Minnesota Gophers coaching legend John Kundla died Sunday night at the age of 101. While Kundla is most remembered for coaching the Minneapolis Lakers to six professional Championships in the late-1940s and 1950s, Kundla also coached as his alma mater from 1959 through 1968.
John Kundla was born near Pittsburgh in 1916 and moved to Minnesota when he was five years old. He and his mother left his coal mining father behind in Pennsylvania, and he ever joined them in Minnesota. He would graduate from Minneapolis Central High School and enroll at the U in 1935. Kundla would earn three letters (back when freshmen could not play) and helped the Gophers win the Big Ten Championship in the 1936-37 season. In the 1938-39 season, he set the Gophers' single-season scoring record of 210 points, and in the spring of 1939 was awarded the Big Ten’s Medal of Honor for academic and athletic excellence.
Kundla immediately found success in the coaching profession. As his Star Tribune obituary describes:
In January 1941, he became an assistant basketball coach for the Gophers. The Minneapolis Tribune reported his hiring by writing, “the return of Kundla as a coach brings back one of the best-liked Gopher athletes in Minnesota history.”
Eighteen months later, Kundla was hired to teach and coach baseball, basketball and football at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis. The Minneapolis Tribune’s Charles Johnson applauded the hire by writing, “De La Salle made no mistake when it picked Johnny Kundla ... Unless we miss our guess, this former Gopher luminary eventually will develop into one of the most successful mentors the University has ever turned out.”
In his second season, Kundla, who taught world history at DeLaSalle, coached the Islanders to the championship of the state Catholic basketball tournament.
“I was hired as football, basketball and baseball coach because they didn’t have enough money to hire more than one coach,” Kundla told Hennepin History magazine in 2013. “I loved coaching at DeLaSalle, although the close games were hard to take. I remember when we lost to St. Thomas with five seconds to go … I almost drove the bus into the river after that one.”
In April 1944, one month after winning the state title, he joined the U.S. Navy and served in the Pacific.
It would be just the start of an epic coaching career. After returning from the war, he coached at the University of St. Thomas for one season before becoming coach of the Minneapolis Lakers in 1947 at the age of 31. In his first seven years as head of the Lakers, he would lead them to six league championships in three different leagues (The National Basketball League in 1948, the Basketball Association of America in 1949, and then the NBA).
Kundla is one of just three NBA coaches to win three consecutive titles (Red Auerbach and Pat Riley are the others). After the 956-57 season Kundla moved to the front office of the Lakers, but would return midway through the 1957-58 season and coach until the end of the 1958-59 season-a year before the Lakers move to Los Angeles. He would coach six NBA Hall of Famers in his time with the Lakers.
After the 1958-59 season, Kundla became the first Gopher alum to become the school’s head coach. Unfortunately for Gopher fans he would not find the complete success he had with the Lakers. Kundla would coach the Gophers until the end of the 1967-68 season. In nine seasons he finished with a total record of 110-105, and a 67-59 Big Ten record. His best season was the 1964-65 season when the Gophers finished second in the Big Ten with a 11-3 record and finished 19-5 overall. Only Big Ten champion Michigan were invited to the NCAA Tournament that season.
Kundla would coach several Gopher legends including Lou Hudson, Al Nuness, and Archie Clark. Kundla was the first Gopher Basketball coach to offer scholarships to African-Americans. The first Gopher African-American to play for Kundla in 1961? How about Minnesota legend and NFL Hall Of Fame member Bobby Bell.
After his coaching career at the U was complete, Kundla would continue to teach physical education at the U until his retirement in 1981. He would be elected to the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995.
Kundla’s legacy lives on in his basketball family—called the First Family of Minnesota Basketball by many. Five of Kundla’s six grandchildren played college basketball including Isaiah Dahlman who was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball in 2006, held the boys’ state career scoring mark when he graduated and would play at Michigan State. Noah Dahlman would play at Wofford and Rebekah who was Minnesota’s Miss Basketball in 2013, is the all-time leading scorer in state girls’ basketball history and plays for SEC power Vanderbilt.
There will never be another John Kundla. His role in the growth of Minnesota basketball can never be understated. We honor and remember a Gopher icon who lived a long and prosperous life.