by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Paul Gustafson, whose gentle guiding hand helped the Rogers athletic program grow from “square one” into a force in several sports during his nine-year tenure, will retire at the end of this week.
RHS’s first activities director, and a 32-year member of the District 728 family, was honored Monday at a retirement party at Rockwood’s, attended by a host of past and present fellow coaches, A.D.’s, athletes, other school employees and well-wishers.
“I told my coaches the other day, I am going to be a loyal Royal forever,” smiled Gustafson, 58. “Just a regular fan, from now on. I will enjoy watching the games and not have to be concerned about everything that’s going on. That will be nice.”
When District 728 split into three schools in 2003, Gustafson, who had been Elk head football coach for five years, took the Rogers A.D. job, while also continuing to teach at first.
“When you consider where Rogers started nine years ago, and where we are now, that says a lot about Paul’s leadership,” said Roman Pierskalla, Rogers principal who arrived in the school’s third year.
“To spend 23 years at Elk River, and be the football coach, and with all the success Elk River had in sports, and then to cross the river to a new school, and new loyalties, and to start building programs from scratch, that took a special person.”
Pierskalla noted that Gustafson is “the one person who’s been in the office all nine years” and is revered by the coaching staff for his hard work, good humor and genial manner.
“If you heard Paul say the word ‘cheesenip,’ you knew he was a little upset. That’s about the strongest word he uses,” chuckled Pierskalla.
That first year, the hiring of coaches was handled by John Barth, Elk River’s activities director, but a myriad of details fell on Gustafson, who got started in the spring of 2003 in preparation for the grand opening that fall. His main tasks were lining up all the schedules (a big job with no conference yet), assembling materials the rookie coaches needed, and helping to set up the all-important booster clubs and youth sports organizations.
“We were at square one. We knew we were going to take beating for a while,” he said. “We didn’t even have seniors the first year. It was two years before we won a football game.”
Rogers was losing, but growing and building, in those years.
“What I told my coaches was that we are not going to whine and we are not going to make excuses, but we are going to keep working hard and we are going to (operate) by three simple rules. Are you committed to excellence? Do your kids care about the team? And, can we trust you? If you can answer yes to all three, then we will not talk about wins and losses.”
The first-ever sports event was the Rogers-Zimmerman football game with the Royals losing at home to the Thunder. The Star-Tribune had a reporter there.
“Everyone in town was very, very excited about having their own school,” Gustafson said. “It was a really cool evening.”
The tide turned at RHS “quicker than anybody thought,” Gustafson reflected. Softball had the first winning record and made “state” in 2005. Girls basketball grew into a power. Several other sports followed suit soon after.
“We have already won two state championships in our school,” said Gustafson, referring to boys golf and girls soccer, “and we have had several conference championships and several section championships. It has been very exciting.”
Gustafson is a native of Beloit, WI, where he played football (quarterback), basketball, baseball and track. In college at St. John’s University, he was a tight end on two conference championship teams under legendary coach John Gagliardi. He taught three years at Grey Eagle where he was head coach in football, basketball and track.
A social studies teacher, he arrived at Elk River in 1980 and raised a family here. Paul and wife Barb have a son, Ben, who teaches at Salk and coaches the boys JV hockey team, and a daughter, Beth, who just graduated from North Dakota State. Both were Elk athletes. Gustafson was a football assistant under Terry McLean for 18 years before succeeding him. He was assistant coach in boys basketball 11 years and tennis and track for two years each.
Along with the first AD, several of the original Rogers coaches are still there: Joe Belka (boys basketball), Marc Franz (football), Steve Leuers (cross country), Nicholas Scheevel and Debbie Conley (tennis), Tim Marchand (boys hockey) and Dan Ohlgren (softball) — with Ohlgren now succeeding Gustafson as activities director.
Said Pierskalla: “We are happy for Paul that he will have some time for himself after retiring, but he will be missed be everyone in this building and the community.”