MINNEAPOLIS -- Some football coaches start their careers at a small school, try to build an impressive resume and move on to a larger school with higher pay and better facilities.
Mike Mahlen is one of a vanishing breed of coaches who have remained at their first and only coaching job.
Mahlen arrived at Verndale High School, fresh out of Mayville (N.D.) State University, in the fall of 1969 and never left.
"They threw me into the head job," Mahlen said following the Pirates' 21-14 victory over Nicollet in the Prep Bowl at the Metrodome Saturday. "I probably wasn't ready for it, but the fact the program was down, and the only place to go was up, was probably a good thing for me. You got to do what you wanted to do."
What Mahlen has done is mold Verndale Nine-Man football into one of the state's top programs. His teams have won two state championships and have made 11 appearances in the state playoffs.
The 55-year-old entered this season as the third winningest active coach in Minnesota with 250 victories. He and assistants Tim Seaton, Jeff Moore and Matt Jones have put Verndale football on a pedestal. The Pirates annually are considered contenders for the state title.
Mahlen said the elements of Verndale's success include player participation, community and administrative support and a veteran coaching staff. At a school with an enrollment of 96, where almost every athlete competes in three sports, Mahlen has found a way to win.
"You've got to get the kids out, and we get pretty much everybody that should be out," Mahlen said. "You've got to have the parental support, the community support, which we obviously have, and you've got to have a good coaching staff.
"These (assistants) have been with me, Tim and Jeff, for 13 and 10 years now. Matt came in this year, and has done a great job with our secondary.
"Football is a team game. It's also coached by a team -- one guy doesn't coach a football team -- more than any other sport. And, you've got to have support from those coaches. I don't have anything going on behind my back. We are all on the same page, going to the same place, just like the players are."
Halfback-safety Kyle Ashman agreed with Mahlen that coaching, as well as work ethic, is responsible for Verndale's success.
"We have a lot of farmers out there, so we're used to working," Ashman said. "In the offseason we go in the weight room. During the season we have a weight training class. That's a big part of it."
Tight end-defensive end Eric Bramer added that Verndale was spurred by last season's loss to Underwood in the Section 4 semifinals.
"A lot of people didn't believe in us right away," Bramer said. "They thought we would do what we did last year. It feels good to prove them wrong."
The Pirates may have to prove the experts wrong again next fall. They will graduate five senior starters -- Ashman, Bramer, halfback-linebacker Casey Finck, lineman Cody Lovelace and fullback-defensive tackle Josh Richter.
"We lose five horses," Mahlen said. "Our big kids are all going. We lose our two running backs, and we only started two sophomores on defense. We're definitely going to have to fill some spots. We won't have the running game we had with (Ashman and Finck)."
Mahlen is eligible to retire from teaching next fall and is uncertain about how long he will continue coaching. But it's almost incomprehensible to imagine him not roaming the sideline for the green and white.
"I probably should hang it up right now," he said. "If I was smart, I should probably walk out of here, but I like it right now. I like the kids. You see the kids coming up, we have some great kids in the sophomore and junior classes, and you hate to leave them. I'll have to see what happens and go from there."
When he decides to leave, Mahlen likely will go straight into the Minnesota Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
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