Verndale Football Head Coach Mike Mahlen Nears Career Win 400
In Verndale, Minnesota, on the outskirts of a cornfield, lies a football field named after Minnesota’s all-time winningest high school football coach, Mike Mahlen.
He’s won two state titles, taken home 17 section championships, coached over 40 all-state players, and now he’s one victory away from becoming the first high school coach in Minnesota to reach 400 wins.
Behind all those wins is a fiercely competitive coach.
“I would definitely say he’s one of the most competitive coaches I’ve ever met,” said Greg Johnson, who was a former player under Mahlen from 1987-1990 and is currently an assistant coach.
“I remember coach saying, and it sticks with me, he goes, ‘I’m glad you guys are having fun, but the one thing fun about football is winning,'” said Lance Edin, who was also a former player under Mahlen from 1997-2000 and currently an assistant coach.
As competitive as Mahlen is, he thinks that there are a lot more important things than achieving win number 400.
What matters most is what these kids do when they graduate, what they become and what kind of young men they become and women, I’ve had some girls play for me too, what they do in the future matters a lot to me,” said Mahlen.
One of Mahlen’s former players that he coached is Dave Orlando, who was an offensive lineman on the 1974 and 1975 teams; his son Mike Orlando was also an offensive lineman on Mahlen’s 1992,1993 and 1994 teams. Mike’s son Craig Orlando is currently a senior, recent North Dakota football commit, and scoring machine on the Pirates football team.
Three generations of Orlandos, all coached by the same man.
“You play for them, and then all of a sudden your kids play for him, and now your grandkids are playing for him, you look back and it’s amazing,” said Dave Orlando.
“I always thought it was neat playing for the same coach my dad played for and then a few years down the road my kids are playing for him also,” said Mike Orlando.
Throughout the years, the Orlando family has had quite a few shared memories.
“I know you didn’t want to be behind at halftime, or you were going to get some butt-chewing, I’ve seen a few clipboards get whipped around,” said Mike Orlando.
“Still at halftime, if you’re behind, you get a pretty good butt-chewing,” said Craig Orlando.
“But he ain’t as tough as he used to be,” said Mike Orlando.
“All the kids will say, ‘oh, you were tougher on us, you made us run more,’ every crew that’s been through thinks they’ve had to do the hardest work,” said Mahlen.
The Mahlen effect doesn’t just stop at the kids, as the legendary coach has made an impact on the whole community.
“A lot of people that are past graduates come back to town, everybody meets at the football field and talks about old stories,” said Mike Orlando.
“It’s kind of the one thing that brings everybody together in Verndale,” said Edin.
For Mahlen, reaching the 400 win milestone is the community’s accomplishment just as much as it is his.
“Thanks to parents, and the administration and the kids, all the kids that have played for me, thanks for your support, you’ve supported me and you’ve bought into what we’ve wanted to do and we’ve been successful as a community, not just me, as a school and a community we’ve been successful,” said Mahlen.
The success that former players have off the football field is what keeps Mahlen coming back year after year.
“I know there has been several that football has changed their life, a student of mine was superintendent of the year in Nevada, he told me numerous times, ‘if it wasn’t for football I would have never went to college’ and the reason he didn’t go down the wrong path in high school,” said Mahlen.
The wins and championships have been nice, but for Mahlen, the best part of 51 years at Verndale has been creating the culture and family that is Verndale football.