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Minnesota West football: Coaching consistency builds success

BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE Minnesota West Bluejay head football coach Jeff Linder (far left) and his assistants (continuing left to right) Brad Holinka, Scott Barber and Gene Lais are getting players ready for a new campaign.

WORTHINGTON — American author Louis L’Amour once said, “The only thing that never changes is that everything changes.”

Apparently the football coaching staff at Minnesota West never got the memo.

Bluejays head coach Jeff Linder, offensive coordinator Gene Lais and defensive coordinator Scott Barber played football together at what was then called Worthington Community College. After moving on to finish college, Linder and Lais came back to Worthington as assistant coaches in 1991. They are entering their 24th seasons with the program. One year after Linder took over as head coach in 1995, Barber rejoined his former teammates and is entering his 19th season.

Later, Brad Holinka, who was a three-sport athlete at WCC, joined the staff as a backs and quarterbacks coach after a long career as head coach at Fulda High School. Steve Bassett, the Bluejays’ wide receivers coach, played for WCC in 1969 and will be spending his 14th season as a coach this year while Ben DeVries, another former Bluejay, is entering his ninth year as the team’s defensive line coach.

“We’re the best of friends on and off the field,” Linder said. “I think that’s why we have that longevity. We understand each other’s roles on the team and we have those personal ties. That makes our bond stronger. I couldn’t ask for better coaches and better friends.”

Lais agreed that it’s that personal relationship that has helped make coaching together for so long run smoothly.

“To me it’s like a family,” he said. “When players come in, they become a part of that family. As far as the coaches, we’ve been friends since we were little kids.”

In the beginning, Linder said the coaches had to feel themselves out and learn from each other what worked and what didn’t. Since then, the game has changed and the players have changed in a lot of ways, but with such familiarity to one another, the coaches have been able to adapt to those changes together.

That, he said, is something that’s been vital to their success as a group and has been achieved through years of experience together and support from the school.

“You don’t really see it as a job,” Barber said. “You’ve gotta have a passion for the game and these guys have it. That’s a big key to growing as a family. There’s something new every year.”

Holinka agreed.

“It’s been a pleasure to be able to coach with these guys,” he said. “When we talk to the kids we’ve got million-dollar eyes and they can expect that from us. We want them to have that same passion that we have. If we’re able to pass that on to them, then we’ve done our jobs.”

The idea of the team being a family is something all coaches are quick to discuss. While the team may be just that, each of the coaches has a family in the traditional sense as well. Linder said support from them has also been an important factor in keeping the group together.

“This time of year, we’re here,” he said Wednesday while standing on the Bluejays’ practice field. “I really appreciate the other coaches’ families along with my own. During football season, the wives are basically alone with the kids so we can be here. That support at home makes us even stronger.”

Barber said when he got into coaching, the idea was never to spend just a couple years at Minnesota West and move onto something else. The coaches have started families of their own and built roots in Worthington.

“The Bluejays have been a part of my life forever,” Lais said. “I was Bluejay born, Bluejay bred and when I die I’ll be a Bluejay dead.”

The Bluejays open the 2014 season Aug. 23 at Dakota College in Bottineau, N.D.

Zach Hacker

Zach is the Daily Globe sports reporter. He has previously been a sports editor at both the Waseca County News in Waseca, Minn., and The Emporia Gazette in Emporia, Kansas. He is originally from New Richland, Minn., and now lives in Worthington with his dog; a beagle-corgi mix named Homer. In his spare time he enjoys spending time with family and friends, pontooning on St. Olaf Lake and watching professional and collegiate sports.

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