Beloved former coach, teacher leaves legacy

Published 10:40 pm Friday, September 10, 2021

An Albert Lea High School football coaching icon, who was revered both on and off the field, died Wednesday at the age of 96.

Jim Gustafson, affectionately known to many as “Gus,” started in Albert Lea as a history teacher and football coach in 1956 and led the team to five Big Nine championships and three state championships during his years. He also helped usher in girls varsity sports at the school.

Gustafson was inducted into the Minnesota High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1980, the Minnesota High School Athletic Directors Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Albert Lea High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010.

“He was a special person,” said Albert Lean Rich Oliphant, who played for Gustafson starting as a freshman in 1957 and who was on the first of the coach’s teams to win the Big Nine championship.

Oliphant said he played as quarterback and was grateful Gustafson gave him a chance to play varsity as a ninth-grader.

“He had the confidence that I was able to do the job, and hopefully I did,” Oliphant said, noting he went on to play every year except his sophomore year when he had a broken arm. He also credited the coach with helping him secure an athletic scholarship at the University of Northern Iowa and with helping him get the job as head football coach in Faribault, where he coached 25 years. He said he only came up against Gustafson one time as coach.

“You don’t want to beat him, but you sure as heck didn’t want to lose,” he said with a laugh.

Albert Lean Bob Goldman, who played on the team in 1958 and 1959 as center, said he learned many life lessons from his time with Gustafson.

“I remember when we were just starting to understand football, Jim said we’re going to learn a lot more than football,” Goldman said. “He was right, we learned a lot of things … We knew how to play as a team. … It was also important to play fair. He taught us that.”

Goldman said he kept up with Gustafson over the years and provided some legal work for him and his family when he was still practicing law.

“He was a good guy, as well as a good coach and a good teacher,” Goldman said.

The early years

Gustafson grew up in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he participated in football, basketball and track and earned All-State honors in football and basketball.

He served in the Marine Corps during World War II and attended and graduated from the University of North Dakota with a master’s degree in social studies teaching in 1949. He also lettered in both football and basketball at the collegiate level, and served as captain of the basketball team his senior year.

After graduation, he taught and coached in Kenmare, North Dakota, and Mahnomen and Detroit Lakes in Minnesota before coming to Albert Lea in 1956.

During his 17-year tenure as head coach at Albert Lea High School, Gustafson’s teams posted a 101-47-3 record. His teams won Big Nine Championships in 1960, 1967, 1968, 1970 and 1971 and state championships in 1967, 1968 and 1970.

During one stretch, the team won 27 games in a row and 46 out of 48 games.

In addition to coaching, Gustafson served as Albert Lea High School athletic director from 1963 until 1984.

A plaque on the backside of the grandstand facing the plaza tells visitors about the legacy of Jim Gustafson. – Sarah Kocher/Albert Lea Tribune

‘He was still mentoring’

School board member Bruce Olson, who played on the team in 1963 and 1964, said Gustafson was a good mentor for all he came in contact with.

“He was just a great coach and a great guy,” Olson said. “He cared about all of his football players and wanted them to succeed — not only on the field but in school.”

He said he remembers the emphasis Gustafson placed on having the players do well in their classes.

“He kept preaching, you can’t play for me if you don’t do good in school,” Olson said.

Many years later, Olson recalled an experience after his first wife died, when he ran into Gustafson at the grocery store. Gustafson’s wife had also recently died, and he asked Olson to sit down and have a cup of coffee with him.

“He was still mentoring,” he said. 

‘Inspired with the ability to work hard’

Dick Humphrey, who played for Gustafson in 1967 and 1968, said the coach had a way of motivating the players without humiliating or embarrassing them.

In the class he was in, there were 13 players who went on to play college football at some level, said Humphrey, who now lives north of the Twin Cities.

“He kept everyone a little bit on edge regardless of you ability,” he said. “You were inspired with the ability to work hard.”

Gustafson was also known for his sense of humor and playful nature, along with giving players nicknames. Humphrey said his nickname was “Hubert,” after President Hubert Humphrey.

Humphrey said he went on to coach for a few years and saw many good coaches during his own time.

“Gus had qualities that I saw in other really, really good coaches,” he said. “It was just baked into him.”

Humphrey said he also had the opportunity to know Gustafson on another level as his son, Jay, was in their class. He said he got to spend time over at the Gustafson house and was impressed with his coach also as a father and how he was able to separate those roles.

He also noticed on several occasions where Gustafson would encourage his children to invite others that didn’t have a good home life to attend Vikings and Twins games with them.

“Those kids would have never been able to go,” he said.

With all Gustafson has done, Humphrey said it was no surprise to see all of the volunteers who wanted to participate when the call went out for help to rename the football field at Hammer Complex in his honor.

Oliphant said the group sold bricks and raised $150,000 from people who wanted to be a part of the effort and the field at the school was dedicated as Jim Gustafson Field in 2012.

“The impact he had on so many kids’ lives and what he did for the city and the school district in terms of achievement in athletics — that love and respect has just hung on over the last 50-plus years,” Humphrey said.

“He was a great man in many people’s lives.”