Faribault Bethlehem Academy boys basketball coach Franz Boelter announced his retirement on Tuesday. In 36 years of coaching — six in tiny Medford, 30 more in the small private school about 50 miles south of Minneapolis — Boelter went 613-290, the seventh-most victories of any boys basketball coach in state history. He won 14 Gopher Conference championships at B.A., eight district and sub-section titles. His 1993 Cardinals team placed second in the Class A state tournament, back when there were only two classes in Minnesota. A year later the Cardinals placed third. That’s on the basketball court. As volleyball coach at B.A. Boelter has proven even more dominant, winning an astounding six state championships. There are very few coaches in Minnesota — if any outside of former Tracy-Milroy and Marshall coach Terry Culhane — who have enjoyed that type of two-sport success. He will continue on as B.A’s volleyball coach and will continue to contend for state championships.
But to really see Boelter’s greatness as a coach, go back to his Medford years. Medford won the Gopher Conference in 1981 and 1982 and that doesn’t sound like it compares to section and state titles, but after Boelter left Medford won a single Gopher Conference title. No one wins in Medford. Franz did.
Franz grew up in Windom. He played for a legendary coach, Jack Kelly, and then became one. Numbers don’t tell the whole story of Boelter’s basketball career, and the numbers aren’t what those who played against his teams will remember. Instead they’ll recall his intimidating sideline presence and his team’s aggressive, suffocating, maddening defense, which squeezed the life out of opposing offenses, all while discretely squeezing the arms of opposing players trying to dribble through traffic or shake loose with the help of a screen. At the end of a B.A. game, anyone who played in it or watched it — whether it was their first time watching the Cardinals or their 50th — walked away saying, “That’s a well-coached team.”
My career at Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton coincided with Boelter’s greatest B.A. teams. The Cardinals shared a conference title with JWP in 1991 and then won three in a row, going 14-0 those final three years. In 1992 the Cardinals were the best team in the state and when I say the best team I mean both classes. They could beat anyone. They beat everyone during the regular season, including two victories over our JWP team that eventually won a sub-section title of our own. We played both games in front of packed audiences, but B.A. pulled away both times. Those 1991-94 teams were led by three great players, Tim Schlaak — a talented big man who could also hit from anywhere outside — sharp-shooting forward Jim Lovrien and J.J. Korman, a three-sport star who did everything on the basketball court, all while guarding the opposing team’s best player. Schlaak graduated in ’93, Korman and Lovrien a year later. That 1992 team also had two talented guards but during the season Schlaak suffered a leg injury. He eventually returned but in a weakened state and Austin Pacelli stunned B.A. for the section title and eventually stunned everyone by winning the Class A state title. As a senior at JWP, we again got beat twice by B.A. although we made it close in the second game in Janesville. That year we only lost two games after January, that one to B.A. and to Maple River in the playoffs. Those two teams met in the Class A state title game, which Maple River won 33-29. I wasn’t cheering for one team over the other in that game — I would have been happy with a team from the conference winning but was also fine with the team that ended our season winning it all.
After 1994 B.A. was never as dominant, though they were still strong. Franz remained the constant.
I loved playing against Franz’s team, and hated every result. On the road in Faribault, we played in B.A’s cramped gym, a stage on one side, auditorium seating on the other, and the sounds of their exuberant P.A. announcer screaming “J.J. KORMAN!” still ring in my ears. We called it that “damn rat’s nest,” and it wasn’t said with affection. Games against the Cardinals felt different, bigger, more important. That had to do with how good they were on the court, but even more with the man who stood off it. I can still picture Franz standing near their bench before the game, arms folded at his chest, always watching the opposing team go through its layup line and warmups, already surely knowing just how his players — all of them off an assembly line that produced strong players with short haircuts — were going to shut us down. During its own warmups, the B.A. players ended them with a defensive shuffling drill and with the players diving onto the floor. Watching it as an opponent proved annoying — look at them falling on the floor, preparing for the flops they’d take once the game started. The B.A. teams of the early 90s dominated with their man-to-man defense, clawing and holding and daring the officials to call a foul on every possession. They were masters of drawing charges, legitimate ones or otherwise. Years before taking charges became something every team does at every level, B.A. did it every game. My senior year I got hit with a technical for lightly shoving a B.A. player who then stumbled over his own feet and fell down, which is what the ref saw. Following the game I imagined Franz teaching that move to his players during practice. “No, Eric. You need to put more emotion into it, and flail your arms a bit more.”
If it sounds like B.A.’s style got into the heads of opponents, that’s because it did. The complaining took us out of our game and blinded us to the reality, which was B.A.’s success was due to their standout players, coaching and impeccable fundamentals. On defense they didn’t make mistakes, as an individual or a team. They denied every pass, whether the possession lasted 20 seconds or a minute. And if you ever beat one defender off the dribble, another one came to help. Offensively they exhibited patience on every possession, working the ball until you made the type of defensive mistake the Cardinals never made on the other end.
It was torture. In the mid-90s, after I graduated, JWP took over as the dominant team in the conference, the school that went seasons without losing in the Gopher. I saw most of the Bulldogs’ games against B.A. in those years and relished watching JWP hammer the Cardinals. One game Franz, in an attempt to stop a run that never really did end, called three timeouts in a matter of minutes but it did no good. But even in those years, when JWP had the great players and the mystique and the intimidation, B.A. always competed, you always saw that they were well-coached.
Years later I started up an email communication with Franz. I think it might have been after his 400th victory. I congratulated him and told him how much I always admired his teams, even while I hated trying to beat them. B.A. and JWP always had a heated rivalry, and the coaches an icy relationship. My coach Dave Tonolli, who, like Franz is in the Minnesota basketball coaches hall of fame, did not like B.A.’s defensive tactics and had quotes in the paper explaining why. On one memorable occasion in Faribault, Tonolli told a ref he didn’t want his team to have to play on a court covered in “dirt and grit.” Being close to coach Tonolli, it felt a bit strange writing that first email to Franz — was I betraying a trust that says don’t communicate with those whose teams draw an inordinate number of charges? There was no need to worry; both coaches respected each other, time had helped with that. Over the past decade I’ve felt lucky to maintain a friendship with Tonolli, and I also feel fortunate that I’ve been able to correspond with our old biggest rival. On a few occasions back home I’ve seen Franz at games and spent some time visiting and reminiscing, though I’d prefer if I could brag about at least one victory over him during those conversations. It shouldn’t necessarily have been this way, but it became easier to admire coach Boelter’s on-court accomplishments when I was no longer the one on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
B.A. basketball will obviously go on, but it will seem very strange knowing Franz isn’t leading the way. He is B.A. basketball and B.A. basketball means tough defense, discipline, great fundamentals and that old gym I hated. B.A. will miss him, the game will miss him. Even his old opponents will, even if their life just got easier.