SIOUX CITY | The feedback from our 13-week “Siouxland Spotlight” series -- kind of a “Where Are They Now?’’ project -- has been even more favorable than I might have expected when Jeff Budlong, our hard-working assistant sports editor, dreamed it up this spring.
Don’t be surprised if we make this venture part of our summer content menu again next year. If there’s one thing that sticks out for me in the century or so that I’ve been here, it’s the staggering number of interesting people I’ve had the privilege to write about.
Meanwhile, you wouldn’t believe the notes I have just from researching a couple of segments from this summer’s lineup. And, the series, by the way, will continue for another two Sundays before football and another school year of high school and college sports resume filling up our pages.
I can’t resist sharing some of this information with you. And, today, I want to bring you up to speed, so to speak, on Steve Gunther, one of the first head football coaches at North High.
A native of Le Mars whose older brother, Dave, had quite a career as a basketball player and coach, Steve coached Dr. Bill Jacobson, our first Metro Athlete of the Year, in his days as a football all-stater at North. And, until just last week, I hadn’t spoken to him since he left Sioux City in 1981 for an assistant coaching job at Colorado State.
Aside from occasional updates from mutual friends, I hadn’t realized what an interesting journey it has been for a guy who once quarterbacked Wayne State to its first Nebraska collegiate championship in 47 years, back when the Wildcats were an NAIA program.
I’d certainly have known more about his accomplishments if not for the mild-mannered nature that seems to run in this family. The same is true of Steve’s big brother, Dave, a 6-7 forward who averaged 19.8 points as a junior and scored 21.9 a game as a senior at the University of Iowa, matriculating in 1959.
Time flying like it does, Steve is a now a very active 70-year-old with another birthday fast approaching. He was on his way to Colorado from his current home in Dubuque, Iowa, when the marvels of modern technology let us chat at length via cell phone.
First, let’s back up the bus to tell you that Steve became North’s third head coach in the school’s first three seasons when he moved in from Emmetsburg High in the fall of 1974. With East and Heelan dominating in the fashion they actually have for so long, the Stars had their hands full picking up 25 wins in his 63 games over seven seasons through 1980.
“I sat there at Sioux City North and watched Emmetsburg win a bunch of state championships and said to myself, ‘What did I do?’ ‘’ he joked. “I thought I was a pretty good football coach until then.’’
He certainly was, too. And, that never changed.
Gunther spent just one year in Fort Collins before a head coaching change put him out of a job. Scrambling nicely, like he did as a quarterback, he became the offensive coordinator at Independence Community College in Kansas, working three years in one of the nation’s premier juco conferences (Jayhawk).
That’s when he renewed acquaintances with one of my fellow Cedar Rapids Washington graduates, Dick Olin, another former quarterback. Olin, it seems, had been the head coach at Clinton back when Steve logged his first four seasons in coaching as the head coach at Northeast Community in Goose Lake, one of those names you have to love.
“I got to know Dick pretty well back then,’’ said Gunther. “And, when I was in Kansas, I was looking at a job at the University of Montana. The coach (Larry Donovan) told me if things didn’t go well he was probably going to be replaced.’’
Been there, done that, Gunther passed up the offer (and Donovan did, in fact, get the axe after that next season). Instead, he opted to join Olin, who was taking over as the head coach at Aldine Eisenhower High School in Houston.
“Dick had a really good future in Texas,’’ said Steve. “He did some really good things. In fact, he’s probably the one that got Texas to kind of change their mentality from smash-mouth football to throwing the football successfully all over the state. He started the seven-on-seven (passing) leagues. He also started the seven-on-seven state championship in Texas.’’
Much as I remember Olin for his ties to my high school, many of you would know him better as the former high school coach and stepfather to Drew Tate, the former three-year starter at quarterback for Iowa. Tate, believe it or not, is playing his seventh season in the Canadian Football League, mostly as the backup QB for the Calgary Stampeders. He helped the Stamps win their seventh Grey Cup championship last season.
It was actually Olin’s marriage to Tate’s mother, though, that led to Gunther’s next job change. The newlyweds, you see, both worked at Eisenhower, which didn’t allow married couples to work in the same building.
Olin, whose new bride had a job that was quite difficult to find, graciously stepped down and looked for another place to coach. While this was happening, Gunther got another of those opportunities he couldn’t pass up. That was when he signed on to work alongside Emory Bellard at Westfield High in Houston.
Working with Bellard was quite a thrill considering the man had invented the wishbone offense while serving as Darrell Royal’s offensive coordinator at Texas. That led to a seven-year stint as the head coach at Texas A&M and then seven more seasons guiding the football fortunes at Mississippi State.
Retiring to the Houston area, Bellard was pursued heavily by several A&M alumni, wanting him to come out of retirement and coach their sons at Westfield.
“So, he put a staff together and I was fortunate enough that he hired me,’’ said Gunther, who spent four seasons with Bellard before moving to Magnolia High School and coaching several more years under Emory’s son, Bob.
Steve remained at Magnolia until retiring from teaching.
“I spent 25 years in the Houston area and I never thought I’d leave Texas, but here I am back in Iowa,’’ he said.
That’s because Gunther’s wife, the former Susan LeRette, is a native of Oskaloosa, Iowa, whose mother now lives in Dubuque along with a sister.
“We decided her mom was getting up there in age and she just lost her husband, my wife’s dad,’’ said Gunther. “We decided she needed a little bit of help, so we moved to Dubuque.’’
Gunther and his wife spent a little time recently with Dave and his wife at the northern Minnesota cabin on Roy Lake where they spend their summers. Dave, 78, spends his winters in Mesa, Ariz., and still lives part of the year at his longtime home in Grand Forks, where he won 332 games in 18 seasons as the head coach at the University of North Dakota.
There are numerous trips, as well, to see their sons Rick and Scott along with daughter Erin, the youngest, who was born in Sioux City. All three are graduates of Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, where they were all successful athletes.