In the course of interviewing Marv McCune on his induction into the S.D. Football Coaches Hall of Fame, our conversation wandered from the questions I had prepared.
McCune had recently been diagnosed with COVID and was a patient at the Mayo Hospital in Rochester. He seemed willing to talk, and I was certainly willing to listen as Marv reminisced about his life as a coach and a teacher.
Marv passed away this week at the age of 66 following a battle with leukemia and COVID, and we thought it fitting to share his comments.
By the time of our phone conversation, McCune was certainly no stranger to being interviewed. Known for his good humor and willingness to banter with anyone, Marv was a storyteller and made for a good interview, as sportswriters in the state have long known.
McCune was one of those people who needed no introduction.
As Clark native Corey Flatten posted on Twitter this week, “I couldn’t name another opposing coach’s name or an opponent’s athletic director when I was in high school in Clark. But I sure knew who the hell Marv McCune was. #Legend”
McCune’s legendary status in South Dakota high school sports will likely grow with his passing. With two state basketball titles as a player, three as a coach, and yet another title as a football coach – along with a couple football titles as assistant coach and athletic director thrown in for good measure – Marv’s reputation is justly earned. McCune is one of just three S.D. coaches to win state titles in both football and basketball.
S.D. High School Activities Association executive director Dan Swartos also took to Twitter. “I grew up with grandparents who bled De Smet Bulldog basketball, and Marv McCune was De Smet basketball. A lion in De Smet and South Dakota sports. Rest easy, Marv.”
I grew up with grandparents who bled DeSmet Bulldog basketball, and Marv McCune was DeSmet basketball. A lion in DeSmet and South Dakota sports. Rest easy, Marv. https://t.co/LKHXdOLoZA— Dan Swartos (@danswartos) April 19, 2021
During our conversation, it was interesting that McCune chose to mention personal highlights that are not normally counted among his achievements.
Following his first state football championship, for instance, the De Smet football team was coming off a 26-game winning streak across its last three seasons. His new football team had lost quite a bit of its talent the previous year, and finished the season with a record of 6-3.
“I have always counted that year as one of my best ever as a coach. It was because of the kids we had, and the success we were able to get out of them,” said McCune.
Sometimes it’s not the record that counts. It’s how you build the men.
As for high points, McCune pointed to the period from ’87 to ’99. In those thirteen years under his leadership, the De Smet boys qualified for nine state tournaments, winning three championship titles.
McCune was all business on game day, but he knew the value of keeping it fun for young athletes.
To motivate the football team back in the early ‘80’s, McCune remembered promising to wear a pair of pantyhose if the team won. The boys pulled their end of the bargain and true to his word, McCune exchanged his pants for some sheer leggings.
The episode reminded McCune of another story concerning his pants.
“I have heard I was a pretty animated coach,” related McCune. “In the ‘80’s, tighter pants were in style. I would jump up and down and squat, whether it was hollering at the refs or at the kids or whatever. I think three or four times, the crotch of my pants ripped out during a game. Then I had to sit on the bench and hide until halftime or the end of the game. At halftime we would go into the locker room, and then we would tape my pants up so I could go out and act respectable again. That was (always) a funny one. A lot of people remember that.”
It is often said that high school sports teach young people important lessons in life. McCune applied this approach in the classroom as well as in sports.
“I love the classroom, and I tried to do the same thing in class as I did on the field. I did the best I could to teach kids about life and lifelong lessons. One thing about the classroom is I could reach the other kids besides the athletes. They will remember me as a storyteller and such. But the first day of class, I always told the kids, the most important thing you learned here is to be a good person,” said McCune referring to his classroom responsibilities. “It’s a big reward for teachers to have former students coming to tell you that you meant something to them. That is a nice reward.”
Ben Jones, one of his former students, recently served as S.D. Secretary of Education and cited McCune as an influence in his life through his history, civics and social studies classes. His inspiration led Jones to his current post as State Historian and Director of the South Dakota State Historical Society.
Jones tweeted, “Marv McCune was a coaching legend because he invested in kids. He spent time coaching me on discus and shot knowing I’d never place, while in class he got me jazzed about history and government. He knew how to help kids find what would pay off for them. Godspeed Mr. McCune.”
Marv McCune was a coaching legend because he invested in kids. He spent time coaching me on discus and shot knowing I’d never place while in class he got me jazzed about history and government. He knew how to help kids find what would pay off for them. Godspeed Mr. McCune. https://t.co/GkfEZm958v— Ben Jones (@SoDakHistorian) April 19, 2021
McCune had just finished his second COVID vaccine shot before the state tournament in March. He had to go watch ”his boys,” so he took all the precautions he could possibly take. Days after the championship win, McCune received his COVID diagnosis. Because of his treatments and immune system, physicians were concerned and sent him to Rochester for medical care.
I asked McCune about his thoughts on COVID. “Well, I certainly hate it right now,” he said. “COVID has really changed the way we do things in school the last two years, and in athletics, too. I am just so happy that we could get the state tournament in. It was such a disappointment last year for both teams, girls and the boys. They both had a chance at doing really well. At least the boys did not miss out two years in a row.”
In closing the interview, which would turn out to be his last with his hometown newspaper, McCune wanted to make sure everyone understood that great things are only accomplished through team effort.
In his parting comments, he shifted the focus from himself and shared credit for his success with others. It was a gracious McCune trademark that many in the community will recognize.
“There is no way I could have done this without all my assistant coaches and head coaches that I coached with throughout the years,” McCune said. “I will miss somebody if I say them all, but they know who they are. Some have been in the De Smet system for a long time, and others are volunteer coaches from the community. They are the ones who helped De Smet, and helped me tremendously, to be successful.”