Times Staff Writer
Years of history line the walls of Gunnison High School (GHS) history teacher and longtime coach Kevin Mickelson’s room. It’s not world history, or even U.S. history — but the history of GHS athletics spanning 28 years.
And among that history is a strip of the old GHS gymnasium floor. While some may see simply a piece of wood, about an inch thick, it’s a special piece of wood — because that’s where it all started for Mickelson as a coach.
On Wednesday, May 15, Mickelson announced his decision to retire from coaching — including his latest stint as head coach of the GHS girls basketball team.
“Coaching with Mickelson was always fun and exciting. His knowledge of basketball and how to handle players was incredible,” said assistant coach Craig Cooper. “I could see that he would become a super coach and was an integral part of our program. … I’m honored to have been on Mick’s staff and to have become lifelong friends.”
But before walking down memory lane of Mickelson’s success — as a boys and girls head basketball coach and many assistant coaching positions — one must travel 219 miles to Meeker in northwest Colorado to learn why he loves basketball so much.
Mickelson attended high school in Meeker — a town passionate about athletics.
“I just learned a passion, and not just for the game of basketball,” he said. “My high school teammates had a passion that rubbed off me, one of those being Mr. Hanks.”
Andy Hanks — principal at GHS and former assistant coach under Mickelson — first met Mickelson in 1981, when both arrived in Meeker and developed a bond that has lasted ever since.
“What makes it special is that I moved into the town at the same time he did,” said Hanks. “So we were both new at the same time. Sometimes moving into a small town, we all know it can be hard to make friends … especially if people have been there for a long time.”
Mickelson wasn’t just Hanks’ teammate in basketball, golf and on the track and field team. They also were roommates for a period of time in high school when Mickelson lived with Hanks, and became roommates again during their sophomore year at Western Colorado University.
Bond formed in pick-up games
When Mickelson didn’t have his nose in a book — studying to get his bachelor’s degree in history with a secondary social studies endorsement — he could be found on the basketball court at Western or the park playing a pick-up game.
“He was very young when he started coaching, but I had actually known him from playing pick-up basketball up at Western,” said Brad Schick, current assistant basketball coach at Colorado School of Mines.“ He has always been a great guy, and Gunnison has been lucky to have him for so long.”
The relationship between Mickelson and Schick would grow when Mickelson — who was teaching social studies at the time at GHS — was asked in 1991 by then-head boys basketball coach Cooper to join his staff as an assistant.
“I didn’t know I would be a part of the program and a coach while (Schick) was at the high school,” said Mickelson. “But we played every night in Gunnison. I mean every night. It was just massive hoops.”
Mickelson would serve as an assistant for the next three years before taking over the head coaching position in 1995, when Cooper decided to step down. Yet, Cooper credits Mickelson for the team going from 5-16 to 17-4 in just three years starting in 1991.
“It wasn’t an aspiration of mine to be a head coach,” said Mickelson. “Cooper felt it was time to do some different things, and the position was available. I didn’t want to be without basketball in my life, so I applied, was interviewed and got the job. I was 26 years old, and we had great years.”
Prior to Mickelson taking the helm of the boys basketball program, he was assistant cross country coach from 1992 to 1993 — and was head coach for the track and field team at GHS from 1993 to 1997.
Mickelson’s team won the Western Slope League (WSL) in his first year as head boys basketball coach in 1996, the district title in 1997, and the WSL league again in 1998. During the 1997 season, Mickelson was named WSL boys basketball coach of the year.
“The boys years we had a lot of talent,” said Mickelson. “There were a lot of good teams.”
Additionally, in 1997 Mickelson stopped coaching track and field and became the head coach for the boys golf team until stepping down in 2000 — when he became athletic director.
Mickelson then took a hiatus from coaching after the 2002 boys basketball season — focusing on being an athletic director for the next two years, before becoming an assistant football coach in 2004 until 2009. In 2005, the girls head basketball coach position opened up, and Mickelson applied for and received the job.
“I had no intention of doing it for 14 years,” said Mickelson. “But I just found it to be a great sport to coach. I really enjoyed coaching the girls.”
‘One of the best coaches and teachers’
That same year, Mickelson added another coaching title to his resume, when he became an assistant baseball coach for head coach Tom Percival until 2007.
As head girls basketball coach, it took two years for Mickelson to get things going in the right direction. But once he did, the team took off.
“The girls basketball team of 2009 went to the Great Eight and we were able to win a district title in Grand Junction,” said Mickelson. “Then we came back home and won a regional title. That was the last game played on the old GHS floor. We got to send off that floor and got to watch the girls cut the nets. That was probably my most shining moment.”
Mickelson also noted that, the relationships he has kept with former players after they graduate, over the years.
While recent years have not been as successful, as things were during the 2009 season, Mickelson has still made a huge impact on his players’ lives.
“Mickelson has been one of the best coaches and teachers I have ever had,” said Jenna Wise, point guard on the girls basketball team. “Not only did he help me become a better player and teammate, but he helped me fall in love with the sport. Without him I never would have been able to play with heart. He is very motivating and supportive in all aspects.”
Over Mickelson’s long career of coaching basketball, he has won five coach of the year awards — three with the boys (1997,1999 and 2001), and two with the girls (2009 and 2011).
GHS Athletic Director Dave Uhrig has already begun searching for someone to fill Mickelson’s large coaching shoes.
While the longtime coach believes it’s time to give another generation a chance to coach, he finds humor in the idea of “coming out of retirement” should the need arise.
“You know, Michael Jordan came out of retirement three or four times,” said Mickelson. “So I’m not saying I’m gone from the sport forever. ... It’s just a time for me to step away. I have a 10 year old, a 9 year and a 5 year old, all of whom are active in multiple sports. This gives me an opportunity to be a dad.”
(Brandon Warr can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)