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Memories of a Coach: How Franklin Changed by Life by Coach Ron Eickhoff

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1965 Franklin Basketball Team! Coach Eickhoff is on the left of the photograph.

BY Coach Ron Eickhoff

I had never heard of Franklin, MN, when I was job-searching after graduating from St. Cloud State in 1960. Then I got a phone call from H.A. Mahler, Superintendent at Franklin.  We agreed to meet in Owatonna for an interview, and he hired me that day to teach business education classes and coach 7th and 8th grade football and basketball.

Franklin was a great place to start my teaching career. There I met many great families with great kids and learned that if I treated these students with respect, that’s what I got in return.

My dream of being a head coach was realized after my first year in Franklin when both Coaches Rich Wichmann and Don Ehrich moved on to bigger schools. I was then hired as coach of all 3 sports offered at the time – football, basketball, and baseball. That was not my only stroke of good fortune that first year in Franklin. I also met Sharon Sather, who would become my wife 2 years later. And still is, 53 years later at the time of this writing.

Coaching presented some challenges. Franklin had recently held the state record for the most consecutive football losses. I went farm to farm, recruiting guys to join the team, and starting in 1961, more came out for the sport than had happened in recent years. We worked our way up to 2 undefeated seasons in a row, ’63 and ’64, a regional football powerhouse that continued for many more years.

My first year of coaching basketball (’61-’62) was a building year with a 3-16 record. The guys worked hard and by the end of the next year (’62-’63), we were able to see much-improved ability and skills in the younger players. That year we just had a 6-12 record, but we only lost our first tourney game by 2 points to Belview. I remember being quoted on the sports page, “Just watch out for us next year!”

And it was true! We won 17 games the next year with only 1 loss and were seeded #1 in District 10. We still played in the old quonset hut with a tile floor and boundary lines right against the wall. Spectators filled the bleachers which were at only 1 end of the court while students and pep band sat on the stage at the other end. The players’ bench was built into a 6-foot-high niche on one side of the court, and I learned the hard way that I shouldn’t jump up when I was excited about something!!

We lost to Springfield in the District 10 Championship game that season — by their heart-breaking last second shot from mid-court that swished. My own mind’s most second-guessed and re-played career coaching moment would’ve had me putting a defender on that guy at the throw-in to prevent the possibility of that shot ever being taken, giving Franklin the chance to go on to Regions and possibility even of having gone on to State that year!

Thanks to efforts of all in the community, Franklin built a new gymnasium and classroom addition that was completed for the 1964-65 school year. Following the undefeated football season, basketball began with much anticipation for a successful year, with only 1 starter lost from the previous year.  We lost only 2 games, one of them being the last of the regular season. That game was filmed by a fan on Super 8 mm, and watching it motivated this team to work harder, to improve even at that stage, and for those players to play the best basketball of their high school careers — winning District 10 and Region III — and on to the 1965 State Tourney, back in the day when only 8 teams statewide participated, 1 per region!

District tourney games saw us defeating Lamberton, Walnut Grove and Redwood Falls in order to meet up with our nemesis from the previous season, Springfield. We won handily!

Getting to the Regional Tourney games proved a challenge! We won the District on a Saturday night followed by 3 beautiful sunny spring days. But starting Wednesday, a St. Patrick’s Day blizzard dumped 16 inches of snow on much of the entire state, just at tourney time.  The blizzard raged on, snow banks clogging roads and even railroads. Schools were closed for 2 weeks. The basketball players stayed in town with family or friends so we could continue to practice, and by Saturday, many faithful fans managed to dig out and make their way through tunnels of snow to Dusty Gusty, the old gym at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, where we beat Tracy to advance to Regional finals. We were back on Monday for that game where Granite Falls fell to our Tigers, and FHS school history was made with our first-ever entry into the State Basketball Tournament!!

TV and other media showed up Tuesday for our first practice after qualifying for State. With a mere 69 students in the high school, we were the Cinderella team! I let them take their photos and do their interviews, and then I sent the guys home with instructions to return later at a secret time for “real” practice.

As our team bus made its way Wednesday morning to the State Tourney to be played at Williams Arena on the U of M campus, we were cheered on at Fairfax, Gibbon, and Winthrop by students and towns folks, lining the highway. That was just thrilling for us, to see the support of other communities!

All teams stayed at the Curtis Hotel; we checked in there and had 45 minutes of practice time at Williams Arena. Sid Hartmann, the sports writer at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, reported we seemed to have as good ball-handling, passing and shooting skills as any other team. That night was a fun and memorable event, the all-team banquet, and then early to bed.

The next afternoon we played the opening game of the tourney — Franklin vs. Minnetonka, the smallest school against the largest, a team that was bigger, stronger, and better. Though we were within a couple of points for three quarters, their strengths showed in the fourth quarter, and we lost by 20.

At 8:30 the next morning, we played the consolation game and lost again — to Henning.  Despite the losses, this trip to the MN State BB Tourney was an exciting experience that the players, coaches, school and town fans of Franklin will never forget.

We stayed in the Curtis for the rest of the tourney (which Minnetonka won), and on our return Sunday, our bus was escorted by fire trucks and a car caravan from Fairfax to Franklin where a packed house greeted the team at the new gym for a congratulatory welcome home ceremony! A fabulous cake, a gift from the town of Fairfax, contained not only every team member’s and coach’s name but also the opponent and score of each game played!

Monday morning, all involved were back to school or work. Fans could finally wear something other than their “lucky” outfit, and team members started thinking of baseball. I was the exception, however.  I was looking back to my youth, as my Grandma Eickhoff had passed away over the weekend, and Sharon and I drove to Wykoff for the funeral.  That sad event is always tied into the happy memories of those times in Franklin.

Long-term friendship was another thing we gained in Franklin. Two fellow-teachers, Jerry Logan and Robert Krcil, helped our team by keeping the books and running the clock. They and their wives Pat and Joyce have become life-long friends, and though we all ended up teaching in different towns, we’ve gotten together every year and still take trips together, and at each gathering, we replay the great times we had in Franklin.