Zigurds “Ziggy” Kauls is one of the best-known coaches in Minnesota history, having guided the boys basketball team at Mounds View High School for 45 years. Kauls, who will retire after this season, ranks third in career coaching victories in his sport, has taken 12 teams to state tournaments and owns two state championships.
In the job since 1967, Kauls has coached three Mr. Basketball award winners and is a member of the MSHSL Hall of Fame and the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He may have even invented the concept of the open gym during the offseason.
The court at Mounds View has received a new adornment, with the words “Kauls Court” painted in large letters near both mid-court sidelines. The court will be officially dedicated in Kauls’ honor on Jan. 13 when the Mustangs host East Ridge in a Suburban East Conference game.
Kauls, 70, should write a book. If he does, however, high school basketball in Minnesota won’t be the only subject. History – personal history – is a major part of his story.
I talked with Kauls after a game earlier this week, sitting with him in the near-empty Mounds View gym, and we chatted again on the phone a day later. He told me about his aunt, Edith “Oma” Kauls, who was 99 years old when she died on New Year’s Day. Edith was born in Latvia, as was her nephew Zigurds. The memories flowed as we talked…
Kauls has a scar on his neck from an injury suffered when he was 4 years old. As he told me, “I fell into a bombed-out window.” This was in 1945, and it’s one of his earliest memories. He received medical attention from a group of nuns, but he just remembers seeing people dressed in black and white. “And I remember getting pushed in a cart to where they did the sewing.”
Latvia, in the Baltic region of northern Europe, was not a pleasant place in the World War II era. Kauls, who was born during the war, said “Russians occupied the Baltic states before the war. Then the Germans occupied it, then Russians re-occupied. That’s not a good deal. It was best to get out of there.”
Because Kauls’ father could speak German the family was able to relocate to Germany, where they lived in a refugee camp that housed about 2,000 people. From there the Kauls – parents Alma and Teodors, six children (sons Teodors, Ivars, Zigurds, Juris and Andris and daughter Mara) and their grandmother – traveled to the United States, arriving in late December1949.
“We were originally destined for Northfield,” Kauls said, “but when the sponsors found out it was a family of six kids and a grandmother they said they couldn’t handle it.”
The president of the school board in Forest Lake – who had a small farm where he grew strawberries and had dairy cows and pigs -- offered to take in the Kauls. They lived in the basement of the family home for almost a year and then were able to rent a house not far from there.
Kauls’ parents found employment and the children worked on the farm and did other jobs. Edith’s family came to the area in 1952, and some of the Kauls kids found work with a contractor in Forest Lake. “He hired my oldest brother Ted and my cousin Guido to work for him,” Ziggy said. “We were like little helpers; we’d bring shingles to the roof, we helped with waterproofing, we helped the carpenters.”
All the Kauls pooled their money – Ziggy didn’t keep a penny until he graduated from high school – until the parents were able to repay the overland portion of their trip to Minnesota.
Ziggy and his brothers were outstanding athletes at Forest Lake, playing multiple sports. Mounds View athletic director Bob Madison has heard the story of Ziggy, as a high school basketball player, asking the coach for keys to the gym so he and his teammates could work on their shooting skills.
“He probably created the concept of open gym before he graduated from high school,” Madison said.
Kerwin Englehart, who was the Forest Lake basketball coach when Ziggy was a junior and senior and later became athletic director for Rochester public schools, confirmed the open gym story.
“He came to me and assured me there was no problem and he would handle everything,” Engelhart said. “And there was no problem. He was a very good player, very hard-working and dedicated, very coachable. I’m very proud of him.”
Ted Kauls played basketball at the University of Minnesota until suffering a knee injury and Ivars Kauls played football for the Gophers and was a standout on the track team. Ziggy played basketball at Hamline under legendary coach Joe Hutton. That’s where the idea of becoming a coach began.
In the fall of 1962 he was a student-teacher at Mounds View. He graduated from Hamline the following spring and was hired as a teacher at Mounds View. When the district opened Irondale High School in 1967, Mounds View boys basketball coach Jim Geske – the only coach in program history -- became Irondale’s first athletic director.
“The guys on staff had been head coaches and had no desire to be head coaches again,” said Kauls, who had done some scouting for Geske. “The principal called me in and asked if I wanted to be the head coach. I said I didn’t have much experience and he said, ‘We’ll give you a chance.’ ”
And now, 45 years down the road, Kauls has a record of 728 victories and 349 losses. The only Minnesota boys basketball coaches with more wins are Bob McDonald of Chisholm (975-392) and Bob Brink of Rocori (924-320).
When Madison was named athletic director at Mounds View 10 years ago, he didn’t know Kauls and was unsure how the longtime coach would view him.
“Ziggy welcomed me with open arms,” Madison said. “Once I was on board I was a Mustang, and he treated me that way. He had two expectations, that the baskets were at 10 feet and the floor got swept. He needs a gym and a ball, and that’s about it.”
Kauls led the Mustangs to the state tournament for the first time in 1972, and they won the Class 2A championship. Eleven more trips to state followed, including the 1999 Class 4A championship. Mounds View’s Steve Schlotthauer (1986), Nick Horvath (1999) and Travis Busch (2005) were named Mr. Basketball in Minnesota.
“We always talk about doing things that you know how to do well and not doing things that make you look bad,” Kauls said. “You have to gauge, you have to know what it is and it will change from game to game. Consistency is important, and eventually consistency gets you to tradition.”
This year’s team has a record of 7-2 and will play at White Bear Lake on Friday night.
“It’s not all about basketball for Coach Kauls,” Madison said. “A lot of people assume life for him is just basketball, but it’s really not. Basketball is a huge passion or him, it’s like an extreme hobby and he loves everything about basketball.
“But what he really loves about it is what it does for young men; the dedication, the discipline, the class. A team slogan is Tradition Never Graduates, and they’re producing success. No matter the sport, that should be the goal. For Zig, basketball is the vehicle he uses to get young men there.”
Indeed, Kauls helps young men get there, while always remembering where he has been.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 235
*Miles John has driven: 5,512
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