The plan this spring for Don Larson was to coach the North Dakota State men’s track and field team like he has for the last 41 years. The hope was the season would culminate with another Summit League Outdoor Track and Field team title and then he was to share some news to his athletes: He’s retiring.
The news is now.
One of the most successful coaches in school history in any sport is calling it a career. The end came sooner and not as anybody would have wanted with spring sports being canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Yeah, would I like to do it forever?” Larson said. “But there comes a point and time. We have an amazing staff and the things they’re able to do for us. But there comes a time.”
The decision, made in conjunction with his family, was finalized before the season, but Larson, 66, said he didn’t want any distractions with his athletes so he was going to wait until later to announce it. But like a conference lineup that had to be adjusted, Larson had to change his thought process and he delivered the news by happenstance to President Dean Bresciani when the two ran into each other at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex.
“Are you sure?” Larson said, quoting Bresciani.
Larson delivered the news to his team after the final practice before the team dispersed with the season being canceled. Perhaps fittingly, one of the last workouts was turned in by hurdler Connor Wendel from Carrington, N.D. His parents are former Bison track athletes.
Knowing that was probably their last practice together, Larson said the entire team was cheering on the hurdlers.
It turns out it was the last workout Larson would operate as the Bison head coach. He’s not going away, he said, with fundraising for a renovation project to the outdoor track complex underway. There’s still recruiting to finish up, he said.
And, it’s probably not in his nature to not be around.
“I’m committed to making sure that we get things done,” Larson said. “I’m pretty much green and gold.”
It will, however, leave more time for his family. He and his wife, Desire’e, are grandparents. The family of their oldest daughter, Kelsey, lives in the Kansas City area. Their youngest, Kira, lives in the St. Louis area.
Desire’e was an assistant coach in the Bison track program for 20 years.
Larson will leave with 11 Summit outdoor titles in the 12 years the Bison have been in the league including the last 10 in a row. In all, he won 58 conference championships that includes indoor track and field and cross country.
"There have been a lot of stories for a long time on coach Larson," said Bison head women's track coach Stevie Keller.
Keller has worked with Larson for 20 years, first as a graduate assistant, then a part-time assistant until he got on staff full time. Keller said he and Larson have had discussions over the past five years on retirement and probably more specifically the last two years.
"I always told him, you'll retire when you're ready," Keller said. "Don't retire because you're at a certain age or you've been coaching so long. I think he realized the time was now. It's probably not the way he wanted to end his last year here."
In a perfect Larson world, Keller said retirement would have been a last-minute announcement, something that would have slid by without anybody really noticing it.
"He wouldn't want to make it a parade," Keller said. "He's just a people person. He's always there for everybody, no matter if you're on the men's track team, a basketball player or a football player. He's very sincere and always willing to do the extra thing for you. That's something you don't always see now-days in this world."
Larson took over the Bison program in 1979 after an All-American career as a hurdler at South Dakota State. He is a 59-time coach of the year at various levels.
Larson said he confided in a few people about his decision, including Bison assistant football coach Randy Hedberg, who helped Larson in recruiting North Dakota Class B standouts. He told legendary Minnesota State Moorhead head track coach Ron Masanz about his plans. Former athletic director Gene Taylor reached out. He was hired by former athletic director Ade Sponberg in the fledgling days of NDSU’s Division II excellence.
“Guys like Ade Sponberg giving me a chance,” Larson said.
On Tuesday, Larson had just finished a video conference call with the entire track and field coaching staff. Most work with both men’s and women’s athletes.
“Even though it was on video, it was a good talk,” he said.
Just like a lot of good talks over the course of 41 years. He still has Forum newspaper articles from when he first started coaching at NDSU. Over the years, there were a lot of victory laps.
In late May on a particular Saturday, it was often Larson in the middle of a celebratory conference championship team.
“Every season there was a highlight of some particular type,” Larson said.