Windom coaching legend Jack Kelly left a lasting legacy
John “Jack” Kelly, a legendary high school basketball coach at Windom High School and tireless community worker, died Sunday. He was 84.
Kelly, born Oct. 2, 1935, in Pipestone, was an outstanding PHS athlete in football, basketball, baseball and track who continued his athletic success at St. Cloud State University before arriving in Windom to teach industrial arts and physical education, and to coach.
He coached baseball for 17 years, leading Windom to two state tournament appearances. But he is perhaps best known for his 25-year career as the Eagles’ boys basketball coach (1967-1993) where he claimed more than 300 victories and led three teams to the state tournament. He was inducted into the Minnesota State High School Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1996 and the baseball Hall in 2019. He is also a member of the Pipestone High School, Windom Area High School and St. Cloud State halls of fame.
Devoted both to sports and to his community, Kelly refereed basketball and football games for many years and served as a mentor to other coaches and officials. He was a volunteer fireman and EMT with the Windom Ambulance Service. He served on the Windom BARC (Business, Arts and Recreation Center) board and contributed selflessly there as head of the building, grounds and recreation committee.
In 2016, the BARC gymnasium was renamed the Jack Kelly Recreation Center.
Franz Boelter, a 1970 Windom High School graduate who went on to compile a Hall of Fame coaching career mostly in Faribault, is a longtime friend of Kelly’s who first met him in 1958. He still remembers when Kelly drove to town in a Corvette convertible.
Boelter played for Kelly on the baseball and basketball teams.
“You felt you were in such good hands. He really cared about you. I think that’s the sign of a good coach; he’s not just concerned about the sport he’s coaching,” said Boelter. “Probably in the past 60 years, there’s been nobody who’s had a bigger impact on my life than Jack.”
Even before he retired as a coach, Kelly was regarded by many who knew of him as a larger-than-life figure, a legend in his own time. As a basketball coach, he commanded attention. He knew the rulebook as well as anyone, and when he had something to say players and officials always listened. He was unrivaled at teaching fundamentals to his recruits, said Lance Jackson, a Kelly basketball player who graduated in 1988.
“The biggest thing is, he always had us very well prepared. There wasn’t anything the other teams could surprise us with,” Jackson said. “Even in games, the officials respected him. He could get by, probably, with more than other coaches would.”
Summed Jackson: “Whatever he said was pretty much gospel.”
Current Windom Area High School athletic director Dane Nielsen, who graduated from the school in 1996, agreed that Kelly was exceptional for many things besides sports.
“His love for the school and the community and just students in general (made him special). He retired from coaching when I was just a freshman, so I didn’t ever play for him. But I had him in school and got to know him, anyway,” Nielsen said. “Any time I was around him, I was just a sponge.”
What contributed to Kelly’s reputation as a coach, Nielsen said, was “his attention to details. The fine little things he could see and correct and coach were really impressive.”
Les Knutson, another Windom graduate, went on to coach many successful basketball teams in the Heron Lake and Okabena area. Always willing to share his experience with his peers, Kelly contributed from outside the inner circle.
“He became a positive influence for me as I coached girls basketball, including helping us several times as a volunteer in practice in both the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons. During our state tournament run in 2008 (as Southwest Star Concept), Jack found us a gym in both Mankato and Minneapolis to practice in. He was a great supporter of our efforts.”
Boelter said Kelly was the kind of person who would always do anything for anybody.
“I think he got about a hundred years in his 84 years,” he said.