Mabel-Canton's Urbaniak looks back on five decades of coaching

Karl Urbaniak began coaching at Mabel-Canton in 1985. He is now stepping away at the age of 69.

Karl Urbaniak Mabel Head Coach 2019
Karl Urbaniak
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Karl Urbaniak had been a social studies and physical education/health teacher, as well as a football and baseball coach at Mabel-Canton High School, since 1985. Now, at 69, the Kennedy native (population 176, located in Minnesota's far northwest corner), has retired.

Urbaniak looks back on a coaching career that he says was driven by his appreciation for "the grind," the work required from him, his athletes and their teams to reach their potential.

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POST BULLETIN: Growing up in Kennedy, where you played football, basketball, baseball and some recreational hockey, who was your biggest sports influence?

URBANIAK: For most guys my age, that person was Louie Deere. Louie was the summer recreation director at Kennedy, our health and science teacher, head boys basketball coach and assistant football coach. He instilled confidence in us as players. He trusted us and gave us opportunities. His whole idea about playing games was learning from your mistakes, that you got better as the season went along. That's a really important thing to learn from sports.

PB: You went on to play college football, baseball and one year of basketball at then-NAIA school Minot State University (N.D.), and later were an assistant football coach at Western Michigan University under Jack Harbaugh, father of renowned football coaches John and Jim Harbaugh. Why did you leave college coaching?


URBANIAK: I learned at Western Michigan that I didn't want to coach in college. It's a long story, but I was substitute (high school) teaching at the time. A woman there was teaching emotionally disturbed kids and she and I became good friends. She saw what I did as a teacher, and she told me, "Karl, anybody can coach in college, but high school is where your heart lives." She saw something in me, my passion for teaching and helping kids.

PB: You've coached at Mabel-Canton since 1985. What was your coaching style?

URBANIAK: I am not a big rah-rah guy. I wanted our kids to play with confidence and react. But I loved coaching; I loved everything about it. I loved the studying that went with it, I loved the skill development with the kids and them working hard and getting better. I also loved the back and forth with the players. It was always fun to razz the players and then have them razz you back. It's the relationships that you develop with players that is so special.

PB: You were at a beer tent at Steam Engine Days in Mabel not too many summers ago, you saw an ex-player of yours, and you yelled his name, "Hey, Mark Bakke!" What happened next?

URBANIAK: I yelled his name and right away he goes down and does 25 pushups (a disciplinary command Urbaniak often employed as a coach). He told me (laughing), "I thought I was in trouble! I thought I must have done something wrong! I didn't know what it was, but I thought I must have done something wrong!" Mark has more charisma than probably anyone I've ever known. Everybody loves him.

PB: Mabel-Canton has an enrollment of just 77 students, grades 9-12. What do you find special about coaching in a small and rural community?

URBANIAK: The easy answer to that is that in a small town you can see the growth of the kids. You're around these kids as a coach for six to seven years, and some kids even longer than that. You can see them grow and mature, make mistakes and grow into wonderful young adults. You go to a grad party — and it's not just at Mabel-Canton, but any small place — and it is much more than a grad party because you also know most of the people in their extended family. You see them at games, and all kinds of things. That's the great thing about a small community.

PB: Anything particularly challenging about coaching in a small town?


URBANIAK: In football, there are fewer numbers (of kids going out for the team) than there used to be. It is a challenge trying to recruit kids to come out for football. You know if they came out that it would be good for them. But that is the most challenging thing (about coaching in a small place). As a coach, you're trying to sell something, and when kids decide not to do it, it is kind of deflating.

PB: You've noted that your wife, Paula, isn't a sports enthusiast like you are, but that she has still been a tremendous support in your coaching. In what ways?

URBANIAK: There are just so many things. But one thing she always did so well was keep the kids in mind. Sometimes, as a coach, you can't see the forest through the trees. The goal often for coaches is to develop kids, and you ask yourself, 'What kind of a 25-year-old will he be, and a 35-year-old?' Paula continually (reminded) me of that.

How has high school coaching changed, from the time you got started in 1985, to now?

URBANIAK: When I first started coaching, we couldn't have contact with the players in the summer. Then, things went in the exact opposite direction, where you could do everything (coaching them) in the summer. Then, some coaches overdid it and (the Minnesota State High School League) made some limitations. But nowadays, coaching is really a year-round commitment. So many coaches are saying they have to "keep up with the Joneses." I think we have lost something there because of it.

PB: What advice would you give a first-year coach?

URBANIAK: It would be that they have to become really good at what they do. As a football coach, coming out of college, you don't have an understanding of positions other than the one you played. It takes a lot of work to learn everything. Football is like a puzzle; it has to fit. If someone makes a mistake, there's going to be a big play. For a young coach, you've got to learn it. It is learnable, but you have to study it and study it. You should also find a mentor, someone you can tell, "I don't know what the heck I'm doing; I don't know how to solve this problem." Some coaches have such an ego that they never want to do that. The other thing is, you also have to keep in mind that it is always about the kid.

Pat has been a Post Bulletin sports reporter since 1994. He covers Rochester John Marshall football, as well as a variety of other southeastern Minnesota football teams. Among my other southeastern Minnesota high school beats are girls basketball, boys and girls tennis, boys and girls track and field, high school and American Legion baseball, volleyball, University of Minnesota sports (on occasion) and the Timberwolves (on occasion). Readers can reach Pat at 507-285-7723 or
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