EDITOR’S NOTE: The wide coverage area of The Globe contains an almost never-ending number of memorable names and personalities. During the summer we are going to feature some of those impressive athletes, coaches and sports newsmakers who had their moment in the sun. We will locate them and tell you where they are now.
Looking back on his outstanding coaching years at Storden, Storden-Jeffers and Red Rock Central, Gary Gillis admits now that he was tough and hard to please. Coaching his own three girls -- Heather, Janelle and Mandey -- was a special treat, but the kids weren’t always in a good mood when they came home after practice.
Gary’s wife Jennifer was a needed sounding board. If dad was impossible to please on the basketball court that day, they’d tell their troubles to their understanding mom. Often was the time that Jennifer reminded Gary that it’s girls basketball he was coaching -- with the emphasis on girls.
“And I told her, ‘I don’t teach girls basketball. I teach basketball,’” he said.
Indeed he did. Gillis, who attended high school at Grand Forks Central (N.D.) and graduated from Mayville State in 1968, began a hugely successful prep coaching career at Buffalo, N.D., before taking on Storden, then Storden-Jeffers and RRC.
He is most remembered for his girls basketball teams. His Storden-Jeffers teams played in the Minnesota state tournament five times, winning a championship in 1989 and earning runner-up status in 1988 and 1990. He took three RRC teams to state also, getting a second in 1999. He coached several winning baseball teams at S-J, taking a team to the region finals once.
Gillis, who was inducted into the Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1996, is 74 and living in Albertville today where he and Jen can be close to their three girls and six grandchildren.
“If I could’ve changed anything, I was rougher on my three girls than anybody else. I mean, demanding,” he says today. “But sports is something they enjoyed, even with the ups and downs. Even now, that’s just a lifetime special memory that stays with them.”
Gillis is fondly remembered around these parts for his coaching accomplishments, but if there’s one other thing that he’ll always be remembered for, it’s got to be his talkative nature. Friends might say Gary Gillis has a way with words, and he sure does use a lot of them.
His father, Mack, was an outstanding athlete in his day. It didn’t take long for the son to be compared to the father.
“One of the biggest compliments I ever got was, they called me Mack Junior. My dad was a heck of a talker. Like father, like son, no question,” Gary said.
All three of the Gillis daughters played for their father in high school state girls basketball tournaments.
Today, Heather is a guidance counselor at Sauk Centre High School. Janelle is a guidance counselor and dean at Columbia Heights. And Mandey, the youngest, is an elementary teacher at Maranatha Christian Academy.
Four generations of the Gillis family played in high school state championship games, starting with Mack at Grand Forks Central in 1941. Gary and his daughters continued the tradition. And Gary and Jennifer’s granddaughters Maesyn (an all-state selection) and Mauren Thiesen played for the state champion Sauk Centre Mainstreeters.
Within the past year, Gary battled skin cancer on his ear, had surgery on his Achilles heel, and was diagnosed with glaucoma. Jennifer was diagnosed with lymphoma about three months ago. They are both doing well, however, and for their fun they enjoy nothing more than watching their grandkids’ various activities.
“Life is wonderful,” said Gary on Monday. “How much better can you have it? We’re around all our kids here, we get to watch the grandkids grow. We want to make sure we get to everything we can. Following your grandkids and watching them goes a long way to feeling better because you’re doing things and not dwelling on yourself. They’re an inspiration. They’re medicine.”
And the memories of those Storden-Jeffers girls basketball seasons keep coming back to provide a smile for the hard-charging old coach.
“I always told my girls,” Gillis remembers, “that if you get a compliment on how well you play, like you play like a boy, say thanks. But tell them that you play basketball. I’m not playing any different of a game than they are.”
On May 31, Gary and Jennifer will celebrate their golden anniversary together.