot,” Thole said. “I learned that eighth graders and 12th graders aren’t the same guys, but I was a little bit surprised and very pleased that they were far more coachable than I imagined they would be. They were also willing to work. It was fun and I had a good time. I don’t have the energy to do it again, but I think Jerry and I sure as heck put our hearts and souls into it. We didn’t short change them.”

“I’m 76, holy man,” Foley added. “I don’t know if I could handle two-a-days anymore. At least with this junior high thing we didn’t have film and there was no scouting report so we didn’t know what we were up against, whereas when we were coaching high school we always had that.”

Knowing the importance of a strong feeder program to later success at the varsity level, the coaches remained focused on the big picture. And while winning remains the first priority, they were able to accomplish that while ensuring playing time for all players. Coaching these players should also make following the Ponies even more interesting going forward.

“I don’t know any kids on the (current varsity) team,” Foley said. “In a few years I’ll know some of these kids. Hopefully the kids learned a few things and will help out the Pony football program, that’s what it is all about.”

“I hope they all go on and lead the Ponies back to the Holy Grail,” Thole said. “We were running an offense that was totally foreign to both of us, but I think we ran it well. We had an option play in there and put in the hard dive so that gave us a pretty good package, but we ran the plays that (Ponies) coach Beau LaBore told us to run. That was our primary offense and we ran his two favorite plays quite often, which is what we should be doing. It’s not about us at this point, it’s about the Ponies. That’s why we all wear red jerseys.”


Contact Stuart Groskreutz at [email protected]