DELANO – For 46 years, there’s been only one man pacing the sidelines as head coach of the Delano football team. Come this fall, there will be a new face.
Over the span of four decades, Merrill Pavlovich has been the leader for the Tigers on the sidelines. After winning more than 300 games, the legendary high school football coach is hanging it up.
“There are several reasons,” Pavlovich said about stepping down. “Age is one of them. I’m going to be 75 in April. It’s been a long time that I’ve been doing this. I’ve always had the rule of thumb that when I get up in the morning, if I look forward to going out to the field and enjoying it, then I’ll stay. That’s been my rule of thumb. The last couple of years has taken a toll on me. That made me think that it might be time and I think it is time.”
The last two years of coaching have been anything but easy for Pavlovich. After playing just four games in 2020 as teams across the state battled COVID-19, 2021 was a tough year as well for Delano competing in one of the toughest districts in the state.
When the Minnesota State High School made the switch to districts in 2015 instead of playing a conference schedule, that was a move that didn’t sit well with Pavlovich. Delano has often been put in districts that requires more travel than most teams in the state while also playing schools much bigger than them as well.
“I think district football has been nothing but a nightmare,” Pavlovich said. “Three years ago, we played Moorhead. There wasn’t a team in the state of Minnesota that traveled farther than we did to play them. We passed many school districts that we could have played on the way up there. Then the school we played was two and a half times bigger than we were. The matchups were absolutely terrible.”
The move to districts hasn’t always been bad for Delano. Often in the same district as the Becker Bulldogs, a friendship and rivalry has developed over the years between two of the top coaches in high school football history in Minnesota.
“Pav and I have been competing against each other on the gridiron for 40 plus years,” Becker coach Dwight Lundeen said. “District changes have separated Becker and Delano at times, but we have always stayed connected with scrimmages and lower level games.”
Pavlovich and Lundeen rank among the best when it comes to wins in high school football in Minnesota.
As his coaching career comes to an end, Pavlovich is ranked fifth in state history with 315 career wins. Lundeen, still an active coach, is ranked third with 382 wins. Between the two friends and rivals, they’ve combined for nearly 700 total wins.
“Our lives have somewhat paralleled each other as coaches, activities directors, and executive secretaries of our conference,” Lundeen said. “He has been very successful as a football coach, leading Delano to over 300 wins in his 40 years of coaching. Only good coaches win that many games.”
“I can’t recall all of those 40 years of coaching,” Pavlovich added. “I don’t know where all the wins came from. They went by in a hurry. When I look at a list like that, there are some great names. We won a lot of games that we shouldn’t have and we lost a lot of games that we shouldn’t have either.”
While Pavlovich and Lundeen certainly had their rivalries over the years, their friendship remains the most important thing.
“I am blessed to call Pav my friend,” Lundeen said. “At times when I needed help with our football program, Pav was often my first call. He would always listen and help me work things out. I appreciate his willingness to work for the good of Minnesota high school football. I wish him nothing but the best in his retirement. and I look forward to joining him on Lake Vermillion. I know he can find a 28-inch walleye for me.”
Pavlovich’s presence won’t only be missed by other coaches he competed against, but also by his players. In his four decades of coaching at Delano High School, the number of kids and their names that he’s molded and shaped goes on and on.
“I’ve got a pretty good memory yet,” Pavlovich said. “It’s surprising how many kids I can still see their numbers in my head. They’ll come up and talk to me and I’ll say ‘Hey, 83. It’s just kind of funny that way. One year of our football camp, I put a list of kids that have been in our program in the paper. It covered the whole page. To do that today, it would be even more difficult because there are so many more names.”
To be a coach for 40 years is nearly unheard of in today’s day and age. To do it all at the same place is even rarer. While Pavlovich admits his coaching career has flown by, he won’t hesitate to admit that he enjoyed it all.
“One of the toughest things about how long I’ve coached is there is no way I can recall those 40 years of coaching,” Pavlovich said. “I don’t know where they went. They went by so fast. When those years go by so quickly, that’s a sign that you’ve probably enjoyed what you’re doing and I really did.”
Pavlovich came to Delano in 1970 from the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. In his 50-plus years of being in Delano, he never left as he knew it would be a good home for him. While Delano certainly has changed over the years of his coaching career, it’s all been for the better on and off the field.
“I came here in 1970 and I never left,” Pavlovich said. “I had some opportunities to go elsewhere but I chose to stay here. It’s been a great community. I came from the Iron Range. Every school had an auditorium, football field, and a swimming pool. We had the best of the best in the Iron Range. I never bought a tennis shoe, a piece of paper or anything. It was always provided for you. When I got to Delano in 1970, it was like the Iron Range was driving a Cadillac and Delano was driving an old Chevrolet. Nearly 50 years later, it’s all reversed. We have outstanding facilities and a great school system.”
Coaching hasn’t always been easy for Pavlovich, especially of late. In his early years of coaching, he was often surrounded by the same people every season. As the years went on and he got older, those same people began to disappear around him.
“That was another reason for me stepping down,” Pavlovich said. “I went to a funeral this summer for a good friend. That was hard on me because we’ve been friends for as long as I’ve coached. I lost a lot of my assistants along the way too. When you lose all those people, it kind of takes away from some of the fun you’ve established over the years. We’ve been through so many years together. We came from the same era.”
While Delano’s staff with Pavlovich has changed over the years, one thing has remained the same. When fans attend a Delano football game, they’ll know exactly what they will see each and every game before kickoff.
“One of the things I’ve always been proud of the Delano football team is if you ever watch us when the National Anthem is being played, we’re in the end zone, our helmets are on the left side, and hands are across our chest,” he said. “There’s no disrespect. We practice it one time and the kids know from that point on. Everyone is paying respect to that time and to the flag.”
While the faces have changed along the end zone line over the years, there are some familiar faces as well. The bonus of coaching for more than four decades means that some of the players you coach just might want to come back and help once they moved on.
“When I look down that end zone, one of the best moments I’ve ever had is looking and seeing how many assistant coaches are former players,” Pavlovich said. “There’s probably 15 or 16 guys that have given their time back to the program. I think that always says a lot about your program. They came back wanting to give something back to the program they left.”
As Pavlovich moves on from his storied coaching career, he’ll still be around the game. You can also find him out on Lake Vermilion wetting a line, but just don’t ask him for his hot spot. If he’s not out on the lake, you can bet you’ll find him in the stands under the Friday Night Lights taking in a game that he’s given so much to over the years.
“Coming up in the fall, I like to fish and want to spend more time on Lake Vermilion,” he said. “I’ll also get the opportunity to get out and see other games. You’re kind of restricted to games you see when you’re coaching. Now I’ll have a chance to go out and see other teams play a bit.”
Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar_HJSports