St. Croix Lutheran head football coach set to retire


Carl Lemke

One local football coach has decided to hang up the whistle and put away the playbook after 46 years of coaching and five state championships at the high school level. 

Carl Lemke, 72, spent 23 years as the head football coach at West St. Paul’s St. Croix Lutheran High School. He coached the Crusaders to eight conference championships and two state titles in four prep bowl appearances. 

“I care about football in the state and everywhere because I think it’s great for young men, and here at St. Croix,” Lemke said. “I knew it was my time to step back and have someone else stimulate the program.”

The lean but sturdy 5-foot-8-inch coach was born in the small town of Morrison, Wisconsin, about 18 miles south of Green Bay. That’s where football became Lemke’s life. 

Some may not believe it by looking at him, but he played center and middle linebacker in high school. His coaching success may have stemmed from his following of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s when the legendary Vince Lombardi was coach. 

Lemke got his first coaching job as an assistant in New Ulm at Martin Luther Academy in 1968, and the following year he was head coach of the program. After that, he took a five-year break from coaching, teaching grade school and serving as principal of a Lutheran school in Mankato. 

He earned his first state title in Wisconsin when he coached at Martin Luther Preparatory School in Prairie du Chien during the 1979 season. Lemke coached there for 11 years — he’d win two more state championships in ‘82 and ‘87 before heading to the Wisconsin Lutheran Academy in Milwaukee. 

 

Forever young

Having hung around high school kids for half a century, Lemke learned how to balance the roles of being a coach and a mentor. He credits the kids for helping him stay young at heart. 

“It just happens so naturally. You just spend so much time with the kids and sometimes you joke back and forth and you just develop a relationship through team activities,” Lemke said. “I try to keep in shape by lifting weights, but these kids are the spark that makes everything go. That’s why you show up everyday — because the kids are great.”

As Lemke got up in age, some might have expected him to stick to the sidelines in a more passive role as coach, but that just wasn’t the case.

During a practice he might have filled in as running back for a few plays, or you may have seen him dusting off his offensive line skills to show kids how to really block in the trenches — he’d encourage players to full-on block him despite his age. 

One time the kids were running live plays in practice and Lemke stepped on the field without knowing exactly which one was being run. That’s when Isaiah Allen, a 6-foot-3 inch, 190-pound running back, plowed into him. Instead of everyone checking on coach, Lemke got up, patted his tail back on the head and asked if the kid was alright. 

 

A winning formula

There are four components that go into having a championship-caliber team, according to Lemke. 

The first part is to have kids who are committed to playing the game. They don’t have to be the greatest athletes, but they must have the will to excel as much as possible. 

Not only do you need committed players, but also committed coaches, who will put their life into making sure the team gets better every second of practice. 

Another huge component is having a school administration that fully backs the program. 

All of that plays a pivotal role in winning a state championship, but Lemke can’t emphasize enough how important it is too to have a supportive family. Luckily, he’s been blessed with having all four during his time as a coach. 

“He’s dedicated and passionate,” said St. Croix athletic director and assistant football coach Ryan Hulse. “He has a love for football and teaching young men how important this game is to them.”

 

The right time

Lemke said he knew it was time for the school to bring in someone younger, someone who could bring more optimism to the program, after the number of players in it dropped from 76 to 42 at the beginning of this last season. 

The Crusaders had graduated 22 seniors but only brought in eight freshmen this year. 

Lemke served as an athletic director for four years while coaching at St. Croix, so he knows how important it is to have a head coach on staff who’s able to interact with the kids on a daily basis. That’s when he realized that he couldn’t get the job done any more. 

“Right there is when it rang a bell with me,” Lemke said. “At my age, I’m no longer in the mode to spend that much time to do what’s necessary to have a good program. It needed to be from a younger staff member.”

Adam Frey will take over as St. Croix Lutheran’s head football coach in July 2019. He was the head coach at Fox Valley Lutheran High School in Appleton, Wisconsin, for four seasons. He’s a younger, defensive-minded coach and seems to fit the bill for what St. Croix is looking for. 

 

Off into the sunset

Lemke’s way of life has been football, so he hopes to do some traveling during future football seasons with his wife. 

“Maybe that’s why I’ve been coaching for so long,” Lemke said. “I don’t golf, I don’t hunt, I don’t fish, I don’t chase women, I don’t do anything, so football is my life.”

Although he’s stepping away from coaching, he still wants to be connected with the Lutheran church and continue to work through it.

In his final season, the coach hit one more milestone. Lemke notched his 300th win earlier in the year, becoming just the seventh coach in Minnesota high school football history to do so. 

 

–Lucas Ailport can be reached at roseville@lillienews.com.

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