Gary Lundergreen: Whittell’s Original Warrior
August 2, 2013
Carson Valley native and longtime George Whittell High School coach Gary Lundergreen passed away last week at age 78 leaving a legacy as coach, educator, and a whole lot more.
Though best known for his success in 22 seasons as football coach in Zephyr Cove, including two state championships, Lundergreen shaped the lives of students at Whittell for the better part of four decades and did so by using a foundation of old-fashioned values. Richard Brandt spoke about those values in a 1988 interview with The R-C after Whittell's Class A state championship season.
"I don't think you'll find a more honest man," said Brandt, an assistant coach at that time. "What he says, he believes. There's no bull. He always tells you exactly what he thinks and how he feels."
Lundergreen's older sister, Betty Jacobsen, laughed when she heard the quote last week.
"Oh, that's funny," she said. "That's right on the head. That's the kind of guy he was, even with me."
At various times Lundergreen coached football, basketball, track and field and golf, served as athletic director, and even drove the bus for his teams in those early years. He is also a Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association Hall of Fame inductee and at Douglas High School, where he was a three-sport standout in the early 1950s.
Dick Brownfield, who came to Whittell as a teacher and coach in 1968 and later served as principal from 1976-90, brought out his collection of yearbooks to reminisce on old times this week. Among other things, he noted Lundergreen was never concerned about accolades or fanfare.
"Gary wasn't one that wanted to be recognized," said Brownfield. "He kind of stood in the background, but he did so much for kids."
Lundergreen could be called Whittell's "Original Warrior" since he began teaching when the school opened its doors in 1960. He even deserves credit for the red and gold school colors and mascot, the Warriors, according to Frank Forvilly, who coached with Lundergreen in the 1960s and '70s.
Jacobsen enjoys telling the story how her brother signed on for the job.
"Gene Scarselli (Douglas schools superintendent) contacted our mom and asked her, 'Marie, would Gary be interested in being the first coach at George Whittell High School?'" she recalls. "At that point and time, Gary was in the Army in Nancy, France, so mom sent him the contract and said, 'Gary, if you're interested in this, you have to sign it today and send it right back,' which he did."
Of course, family was always important to Lundergreen. And in turn, the entire Lundergreen family was a familiar sight on campus and around Whittell athletics — Lynn, his wife, was a long-time secretary at Zephyr Cove Elementary and Kingsbury Middle School; Lisa, his daughter, was involved keeping statistics; and Kurt, his son, was a three-sport standout who went on to play football at Northwestern University (1986-87) and now teaches at Douglas High.
Lundergreen started Whittell's football program and served as its coach twice — 1965-83 and 1986-88 — and finished with a 120-67-4 record (27-2 those last three seasons). His teams appeared in four Class A state championship games (1968-69 and 1987-88). The Warriors also earned 13 league runner-up finishes. Fittingly, Whittell won its final game under Lundergreen, a 14-8 triumph against Virgin Valley in the Class A state finals on Nov. 12, 1988.
He also guided the Warriors to track and field state team titles in 1965-66 and in 1988 rode the points of four athletes to a co-championship with Mineral County.
Forvilly felt he became a better coach and educator with an assist from Lundergreen.
"He made me a better basketball coach, just because he knew the game," Forvilly said. "I had great assistant coaches between Gary and Frank Bruno, and even to this day I still attribute a lot of what I know about basketball to Gary."
Shannon Wines, a 170-pound offensive center for Whittell in the early '70s, credits Lundergreen for influencing his own career in education. Wines recently retired after 28 years as a teacher at Dayton High School, where he was head football coach from 1985-94.
"My focus was always on the line, and I learned from him the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers get all the notoriety, but you've still got to have people doing their jobs up front," said Wines.
Lundergreen saw the football field as an extension of his classroom and the sport as a tool for teaching. Getting a quick start off the snap, for example, was very important for any lineman.
"I remember one time at practice I was supposed to pull down the line, but I wasn't fast enough," Wines recalled. "My buddy Scott Myrehn was getting the handoff and he hit me hard from my blind side and knocked me so far … I remember thinking, 'I'll never again be slow coming down that line.'"
Marty Swisher, now the principal at Douglas High, played quarterback for Whittell's 1980 team that lost an overtime heart breaker to Battle Mountain (after the fourth-quarter ended with Battle Mountain kicking a game-tying 27-yard field goal that struck the crossbar and rolled over).
"He did have a big impact on me," Swisher said. "I think a lot of the experiences I had with Gary helped to form the way I work with people and deal with people. The bottom line is, you have to be honest and up front with people, and I certainly learned that from him."
