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Grussendorf remembered as great coach, 'better person'

John Grussendorf coached all four of his daughters in the 1980s in Esko. He is pictured here with Angela (from left), Brenda, Miranda and Tanya. Contributed Photo1 / 4
Longtime Esko girls basketball John Grussendorf is pictured here in the early days of his coaching career. Grussendorf died Jan. 21 and was honored by the Eskomos at both a boys and a girls basketball game. His grandson is a current player on the Eskomos boys team. Contributed Photo2 / 4
John Grussendorf's 15 grandchildren gather around the chair he always sat in during Friday's boy's basketball game. The longtime girls coach (who also coached the boys team for two years) was remembered Friday and at a girls game Jan. 26. Contributed Photo3 / 4
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"For me, the word would be 'integrity.'"

The word used to by longtime Esko boys basketball coach Rod Johnson to describe his friend John Grussendorf ring true to anyone who knew him.

To John, there was nothing more important than getting it right: on the court, in his faith, and in his life. Grussendorf passed away Jan. 21 and is being remembered for what he was — a great coach and an even better person.

"What a nice man, what a longtime friend," said Grussendorf's high school classmate and eventual assistant coach Bob Swanstrom, one of several eulogists at a very well-attended funeral.

Swanstrom met Grussendorf at Hermantown High School, where the two were teammates — "end of the benchers," in Swanstrom's self-deprecating words — and two years apart in age.

"John was Class of '63, I was Class of '65," Swanstrom remembered. "Then John went to UMD and I went to Gustavus, and I didn't see him until I was teaching at Esko and a B-squad opening came up in the girls' program he had just taken over. I hooked on with John and we became even closer."

And it was after Grussendorf took over the Esko girls program that he became close friends with Johnson.

"John was a better person than he was a coach, and he was a fine coach," Johnson said. "The legacy he left us, in various ways, through players, coaches and people, will never be forgotten."

Grussendorf coached at AlBrook before taking over the Eskomos girls program, which he helped turn into a regional powerhouse.

"He was a very demanding coach," Swanstrom said. "But it was all for the players' own good and it was to get the most out of them as players. To get the most out of them as people, all you had to do was look at him."

Grussendorf's health issues, chronicled in his book "Triple Overtime," were well known to anyone who knew him. Yet, despite those issues, the coach faced life, and the curve balls it had thrown him, with customary good grace.

"I never saw him complain, not once," Swanstrom said. "That wouldn't have been his way."

And despite those issues, Grussendorf took over the boys program for two seasons when Johnson took a sabbatical to pursue a master's degree, and then stayed on as assistant to his longtime friend.

"I have so many good memories of John," Johnson recalled. "All the time we spent together was meaningful to me. Not only did we have a great relationship but it was fun to be on the bench with him. No matter how heavy things got, he always found a way to keep things light."

He also found a way to share. Johnson recalls that the boys and girls teams used to have overlapping practice times, and the coaches would work together.

"When John had the first practice he would stay late and helped me out, and I would do the same," Johnson said. "It was just the kind of man he was. We overlapped and the relationship grew stronger."

As important as those relationships were, there was one that was even more important to Grussendorf: with his Savior.

"John, as we all know, was a man of deep faith," Swanstrom said. "He would be the first to tell you that he's in a better place now, and that faith relationship was everything to him. But he had priorities involving his health too, because he had a beautiful family and he wanted to be with them for as long as he could."

But now, the coach is in that better place, and the Esko programs have paid a touching tribute to him in remembrance. Grussendorf's chair at the end of the gym was festooned with flowers prior to the boys home game against South Ridge Friday, Feb. 3, and Johnson spoke to the girls team before the home game against Floodwood Jan. 26.

"I told the players that John was a man of great faith and a pillar of the community," Johnson said. "It wasn't a very long speech. It didn't have to be."

Grussendorf the coach is what those who didn't know him will remember, and stories about him abound — from placing garbage cans at each end of the floor on the first day of practice in case the players found it too demanding to exacting practices that drove players hard.

"John was what Bob McDonald called a dinosaur," Johnson said. "He took that as a badge of honor."

And even after he left coaching, Swanstrom said Grussendorf's competitive side still showed through.

"He had a footstool to rest his leg on due to his health by his chair in the gym," Swanstrom said. "But at his funeral I said, 'Don't be fooled — John always did want to get a leg up on the competition!'"

I had the pleasure of knowing John, as did many of the readers of this newspaper. As the years pass, and people who were young men and women when I arrived here begin to pass, these stories get harder and harder to write.

He was a kind man, whose reputation on the court and in life preceded him. To what his friends have said, I will add only this: Most coaches do not enter their profession to be loved. But happily, sometimes, it works out that way.

Rest in peace.