By Gary Larson
Mille Lacs County Times
Twenty-four years. Almost a quarter of a century.
That’s how long Randy Zimmer was in charge of the Milaca High School Wrestling Program.
That span includes many great memories for Milaca fans as he built the program into a state powerhouse. Check the pre-season state rankings published by The Guillotine wrestling magazine the past 15-16 years and you’ll see Milaca nearly always was ranked in the top 10 in its class. And, most often, Milaca was also there at the end of the season.
Zimmer moved Milaca to the state team tournament 10 times, including this past season when the Wolves won Class AA consolation honors. His program produced five state individual champions and 39 other wrestlers who returned to Milaca with ribbons.
He resigned as coach following the state tournament.
Zimmer wrestled for the Wabasso High School Rabbits, graduating in 1975. He then wrestled for the Worthington Junior College Blue Jays and St. Cloud State University Huskies. He calls himself “a pretty good but not great wrestler.”
Following is an interview with Zimmer, who teaches fifth grade at Milaca Elementary School.
•Question: When did you decide you wanted to go into high teaching and coaching?
•Zimmer: Probably when I was still in high school. Gary Hindt, who’s still coaching at Wabasso and still has a strong program, was a great mentor. I wanted to be like him. He was a great coach who treated kids so well. I stole a lot of his ideas.
•Question: How did your coaching career start out at Milaca?
•Zimmer: I coached junior high for one season and that was a great experience. Then I was assistant to Randy Johnson for eight seasons. Randy taught me a lot and really laid the foundation for a good wrestling program. He got the youth program going and that was a key.
I was hired by athletic director Herb Claffy. I spent a lot of time in Herb’s office and he taught me a lot about how to handle kids. He told me that if a coach respects his athletes, they will respect him. That was wonderful advice.
•Question: Roger Rahm was your assistant coach for 20 seasons. How did that come about?
•Zimmer: Roger was a standout on the wrestling team when I was assistant coach and we quite often wrestled each other in practice. I liked his personality and how he handled himself. He had a very good high school and college wrestling career.
When I found out he was moving back to the area I called him and asked if he’d be interested in being my assistant. I’m so thankful he said yes. We complimented each other very well. He knows how to work with kids and he has a great knowledge of wrestling. He took his position seriously. And, we both have that little kid in us that shows up quite often.
•Question: When you started out as head coach did you think you’d go 24 seasons?
•Zimmer: No, I thought maybe I’d go 15 years or so.
•Question: You went a lot longer. Why?
•Zimmer: A lot of reasons. I guess, first and foremost, I enjoyed working with the wrestlers. We have great kids in Milaca. I’ve learned as much from them as they have from me.
Second, our program began to be very successful and we built a reputation as having a program where we could wrestle with anybody. That’s a good feeling for a coach and the team. Our wrestlers have developed a pride for the team and they’re proud to be called a Milaca wrestler. I’ve had good kids to coach and that makes you want to do your best for them. The wrestlers have helped me keep going.
Third, I’ve been so fortunate to have had a great staff of assistant coaches. What’s so great is that nearly all of them are former Milaca wrestlers. They work hard and they know how to get kids to buy into what we’re teaching. It’s neat to have these guys, as well as so many other former wrestlers, at practice. You can point out to the kids that that guy was a state champ for Milaca or that guy won over 100 matches. The kids notice that and they respect those guys. It helps make the wrestlers want to do their best.
Fourth, and most important, I’ve got a great wife and a wonderful family. Kris has been very understanding and I owe her credit for my success and the success of the program. She’s pitched in and done so much to help me and our program. Coaching takes coaches away from their families but I was fortunate because my son Zach (1999 graduate) wrestled and my daughters Ali (2002) and Jenna (2005) were team managers. So, I got to stay close to them.
Fifth, I have to credit the parents of the wrestlers and the fans who have supported the program. The parents have bought in to how we do things and support that. And, the fans have been very dedicated, win or lose.
•Question: There are a lot of highlights over those 24 years. What are some that stand out for you?
•Zimmer: The first big highlight was Kevin Newgard winning Milaca’s first state wrestling championship in 1990. Then, to have Mike Weyer in 2001, Mitch Vedders in 2004, Steve Vedders in 2006 and Marshal Ash in 2010 win state titles. We’ve had so many wrestlers do well at the section and state tournaments.
Getting to the state tournament 10 times, of course, was exciting. And, seeing us do well at state made me proud.
Beating Foley at the state tournament in 2008 was a highlight. That rivalry is something else! The teams respect each other and when they go head to head it’s always a great show. So many memories from those Foley matches.
•Question: What did you stress as a coach?
•Zimmer: We’ve always stressed hard work and fundamentals. Our wrestlers have a good background when they move up to junior varsity because they’ve had good coaching and we build on that.
Respect is so important. We want our wrestlers to respect their teammates, their coaches and teachers, their classmates, their families and their opponents. I’m very proud that our wrestlers have been complimented many, many times on their behavior when we travel to tournaments.
And, we want our kids to enjoy being a Milaca wrestler.
•Question: Has the way you coach changed much over the years?
•Zimmer: It has. When I started out I thought that we had to start the season with a bang and be on top right away. After a few seasons I realized that you have to gradually build your team through the season. I’ve said many times that the season is a marathon, not a sprint. We stressed building our team and lineup through the season. It resulted in some early setbacks but by section time we were tournament tough.
And, I realized that you have to keep up with the sport. I’ve attended clinics and we’ve tried to get our wrestlers to summer camps where they can work with very good instructors. Wrestling has become so technical. The Granby and tilt have become signature moves for Milaca. Teams know they’re coming but our wrestlers do them so well, they’re hard to stop.
And, I’ve learned that you have to work with each wrestler differently. You have to know when to push and when to let up. You have to raise their expectations and show them how to improve and be successful. And, you can’t take yourself too seriously. I’ve tried to add some fun to practices, making them something the wrestlers look forward to. It’s true that you build your team in practice.
•Question: How satisfying was your final season?
•Zimmer: It was very enjoyable to see the team do so well. It was kind of a reflection of the past 24 seasons. It was great!
•Question: So, why did you decide to step down?
•Zimmer: I felt the time was right. Twenty-four years is a long time. The program continues to have a strong foundation. Kris and I have grand kids that we want to spend time with and enjoy.
•Question: So, what’s up now for Randy Zimmer?
•Zimmer: As I said, I’ll have more family time. I’ll still be teaching my fifth-graders and that’s great. I’ll stay close to our program and maybe work some clinics in the summer.
I’m very excited about the future of Milaca wrestling. We have some good wrestlers coming up and we have some great young coaches who will bring some new things to the program.
Note: Milaca’s wrestling banquet is Thursday, March 29, at the high school cafeteria, at 6:30 p.m. It will be an ice cream social, followed by the awards program.
Next week’s Times will feature comments from former wrestlers and other coaches.