Hall of Fame comes calling
Gary Peterson recalled the time he nearly lost the hearts and minds of a basketball team. He was in his first varsity head-coaching job at Sandstone. This was before he’d taken that girls team to its first conference title in school history. This was during the rebuilding phase, and following a loss he lit into what was a fragile group not yet hardened enough to truly compete. They tuned him out. After a sleepless night — there are lots of those for coaches, he said — he understood why. And he never forgot it.
“They sent me a message,” Peterson said. “I’d been too tough on them. I had to remember it was just a game.”
Peterson learned the lesson so well he spun it into a successful 33 years of coaching. In April, Peterson was inducted into the Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame in Northfield, Minn.
A native of Barnum, Peterson, 61, currently spends his time representing the Fifth District as a first-term Carlton County Commissioner, as well as doing some substitute teaching and basketball refereeing around the area. The outlets provide good face time with his constituents and keep him in the areas that have been good to him: education and basketball.
“It’s always a surprise,” said Peterson when asked about his recent honor. “Nobody ever expects to go into a hall of fame that covers an entire state.”
He’s a kind and amiable presence, quite tall but not imposing and quick to laugh. He spent seven seasons at Sandstone (now East Central), where his girls teams found unprecedented success in winning two district titles in the two-class system. He went on coaching in Austin, Minn., where his teams won the bulk of his 376 career victories, including two state tournament appearances and a host of playoff highs and lows while competing out of the powerful Big 9 Conference.
But Peterson launched his career in his backyard, where he was once an all-conference player himself. Working under Russ Redetzke, Peterson coached the seventh- and eighth-grade team at Barnum right after finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He coached his brother, Robbie Peterson, and the rest of a talented collection of players that would go on to become unbeaten state champions in 1982-83.
He made an impact immediately. Sensing a group that thirsted to compete, he doubled their schedule from the typical 15 games to 30. He’d take those seventh- and eighth-graders anywhere and play anyone in the days before there was the proliferation of traveling teams. He recalled packing the Barnum gym once for an eighth-grade game against an equally gifted rival.
“I needed to find competition for them to play,” he said. “Those kids craved that.”
Lessons learned at Barnum taught Peterson that sports success starts young. He was among the first wave of coaches to dig deep into the youth programs and influence the players there who would later fill his varsity lineups.
“You couldn’t expect to get kids in 10th and 11th grade and turn them into players,” he said. “I brought that philosophy to Austin.”
Peterson took over teams in Sandstone and Austin that were regular conference doormats, accustomed to losing almost every game the schools played. It helps explain his 315 losses as well. Winning took time and cultivation.
“I looked at coaching as being a teacher,” said Peterson, who taught social studies inside the classroom.
Peterson is married to Barb and they’ve raised three children who have already matriculated through college — Gabriel, Amber and Brittany. Likewise, Peterson is proud of the fact that several of his Austin players, “hard-nosed kids,” he called them, went on to college careers. He counted eight or nine or more. The only roadblocks Peterson and those players couldn’t overcome at times were the other Big 9 powerhouses, including the likes of Rochester Mayo’s Miller twins, Kelly and Coco, two transcendent players who went on to WNBA careers.
“Some of my best teams never made it to the state tournament,” he said. “The Miller twins never lost a game in the Big 9.”
Still, while he might lose sleep over a loss, the Sandstone club taught him to never lose his identity over one again. He’s proud of the way his most competitive players moved on in life, too.
“They earned a free education through basketball,” he said. He still tracks former players’ progress through life and can go on and on about the people they’ve become.
For Peterson, he was always a Barnum boy. Austin is in Mower County, the only county in the state without a natural lake. Ten years before he retired from that school, he and his wife started planning their return home. They craved greener places and blue waters, he said.
In the spaces in between his many years there and here, Peterson made a pretty good name for himself as a coach.
“I’ve met a lot of friends coaching basketball,” he said, citing some furious Sandstone games against Randy Myhre’s Barnum teams. “Randy graduated with my wife. We had some big battles.”
Cromwell joins Hall of Fame ranks
Also inducted to this year’s MGBCA Hall of Fame was Beth Clark, who grew up in Cromwell, graduating in 1983. After high school, she earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, Superior. She was a four-year letterwinner in both basketball and softball.
Following college graduation, Clark coached junior high volleyball and basketball at Hermantown, where she was hired as a physical education/health instructor, and eventually was offered the varsity volleyball and basketball positions in 1988.
During Clark’s tenure, her volleyball teams won two section championships and participated in the state volleyball tournament in 1994 and 1995. Her basketball teams reached the state tournament in the 2002-2003, 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 seasons.
Clark coached both sports until the 2005-2006 school year, when she took over the Activities Director position at Hermantown High School in January 2006. Because of her responsibilities with the AD position, she gave up the volleyball coaching position but continued to coach the girls basketball team, where she just completed her 26th season.
Clark has compiled a 404-269 record over the last 26 years, and she continues to enjoy her time as a coach, teacher and mentor to students.
Clark has two sisters and one brother, all of whom played high school and college athletics. Her parents, Rita and Don Clark, still live in the Cromwell area.