GRAND RAPIDS — For the first time since the 1990-1991 season, Dan Elhard will not be on the sidelines during a Grand Rapids High School boys basketball game.
That’s because Elhard, 55, who has spent the past 18 seasons as head coach of the Thunderhawks, resigned recently mostly due to concerns of the pandemic and its possible ramifications.
“It was a combination of things but the virus I think was a big part of it. My wife (Angela) is a cancer survivor and chemo survivor and I just didn’t want to put her at risk,” Elhard said. “If that wouldn’t have arose, it is likely I would have stayed on.
“But it got tougher the older I got, especially the things in the off season. It’s a year-around commitment and there are a lot of sacrifices along the way. At this point, I felt I needed to step back.”
Elhard – a native of Northome – coached one year at Goodhue, Minn., before starting at Grand Rapids where he served as an assistant coach to Rod Eidelbes and also coached football for a bit.
After graduating from Northome High School, Elhard played two years at Crookston Junior College before transferring and playing at the University of Minnesota-Morris. After coming to Grand Rapids, Elhard said he enjoyed serving as an assistant to Eidelbes.
“Over the years – I don’t know if it was osmosis or what – we just seemed like we shared a brain after awhile,” said Elhard about his relationship with Eidelbes. “We had a great working relationship and I can’t say enough about what Rod did to further my coaching career. I think it was about the fourth year or so when he turned over the defense to me so I had a designated time during practice to work on that. It seemed to work for us well.”
After an exciting run for the Thunderhawks to the state tournament in 2001-02, Eidelbes stepped down as head coach with Elhard taking over at age 37. Grand Rapids placed third in the state tournament that year and following the final game, Eidelbes told Elhard he was stepping down.
“It was exciting but it was pretty daunting too,” Elhard said. “It was only the second time that Grand Rapids had been in the state tournament for 75 years and Rod turned to me and told me the program was mine and that he was done.
“Wow! It was some big shoes to step in but we had a good program built up and of course, it helped to have Eric Webb coming back for his senior year to help the rookie coach.”
It was obvious that Elhard was ready for the job, and during the next 18 years he guided Grand Rapids to nine state tournaments, a success rate that few coaches are able to achieve.
“It was a great run; it was a lot of fun and we had a lot of very good players,” Elhard explained. “It’s a pleasure to coach when you have kids that are buying into what you are trying to do and we had a lot of those kids.”
Of the nine state tournaments, the top finish for the Thunderhawks was a second place finish in 2010.
“There are lots of good memories,” said Elhard. “It’s hard to top that 2010 run at the state tournament as far as memories go. We had a tremendous year; we went down there with just two losses on the year and we were 24-2 and ranked third in the state, but we didn’t get seeded. We felt it was a big slap in the face and we put the old chip on our shoulder and we knocked off two seeded teams and came within one possession of knocking off the No. 1 team in the state. So, it was a fantastic run and so much fun.
“It was capped off by beating DeLaSalle in double overtime and that game was just bonkers. I think that was the last time (DeLaSalle) got beat at state as I think they rattled off six titles in a row.”
Elhard was asked who he thought were the top five players he coached during his tenure in the program and in no particular order he named Dusty Rychart, Eric Webb, Alex Illikainen, Jake Skelly and John Sutherland.
“Dusty Rychart was the player that broke through and showed everybody how good a player can be in Northern Minnesota,” Elhard explained. “To show it was possible to be able to take your game to the big stage.
“Eric Webb was just a magician; he was the Pete Maravich of Grand Rapids basketball. He was a tremendous ambassador of the game around here and he became such a role model for the younger kids.
“Alex Illikainen was just tremendous and it was unbelievable how good he was at such a young age. He was just so phenomenal as an eighth grade averaging 17, 18 points a game. Of course, he went on to a successful career and is playing some professional ball right now.
“Jake Skelly played with such heart and tenacity. He got every ounce out of his abilities and it was just a pleasure to watch him compete. He probably competed harder than any player in practices; he was just always on the go and he was just a pleasure to coach. He will be a great coach some day.
“Johnny Sutherland was just a phenomenal player; it was amazing how much he grew in the four years and that is all a credit to his tenacity and his work ethic year around. He took advantage of every opportunity that was out there and turned himself into a phenomenal player. I think he is going to have a great career at UMD, and he probably is one who could have played at Division I. He is probably the best pure scorer I have ever seen at Grand Rapids.”
Elhard will be replaced by assistant Scott Bachmann. He said he will assist Bachmann behind the scenes with some film work and preparation stats. He said he hasn’t gone through a winter without basketball in about 45 years so he is curious to see how he will handle the break.
“I still love the game but we will see what it is like in a year,” said Elhard. “My wife and I bought a place out in the country and we are real excited about that. I am just so grateful to the community and to the school to give me an opportunity to coach. It was just a pleasure, just fantastic. I have heard horror stories where coaches get run out here and there, but I just always felt support and belonging here. I just can’t say enough about the school administration to the parents to the general community; it was just a great run and the kids were just fantastic.
“The memories will keep me going.”