He's described as unconventional, intense and demanding. Controlling is another term thrown around.
But Staples-Motley Cardinals cross country coach Gene Mattila is also innovative, passionate and, most important, successful. Mattila doesn't care what other people think of him or how he coaches. As long as his teams are winning, you can call him anything you want.
And my, how the Cardinals are winning.
In his nine years of coaching the Cardinals, his boys' teams have won seven Class 1A state championships, including a third straight Saturday. The girls, who placed third in 2001 and second in 2002, won their first state title Saturday. It is the first time since 1981 that a school captured both cross country titles in the same year.
A different kind of coach
There's one description of Mattila's coaching style everyone agrees on: It's unique. He will use any means necessary to get the most from his athletes. He studies videotape and researches training methods. He straps heart rate monitors on his runners so they'll run at a certain pace.
A football coach for many years, Mattila had to learn as much as he could about running. Eveleth-Gilbert coach and longtime friend Jon Wagner marvels at how Mattila researches the sport.
"When Gene got into the sport he wondered how many steps a runner should take," said Wagner. "Should he take a long stride or a short stride? So he studied videotapes of Olympic runners and counted the number of steps they took per minute. He figured out what the stride length should be and what the rhythm should be. Then he had his runners do that.
"Most of us think, 'That's neat to do but I wouldn't do it.' He actually does it."
St. Cloud Cathedral coach Fred Rupp has seen three of his boys' teams finish a distant second to S-M at the state meet. Rupp said the Cardinals do things their own way.
"Gene has some interesting traditions," Rupp said. "They don't show up to the starting line until the last minute and they don't hang around with all the other teams. Those are things that he uses to motivate his runners.
"Gene has a coaching style that's different from most of us in terms of how he trains his kids. And it works."
The Cardinals wouldn't be as successful if their runners didn't believe in what their coach tells them. But Mattila points out that his system wouldn't work if he didn't have the athletes to execute his plans.
"I don't think we could do what we're doing if the kids didn't have the courage to step up to the plate," said Mattila. "It does take a lot of courage to deal with somebody like me. They believe in what we're doing and that there's a purpose behind everything we do."
Demanding, but fair
It takes a special type of athlete to run for the Cardinals. First, they have to be able to endure gut-wrenching practices. Second, they have to be able to endure their coach's demands.
Luke Grandlund, a 2001 S-M graduate, helped win a number of state titles for Mattila. Practices were designed one way: Punch the time clock and get to work.
"When you're in practice," Grandlund said, "you're there to work. You're not going to be slacking at all. Coach Mattila has a saying that he always told us. 'Practice isn't going to be fun, it's not supposed to be fun. What's fun is winning.'"
Wagner also believes practice is where Mattila builds his championship teams.
"Gene knows that if you progressively work an athlete, their body responds by being able to handle more work," said Wagner. "A lot of us in the coaching fraternity look at that and say, 'Well, that's more than we ever do.' But if you do it properly and do it the right way you can make it work and Gene has."
Ask any current or former Cardinal if Mattila is demanding and you'll get a resounding "yes." Mattila won't argue with that.
"I think I'm different from most other coaches," said Mattila. "I don't believe you should expect a kid to show up on time. I don't think you should expect a kid to work hard in practice. I don't think you should expect the kids to live and die cross country.
"I demand it. Period. If you don't want to deal with those demands you shouldn't be in the program."
So far those demands have been met. Eight state championships in nine years proves that.
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