Willmar's 'Swanny' patrols Woodbury hoops country
Before 2000, Del Schiffler was the only boys basketball coach Woodbury High School ever had.
Schiffler, who coached 25 years at Woodbury since the day it opened, was one of the state's most successful and well-liked coaches. He led Woodbury to three section titles and one state championship, in 1983, before passing away at the age of 60 after a two-year battle with cancer in September of 2000.
Scott Swansson was an assistant coach under Schiffler for 17 years.
When Swansson took over as head boys basketball coach for Schiffler, he said one of the biggest lessons he learned from the coaching legend was it's a long season and you want the team to be playing its best basketball in March.
This March, Swansson won his third section championship and reached the state tournament for the third time in his 12 years as head coach. Woodbury also reached the state tournament in 2006 and 2007 under Swansson.
"We've had good players for one. That always helps," Swansson said. "But, we've also always tried to get better as the year goes on. We keep our eye on the end of the season. You need to win three games in sections to make it to the state tournament. We keep that in the forefront of our minds."
In all, Swansson has coached at Woodbury High School for 28 years. In addition to basketball, he has also been a longtime assistant football and baseball coach for the Royals.
This year, Swansson -- a native of Willmar and a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College -- said he took his 94th team picture at Woodbury.
"Yeah, I bleed blue. I make no bones about it. I'm proud of it," he said.
One of the players Swansson coached is current Royals head football coach, Andy Hill, who graduated from Woodbury in 1996. Swansson coached Hill when he was a quarterback and was also his 10th grade basketball coach.
"I just really admire the guy. I have since I was in high school," Hill said. "He's the perfect combination of caring about kids and holding kids accountable. For me, it was all about setting high standards and holding kids accountable to those standards. It was also always about us, not about who we were playing. I loved that."
Hill said he remembers well Schiffler's impact at Woodbury. He said he believes Swansson has filled his shoes as well as anyone could have.
"I grew up in the era of Del Schiffler, with him being the legendary basketball coach around here and kids wanting to play for him," Hill said. "For Swanny to do what he has done really speaks to the product he puts on the court year-in and year-out. I think people will be talking about coach Swansson for a long time too."
Hill said the biggest thing Swansson has taught him has been how to develop a team.
"He's taught me how to set goals and progress through a season," Hill said. "It's not just about managing players with the talent level they come in with, but actually trying to continue to have them develop and grow over the course of a season. I might be the head coach, but I still learn a lot from guys that I played for. One of the blessings of being in the position that I am is being able to work with guys that I looked up to for so long."
Swansson was Hill's first social studies teacher in a course called Minnesota Studies.
"He's a great teacher too," Hill said. "When we'd talk about Minnesota, he made us all put our hand over our hearts when we'd talk about Willmar. Even today when somebody says Willmar I want to put my hand over my heart.
"He's a popular teacher," Hill said. "He's funny. He's probably my wife's favorite coach on our staff; she likes to joke with him. He's just real personable. But, he can balance that with still being the benevolent dictator as a coach. I think that's great."
At this year's state tournament, the Woodbury fans filling the Target Center stands chanted "Swanny, Swanny, Swanny," in admiration.
Swansson said the best thing about coaching is the relationships he's formed. He said a number of people contacted him after Woodbury reached the state tournament, beating Roseville in the Section 4AAAA championship game.
"When you make it to the state tournament your phone starts buzzing. Former players and people you met along the way reach out to you and wish you well. That's really neat and kind of fun. The fans were great. You could feel the buzz. I wish we could've given them a couple more games. But, it was really a fun experience. I hope our fans and the people that came to watch us play had fun, too. We really enjoyed their support. We could feel them rooting for us down on the court."
In addition to his players and his assistant coaches, Swansson gave a lot of credit for the program's success to the Woodbury Athletic Association, where a large majority of the team's players come from.
"The WAA has always done a great job and we reap the benefits of kids coming out of those programs," Swansson said. "I haven't had to do too much. You have to give the WAA a lot of credit for doing the right things in our community and getting kids to play the right way."
Hill said Swansson also does things the right way, and for the right reasons, and that's why he's been successful.
Hill said back in 1998 the Woodbury football team was making a run and was about to play the section championship game against rival Hastings. He still remembers what Swansson said before that game.
"He told the team that it wasn't just about this game, it was about adding to the school's tradition and putting a trophy in the trophy case. For him to have taken the basketball team to the state tournament three times in his tenure as coach, that's three section championship trophies that belong to Woodbury High School."
Swansson said he hopes the Royals will add even more trophies in the future.
"I know that the kids that are coming back next year, now that they have a taste for it, they're going to want it more," he said. "That happened in '06 and '07. We're going to have a pretty nice team next year. There's no reason we can't do it again. The section will be tough again, but I feel like our guys may think there's some unfinished business."
Scott Swansson is a 1974 Willmar Senior High School graduate. His senior year he played on state tournament teams in football, basketball and baseball. The Cardinals reached the championship game in both football and baseball, each finishing the runner-up.
-- Patrick Johnson is the sports editor at the South Washington County Bulletin, which is owned by Forum Communications Company