Visitors to this city in Wadena County, about 40 miles west of Brainerd, are greeted by the sign: “Verndale, A Great Place to Grow.”
Mike Mahlen apparently took that to heart. In 1969, he was hired by the Verndale School District to teach health and physical education and coach the Pirates’ football team. Now in his 51st season at Verndale, he became the first football coach in Minnesota State High School League history to win 400 games when the Pirates, ranked eighth in Nine-Man, defeated Rothsay 44-6 Wednesday, Oct. 16.
It may be no surprise that Mahlen remained in Verndale for his entire career in education. He is, after all a small-town guy, graduating from high school in Erskine (population 484 in 2017) and from Mayville (N.D.) State University (undergraduate enrollment 814 in 2016-17). Mahlen never seriously considered leaving Verndale which a few years ago named its football field after him.
“I had a couple of opportunities but I just seemed to like it here,” he said. “I liked the community, I liked the kids, the school system.
“I always heard that whole thing about the grass is greener on the other side but I just thought I'm doing what I like to do. I'm coaching football. I didn’t need to be in a bigger school to enjoy coaching. I thought as long as I enjoy where I'm at, I might as well stay.”
Wednesday’s victory elevated Mahlen’s career record to 400-123-3. He’s followed by Brainerd’s Ron Stolski (58th season) 388-181-5, Becker’s Dwight Lundeen (50th season) 366-160-3 and Eden Prairie’s Mike Grant 350-73-0. The national record for football coaching victories is 621.
Mahlen said he approached Wednesday’s game the same as any other and called winning 400 a “great, great honor.”
“But it should be shared by everybody, not just me. All the kids who played for me over the years, and the parents,” he said. “A lot of credit should go to my wife, Sallie, over the years, and my assistant coaches. They do an outstanding job.
“I just think football is one sport where you need to rely on your assistants a lot. I have some outstanding assistants. They’ve been with me 15-20-25 years. That really makes a difference.”
Pirates defensive coordinator and athletic/activities director Greg Johnson said Mahlen remains as competitive and passionate as ever and is involved with every level of Verndale’s football program. He called Mahlen’s milestone amazing.
“Someone in the booth the other night did a little math on that and in 51 years that's averaging close to 7.8 wins season over the course of a career when you have an 8-game regular season,” Johnson added. “For a large part of Mike’s career, there was not a regular playoff system. You made the playoffs by getting voted into the playoffs.”
Age: 71 (turns 72 Oct. 21)
Occupation: Verndale Pirates head football coach
Career record: 400-123-3
Member: Minnesota Football Coaches Hall of Fame, Mayville State Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame
Family: Wife, Sallie; son, Jason; daughter, Gena
Rick Harig, in his 16th season as head coach of the rival Bertha-Hewitt Bears, called Mahlen the “ultimate competitor.” He said Mahlen’s victory total represents a ton of accomplishment.
“I was just reading that I think three coaches (last) week got their 100th win,” Harig said. “Each of those guys has been coaching about the same amount of time I have — 15-16 years. If you times that by four, those guys would have to coach another 32 years to even get close. That's a long time, and to sustain that excellence…
“Holy cow. That's averaging almost double-digit wins a year for an extended period of time. That's crazy. That's a testament to his program.”
Jeff Moore, in his 25th season as the Pirates’ line coach, said Mahlen has never mentioned the victory total nor does he crave the attention the chase for the milestone has shed on Mahlen.
“What impresses me is it’s not a big deal about the wins,” Moore said. “It’s not a hyped-up thing. He doesn’t like hoopla. I think it’s important but (the wins are) not really broadcasted. That’s what impresses me. He’s not looking for the limelight.
“At his age, he still enjoys it. He has fun coming and doing it. Some people say he should quit and I say well if he’s doing good and using his assistant coaches right, I think he’s doing well.”
Mahlen has guided the Pirates to 17 state tournaments, including state championships in 1997 and 2002 and three state runner-up finishes. His first team went 3-4-1, one of the few seasons Verndale finished under .500.
“I was telling people the first game I coached was against Clarissa,” Mahlen said. “We were 11-man at that time. The game ended up 0-0. Neither team crossed the other team’s 30-yard line and I was wondering what I was getting myself into.”
Verndale has won at least seven games for the past seven consecutive seasons. Mahlen said there’s no special sauce to build and maintain a winning culture.
“I think it goes back to kids buying into the program,” he said. “You’ve got to have the kids buy in, you’ve got to have the parents and the community and the administration and the faculty — everybody has to buy into it. And, I've had great assistant coaches over the years. That's helped.
“Kids coming up want to be part of a winning program. There's no magic wand to say this is the way. I don't know why (Verndale wins). We just try to do things the right way and everyone buys in. That's the bottom line, probably.”
Harig, who pointed out that his teams haven’t enjoyed much success against Verndale, believes Mahlen-coached teams are always ultra prepared and possess an uncanny ability to adjust to what the opponent is doing. And, he said, Verndale teams just expect to win.
“I think one of Mike’s strengths — even his teams that were struggling, and there weren't many of them — they always believe they’re going to win the state championship and they play that way,” Harig said. “Every year you look at them at the beginning of the year and you think there's a chink in the armor and some things you can pick on and take advantage of. But it seems like they shore those things up really fast.
“I think a lot of it is just the kids. They believe that ‘Hey, we're Verndale Football. We're supposed to win every time.
“Mike does a great job. I don't know how he teaches it but he should certainly write a book when he's done because there will be a lot of us buying it.”
Johnson, who’s also the Pirates’ head boys basketball coach, has developed a special bond with Mahlen, who taught at Verndale for 36 years and was Verndale’s athletic director through the 2017-18 school year. Johnson replaced Mahlen as AD in 2018-19.
“He’s still the guy I call up and ask what I need to do,” Johnson said. “He still helps me out. He's always around the school. Even after the football season, I see him at least once a week, probably around school. It’s nice to take over for someone who's still around and can help me out with the questions I have.”
Finally, the million-dollar question: How long does Mahlen plan to continue coaching?
“People ask me that and my answer is until I get sick of going to practice and get sick of game-planning because anybody can do the games. That’s the fun part of it,” he said. “If I enjoy going to practice and enjoy game-planning, I will keep coaching as long as that happens.”