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The coach who put the Twin Cities on the map

The coach who put the Twin Cities on the map

By GENE McGIVERN / St. Thomas Sports Information Director

He grew up poor in the coal-mining town of Star Junction, Pa.

Johnny Kundla eventually moved miles away to Minnesota as a teenager, and he later achieved a star power of his own during his Hall of Fame basketball coaching career.

His Minneapolis Lakers teams won six pro championships in his first seven years. Starting with George Mikan and finishing with rookie Elgin Baylor, Kundla in all would coach six basketball players that would make the pro Hall of Fame. His Laker teams also included Bud Grant, an eventual Pro Football hall of famer as a coach.

The oldest living member of the four U.S. major halls of fame -- basketball, baseball, football and hockey -- Kundla turned 100 years old last weekend, and thus has been the subject of numerous local and national media stories.

Married for 67 years and widowed the last nine, Kundla resides across the river in a Minneapolis assisted-living facility not far from the four jobs that jump-started his coaching career. One of his sons stops by daily for a game of cribbage.

Seventy years ago this summer, the former Minnesota Gopher two-sport athlete came to Summit and Cretin Avenues for a small-college teaching/coaching opportunity with the Tommies.

After playing two sports for the Gophers, Kundla taught and coached on Minneapolis' northside at Ascension grade school, then moved on to Minneapolis DeLaSalle High, where he guided his team to a Catholic league state championship.

After two years at DeLaSalle, he served in the Navy during World War II. After his military service, he returned to the Gophers' campus to pursue a graduate degree, before later being hired at St. Thomas in the summer of 1946 at the ripe age of 30.

Kundla's St. Thomas stay was brief, but his future accomplishments as a six-time world champion basketball coach from 1948-54 have added to our school pride.

To set the scene, consider that Kundla received a $3,000 annual salary at St. Thomas in 1946-47 as an instructor of physical education, and as head coach of freshman football plus the varsity basketball and baseball squads. The O'Shaughnessy football field had just been revamped although the permanent Kasota bleachers were on the drawing board to soon be erected. 

That would be Kundla's lone year on campus. A new local professional basketball team, the Minneapolis Lakers, made him an offer he ultimately couldn't refuse. Kundla did take three weeks deciding before accepting the somewhat risky professional job, walking away from the stability of a solid job on a college campus with his wife and two pre-school age sons.

He was able to more than double his salary, though, so he took the plunge with the Lakers at age 31.

Kundla later explained to a St. Paul reporter:

"I was making $3,000 a year at St. Thomas. One of my players graduated and got a job coaching high school for $3,500. I figured that was my cue. The Lakers signed me to a three-year contract making $10,000 a year. I thought I was on easy street -- paved with gold."

He told a Minnepolis Tribune reporter at the time that he wasn't intimidated by coaching professionals, some who nearly his same age.

"I think handling a pro club will be less grief than coaching college athletes," Kundla said. "The pro is playing for money, and you hold that whip over him. Guiding a college athlete takes psychology and patience -- it's a delicate task which tests the nerves. Working with the pros can become a more cut-and-dried business proposition.

"Of course, we'll need leadership on our playing roster, also spirit. I think we'll have it if we sign some of the local boys we are seeking."

The Lakers first offered Hamline coach Joe Hutton the job, but Hutton's sweet deal with the Pipers included on-campus housing for his family on top of his salary, so he passed.


Tommie Days

Kundla's 1947 Tommie baseball team had three Mauer brothers in the starting infield -- Ken Mauer at 1B, John Mauer at SS, and Hank Mauer at 3B. In all there were six Mauer brothers, and all six played pro baseball. Ken also played pro basketball in Denver and St. Paul. Another brother, Jake Mauer, is the grandfather of current Minnesota Twin Joe Mauer and ex-UST All-America infielder Jake Mauer.

