BLOOMINGTON — In his 32 years teaching physical education and his 34 years as football coach, Jerry Usgaard has undoubtedly made a lasting impression on hundreds, if not thousands, of student/athletes at Bloomington, West Grant and River Ridge High Schools.
At the age of 80, the longtime leader of the Bluejays passed away on Saturday, May 7, leaving behind a legacy that will most certainly last for decades.
For Usgaard, it wasn’t the accolades or the notoriety that fueled his love of coaching high school football, even though he had plenty of both throughout the course of his career.
It all came to a culmination in 2001 with his induction into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, and eight years later with the naming of Usgaard Field at the former Bloomington High School location.
“I love working with young people and I love competing,” Usgaard said in an article written for his Hall of Fame induction in 2001. “Win or lose, I get a big kick out of competing.”
Usgaard had a love for sports, and particularly football, at an early age.
A 1959 graduate of Mabel High School (Minn.) Usgaard played football, basketball, baseball and track, and was named to the Winona Daily News District 1 All-Conference first team in football and second team in basketball his senior year.
After graduation, he enlisted into the Army for three years and was stationed on Okinawa for most of his service before being honorably discharged in March of 1963.
That fall he enrolled at Winona State College, where he played football for four years, lettering in three, and eventually earning his B.S. Degree in Physical Education in May of 1968.
In the fall of 1968, Usgaard’s job search led him to Bloomington High School, where he went on to teach physical education for 32 years and was athletic director for 17 years.
On Aug. 31, 1968, Usgaard took the field for the first time as head football coach of the Bloomington Bluejays, who went 2-5-1 that year to finish seventh in the Blackhawk conference. The following year, Bloomington went 7-2, sharing the conference title with the Comets of Cassville.
The football seasons of 1970, 1971 and 1972 were particularly special for fans and players at BHS, but not so much for their opponents.
During those three seasons, the Bluejays were a combined 26-0, and in 1971 had the highest scoring offense in the state, averaging 53 points per game, while their defense gave up just an average of five points per contest. Unfortunately the WIAA had not installed their playoff system until two years later.
Usgaard’s Bluejays wouldn’t win another conference football championship until 1981, then had to wait until 1988 for another.
In 1992, he led the Bloomington/West Grant co-op squad to a conference title, and a memorable come-from-behind playoff win over previously unbeaten Cashton.
As the inaugural coach at the newly consolidated River Ridge High School, Usgaard’s 1995 squad captured his eighth conference title and went 2-1 in the division 6 playoff field.
The 1997 season was perhaps one of Usgaard’s most memorable, despite finishing in a tie for fourth place in the conference standings with a regular-season record of 5-3.
In the division 6 playoff field, the Timberwolves went on a four-game winning streak that landed coach Usgaard at Camp Randall Stadium playing for a state championship. The Timberwolves finished as state runners-up to Flambeau, who defeated River Ridge, 28-14.
“That really topped off my career,” Usgaard said in a 2001 article. “Having so many good teams before the playoffs were installed, a lot of people were wondering if we’d get another shot.”
After serving as football coach at Bloomington for 18 seasons, then nine for the Bloomington/West Grant co-op, and seven more for River Ridge, Usgaard hung up his whistle following the 2001 season.
He retired with a career coaching record of 206-113-1, winning eight conference titles, while also making nine playoff appearances, two state semi-final appearances and one state championship appearance.
Usgaard’s coaching style will forever be remembered by his former players, who ran the traditional triple-option out of the stacked I formation. Power football was what Bloomington was known for.
Recognized mostly for his role as head football coach, Usgaard also served three years as head track coach, one year as head basketball coach and one year as head baseball coach at BHS.
He was also an assistant coach for then head coach Ron Benish, during the 1971-72 basketball season in which the Bluejays brought home the Class B State Championship.
He was the Blackhawk conference commissioner from 1992 to 1996, was a WIAA baseball umpire for six years and a WIAA track and field official for 20 years.
When talking with my former coach about his Hall of Fame induction back in 2001, I asked coach Usgaard to list his greatest coaching accomplishment. Without hesitation, this is what he said 21 years ago.
“Obviously it was nice to be runner ups at the state finals, but I’d like to think that the majority of kids have enjoyed playing football for me. If that’s the case, then I think that is a major accomplishment.”
Coach Usgaard was preceded in death by his mother June Oakes and nephew Kyle. He is survived by his brothers Davis (Sharon) and Dennis, along with numerous nieces and nephews.
Services for Jerome Raymond Usgaard will be held Wednesday, May 18, at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Prairie du Chien. Visitation will begin at 11 a.m. with a service to start at Noon. Burial will be in Mabel, Minnesota.