Cromwell-Wright football coach is honored by his peers after unpredictable championship runSix games into the season, Jeff Gronner’s Cromwell-Wright Cardinals football team had just lost by the bizarre score of 8-2 to Isle. His senior-laden team had won just two of its first six games. Suddenly, football wasn’t any fun.
By: Jeff Papas, Pine Journal
Six games into the season, Jeff Gronner’s Cromwell-Wright Cardinals football team had just lost by the bizarre score of 8-2 to Isle.
His senior-laden team had won just two of its first six games. Suddenly, football wasn’t any fun.
Then, one of the more remarkable turnarounds in Minnesota prep football history took place. The Cardinal players hit their stride and didn’t lose for the rest of the season, finishing 9-4 and bringing home the Minnesota state nine-man championship
For engineering that turnaround, Gronner won the state’s nine-man Coach of the Year award from the Minnesota High School Football Coaches’ Association.
“It’s a nice honor to get but I don’t take any credit for it,” Gronner said. “Usually the state champion gets the award. The reason I got this award is because of our team and the seniors, and how they turned it around after six games by buckling down, working hard and stepping up.”
Cromwell-Wright featured 11 seniors on its 24-player roster. Even with all that experience, a meeting after the fifth game of the season – a 34-13 loss to McGregor – didn’t help.
“After that game, the coaching staff and seniors had a meeting,” Gronner said. “We talked about a few things, had an excellent week of practice and then fell flat on our face in week six. We thought we had played all the cards.”
Yet, the rest is history, thanks to a steady hand on
Gronner succeeded the legendary Keith Bergstedt as Cardinals head coach seven years ago and served as his defensive coordinator for six seasons prior to taking over the head job.
“I came straight out of college from Concordia (Moorhead), and had never coached (football),” Gronner said. “Keith didn’t even interview me for the job – the superintendent did. I showed up and Bergie and I clicked from the beginning.”
Gronner credits Bergstedt for his development as a coach.
“He taught me everything I knew about coaching football,” said Gronner, who was a defensive tackle in college. “He taught me about what kind of expectations to have, how to keep offenses as simple as possible, how to conduct practice, and how to keep things intense but not lose sight of the fact that it’s a game.”
However, Bergstedt was impressed by the way his all-conference college defensive tackle approached the idea of his first coaching position.
“We had just come off two state championships in a row, that 38-game winning streak,” Bergstedt said. “I asked him why he’d want to come here because really there was nowhere to go but down. He said, ‘It’s the best program in the state.’”
That impressed Bergstedt.
“It wasn’t a false thing, saying the right thing to make you feel good,” Bergstedt said. “It was sort of like him saying, ‘You fool, why did you ask that?’”
Yet, six weeks into the season, Gronner didn’t feel like he was coaching the best team in the state.
“We had high expectations for the team and they weren’t performing as expected,” he said. “If we had been a young team, we would have thought 2-4 wasn’t too bad. We were expecting to pound teams and it just wasn’t happening. Even when we won, we weren’t playing well. Every weekend was a long weekend, win or lose.”
Yet, the steady hand on the tiller eventually made all the difference.
“That’s the one word I’d use to describe him,” Bergstedt said. “Steady.”
“We didn’t panic,” Gronner said. “We made sure as coaches that we didn’t show panic or desperation –
even though I was probably feeling it.”
So, as they say, the rest is history. Besides, Gronner may have had a little extra incentive to succeed.
“We joked about it after the Isle game,” Bergstedt said. “Just for fun, we decided to see who had the better winning percentage as a coach. After the Isle game we were tied and I joked to him that if he lost to McGregor he’d be in second place to me. So, he ran the table.”
“There is a great tradition (in Cromwell),” Gronner said. “I put pressure on myself being here. There are expectations every season that we are going to do well and compete for a state berth every year. It didn’t add to the pressure – we expect to win games every year.”
While he notes that coaching in a successful program brings pressure, Gronner was pleased that the Cromwell community supported him and the players throughout the
Of course, the Cardinals kicking things into gear and a gigantic performance in the state title game from quarterback Jordan Suhonen relieved all the pressure in any event.
Suhonen, who was playing hurt, set state title game records for rushing yards (374), longest play from scrimmage (an 86-yard touchdown run), rushing touchdowns (5) and rushing average (13.4 yards per carry) in that famous 49-42 shootout win over Lanesboro.
That title win helped Cromwell-Wright to its first state title since 1999, and led Gronner to his individual award.
In that regard, Gronner follows in the footsteps of his mentor as well. Bergstedt was also named the association’s coach of the year three times – and sat in the press box for all this season’s post-season games wearing a coach’s headset.
“I sat up there with [Principal] Nate Libbon, who had coached at Long Prairie,” Bergstedt said. “We’ll do that for playoffs. We wore headsets and I don’t know if Jeff got anything from us. I just know they loved to tape us so they could play back our yelling and screaming after the games.”
“He feels very proud for me, because he has been my football mentor,” Gronner said. “When we won state in 1999, he won the coach of the year award for nine-man football and the overall coach of the year award too.”
Yet Bergstedt, who is one of the very few men who can understand Gronner’s feelings on the award, is equal to his former assistant’s words.
“He has his own legacy here,” Bergstedt said. “This year it was like a father-son thing. I am very proud of him.”
The award is especially satisfying for Gronner because he had no football coaching experience prior to being hired at Cromwell-Wright.
“I wanted to go to a place with tradition, but I had more experience coaching basketball than anything else,” he said. “When I was in school I coached a girls basketball team and did some AAU coaching. I still love basketball, but obviously football has worked out well.”
Gronner assists Bill Pocernich in coaching Cromwell-Wright’s boys basketball varsity and also runs the school’s JV team.
Bergstedt describes Gronner as a “straight-up guy” who commands respect.
“The kids know he’s the real deal,” Bergstedt said. “Everyone knows where he stands. He’s a very bright guy and passionate about
The football award caps a storybook season for Gronner, who teaches health and physical education. His wife, Mona, and their four children now get more time with dad.
“My family is very important to me,” he said. “My kids range from 12 years old to 18 months so I’ve got a very
“It’s very difficult to find the right balance,” Gronner
admitted. “Sometimes during football season it doesn’t always seem as though I do that, but my wife has been very supportive. Being a coach sometimes can be hard on family time, but my wife supports me very well and I try and do my best to balance coaching and family. It is the most important thing.”
Even more important than trophies.