Frank Deig's final year as St. Thomas basketball coach in 1945-46 produced a 16-1 finish and an MIAC championship. But several players graduated after that season, thus Kundla had his hands full in trying to maintain the program's momentum.

The St. Thomas Aquin newspaper reported that Kundla's 11-11 record that winter was respectable considering the roster's lack of height and the fact that all-state guard Dick Furey graduated at mid-season. The record included two victories over a strong Gustavus team, plus respectable losses by 10 and seven points to national power Hamline.

St. Thomas also lost 70-55 to Marquette at the St. Paul Auditorium. The Toms' lone home-court loss at O'Shaughnessy Hall was 43-39 against Mankato Teachers College, the defending national runner-up. St. Thomas also lost at Drake, but upset Montana State in overtime 47-44. Ten of the Toms' 22 games were decided by five or less points, and Ken Mauer was one of the team standouts.

Kundla left a good team in place, and successor Paul Sokol would guide the 1947-48 Tommies to an 18-2 record.


Next Chapter

Kundla's Lakers won the National Basketball League crown in 1948, his first season, and he guided the Minneapolis team to five more titles in an 11-year span (1948-59) in the National Basketball Association.

A broken ankle suffered by star player George Mikan in 1951 probably cost the Lakers the crown that season and thus a shot at a seven-year reign as pro hoops champion.

The Lakers were sold in 1959 and signs pointed to move to Los Angeles from Minneapolis, which came to pass in 1960. So Kundla chose to leave the NBA job and returned to college hoops in 1959 as head coach of the Minnesota Gophers. He was 110-105 in nine seasons at the U of M before retiring from the coaching ranks in 1968. His 1964-65 squad was Big Ten runner-up.

(John Kundla, 1946-47 St. Thomas coach)

Upon Kundla's teaching retirement from the U of M phys ed staff in August 1981, St. Paul sportswriter Don Riley wrote this testimonial:


"No Minnesotan won so often, so grandly, so dominantly. Certainly, no basketball figure in this state won more humbly."


Riley noted that Boston Celtics great Red Auerbach confided to him that:

"I'd kill to beat the (Minneapolis) Lakers, but I wouldn't touch a hair on Kundla's head. He's strictly Tiffany stuff."

Riley recalled that after New York Knicks coach Joe Lapchick lost a bitterly close playoff series against the Lakers, he had nothing but admiration for Kundla:

"The man is a quiet genius. No coach in the history of the game used 10 players so well."


Riley added this tribute:


"Lord, what a winner. Everyplace -- sandlots, dingy neighborhood gyms, weary tank towns, poorly-lit New York armories, ivy-festooned college halls.


"Kundla won everywhere, anywhere, under any conditions. But always under complete restraint. Always with a cloak of dignity. Always with a gracious word for the loser. Always giving credit to his men.


"He never needed today's coaching luxuries of paranoia, jealousy or front-office squabbles. John Kundla must have had a helluva system. He won nearly 800 games of all kinds over 31 years in the business. His 68-percent pro (winning clip) is second only to Auerbach's. He never shoved a scribe, threw a chair at an official, or cut down the fans."


Kundla reflected back on the Lakers' seven-year opening run from 1947-1954, in another St. Paul Pioneer Press story from 1978:


"They said we were too deliberate. But the Boston Celtics eventually copied six of our set plays to the exact move. We were a dynasty built on sacrifice and character. Everybody was out to get us. The team knew it. Our fans knew it. It was a beautiful thing.


"All those victories. It put the Twin Cities on the map, Our games in St. Paul set record marks for crowds. Oh, sure, there were heartbreaks. Like the 19-17 stalling loss to Fort Wayne when our fans jeered. But 10 days (later) the (NBA inserted) the 24-second (shot clock) rule.


"We lost some close ones -- and some big games. But mostly we won. I don't regret a minute. Even the (late 1950s) decline of the franchise doesn't rankle. It was a period never to be forgotten. Those were golden guys."