Douglas High Days
Lundergreen was an all-around athlete when he attended Douglas High School in the 1950s — a halfback and defensive back in football, playmaking guard in basketball and state qualifier on the track.
Ron Wilcks was a teammate on the 1951 football team that posted a 6-2 record and lost 20-7 to Reno in a playoff for the Western A Conference championship. Reno was the largest school and Douglas the smallest school in the conference at that time.
"That was one of my favorite games and I know it was one of Gary's favorites," Wilcks said. "We had about 85 kids in the entire high school and Reno had like 1,500, but we gave them a good game."
Douglas gained a measure of revenge at the end of the 1953 basketball season with a 68-46 victory against Reno in the zone tournament championship game before a standing-room only crowd in the old University of Nevada Gym. Lundergreen was a senior captain for a team that went 22-8 and advanced to the state tournament semifinals before losing to Churchill County.
John Borda, a 1950 Douglas graduate, fondly remembers Lundergreen for his nickname "Rubio" for his red hair.
"Gary was an excellent athlete and fine young man," Borda said. "He was a (basketball) guard who didn't shoot a lot, not that he couldn't, he was just very unselfish. He could do it all. He would have been a great baseball player, but we didn't have baseball at Douglas in those days."
After graduating from Douglas, Lundergreen went to the University of Washington on a scholarship and stayed two years before transferring to the University of Nevada, where he lettered football as well as track and field (he threw the javelin) in 1956-57.
"We had a lot of good times growing up together," said Wilcks. "Gary was a great all-around athlete and a great all-around guy."
Borda has kept all the letters he exchanged with Lundergreen from their military and college days, and has taken time to go back and read through those in recent days.
"You know, 60 years ago he wrote me a $1,500 check from the old Farmers Bank in Minden," Borda said, adding with a laugh. "We made a bet and that's how he paid me, kind of a joke type thing. But he wrote it and I've still got it."
Lundergreen is well remembered by the many students and educators he worked with in nearly four decades on Whittell's campus at Zephyr Cove.
Heather (McGraw) Verdi is a 1987 graduate of Whittell, where she played basketball and was a state champion shot put and discus thrower. She is now assistant principal at Orville H. Platt High School in Meriden, Conn., and remembers many valuable lessons she learned from her coach.
"He was very much a mentor when I was in high school in terms of the right things to do academically and athletically," she said. "He was very encouraging, but he was tough about it, and I appreciate that."
One lesson from her freshman year of high school stands out in particular.
"I failed my freshman year history class and he read me the riot act," Verdi recalled. "He basically told me that I wasn't going to be eligible and I wasn't going to be able to get to college if I continued that kind of behavior and it's something that really made a profound impact on me throughout high school, into college and even my career."
Marty Swisher, now the principal at Douglas High School, and Verdi both noted that while Lundergreen was a strict disciplinarian, he made his sport and class fun.
"He was very clear about what he expected, but then he helped you meet those expectations," said Swisher. "And he had a great sense of humor. There were times when it was a serious moment, but he would say something, and you'd just laugh."
One of Swisher's "best memories" of his former coach came from the 1980 football season, a 18-6 victory against Lovelock. It marked Whittell's first varsity football win in Lovelock.
"We knew we had to win that game to have a chance to go to state and I remember seeing the smile on Gary's face after the game," said Swisher. "You could tell he was happy and satisifed with what we had accomplished. It was a moment of, 'Yep, we just took a big step forward to accomplish the dream."
Lundergreen was a jack-of-all-trades when it came to coaching and teaching. At one time or another he taught all the general classes, whether science, math or history. And he taught life skills in his class, according to former coaching and teaching colleague Frank Forvilly.
"He was the most personable guy in class," Forvilly said. "I learned a lot from the way he taught. He would tell the kids stories and tell them about things in life. When it came to teaching life skills, growing up, working hard and stuff like that, Gary was unbelievable."
John Summers, a 1975 Whittell graduate, feels fortunate to have experienced Lundergreen as a student/athlete as well as fellow teacher/coach.
"I admired the way he coached and how he dealt with athletes," Summers said. "When I was going to school there, he instilled an attitude to all of us, losing wasn't acceptable. We all had the attitude, 'We're from Whittell, don't mess with us,' and that all came from him."
Andy Hughes, who played for Lundergreen in the late 1970 and went on to a career as teacher and coach at Douglas High, remembers Lundergreen for putting the students before himself — "It was never about Gary, it was always about the kids" — and refers to his old coach as being an icon.
"I think he's kind of like the Clint Eastwood of coaching," Hughes said. "He was kind of a man's man; I mean, he made you into a man. Whoever you were, you would get called on the carpet. It didn't matter if you were the star, you had to toe the line."