When the Lakers headed West, John decided living in Minnesota was more important than staying with the team. But Kundla’s coaching story with the Gophers actually begins before that. In 1948 Coach Dave MacMillian, the coach John had played for, retired. One of the first calls the U of M made was to John Kundla, and John Wooden. Kundla passed at the time as he was happy coaching the Minneapolis Lakers. Wooden also passed (this is outside the scope of this blog post, but contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t because of a blizzard). So in came O.B. Cowles.
Cowles was a popular choice at the time but had lost fan support (and rumors were that he was pissing off the Athletic Department making a lot of money selling complementary tickets on the side) and he was out in 1959. Conveniently the Lakers were moving to Los Angeles, and John Kundla wanted to stay in Minneapolis. Here is John talking about passing on moving to LA in a 2015 interview with me.
They offered me a good job, and…but I heard that was really a bad town to bring up a family, and I turned them down. But I think…I'd have had a rough time with them without Mikan and Pollard, then.
So in came John Kundla, the first University of Minnesota alumnus to coach Gophers hoops. The most notable thing Coach Kundla did for the Gophers was to break the color barrier. In 1963-4 the Gophers were the last Big Ten team (along with Wisconsin) to play African American players. John brought 3 incredible players in Lou Hudson, Archie Clark and Don Yates. With those 3 on the squad Kundla was able to guide the team to 3rd and 4th place Conference finishes.
"It just makes me sick - what might have been" Kundla said of the 1968 season after beating Ohio St, the eventual Big Ten champ. That year had been typical of Kundla's tenure at the U of M, promising but ultimately disappointing. Despite beating a Final Four caliber team in the Buckeyes the 1968 team finished in 9th place.
The stress of the job had gotten to Kundla had developed ulcers during the season. Having won 6 titles with the Lakers he was unable to bring the University of Minnesota a Big Ten Title, its first since he had been a player in 1936-7.
Kundla retired after the 1968 season, his own harshest critic he blamed his inability to recruit as the main reason why his teams didn’t achieve the success he wanted. It doesn’t seem like recruiting was all bad. Kundla discovered Lou Hudson in North Carolina and a Gopher scout saw Archie play a pickup game in Maryland.