Coach Jansen: A Legacy for Valley City

Sheila Anderson
Staff Writer

An essential part of the history of high school athletics in Valley City can be traced back to one man, Coach Bill Jansen.

His tenure as a coach and teacher at Valley City High School lasted from 1970 to 2003, when he passed away at the age of 65 after a battle with leukemia. He began coaching at Tuttle, staying there from 1960 to 1970.

1970s Girls’ Track and Field
Part of the legacy created by Coach Jansen was in girls’ track and field in the early 1970s. After the team won the state championship in 1969, they went on to win again three out of the next four years, with the first title coming in 1971, and the next two in 1973 and 1974.

One student athlete from the team that won in 1973 and 1974 remembers the impact Coach Jansen had on her life as well as the hard work put in by team members.

Mary Lee Nielson (nee Peterson) participated in track with Coach Jansen from 1972 to 1975, competing in three sprint relays, as that was the limit on events at the time. She competed in the 440 yard relay, the 880 yard relay and the medley relay, consisting of one runner going 220 yards, two runners running 110 yards and the anchor completing the last 440 yards.

“He was especially fond of making us run hill intervals on the road to the Catholic cemetery east of town,” Nielson said. “We would say we were dying and he would tell us to dig deeper.  We all found out that there was a "deeper" place in each of us.”

Nielson also remembers how Coach Jansen was able to do meets on paper to figure out what was necessary to win. He was aware of the the current times leading the state in each event, and always figuring out how the points would go.

Nielson said in Minot in 1973, winning the state title came down to the final event, the medley relay.

“We needed to win the relay to get the championship,” Nielson said. “Coach Jansen was antsy the whole day. I think he had figured it would go to the last event. The first three runners had gained a substantial lead when I gave the baton to Lucy Challey who had to run the final lap. She was overtaken but on the final straight away she started coming on and passed the Dickinson runner on the inside to win- unheard of but Mr. Jansen always said the shortest distance was on the inside and Lucy listened!”

The Hi-Liner girls defended their state title at Lokken Field in Valley City, with Jansen having more confidence in the potential outcome.

“I know now that Coach Jansen knew that we should win handily,” Nielson said. “He didn't pace at the top of the stands like he had done in Minot. I think he enjoyed the fruits of his labor that day-  all season he had convinced us all to run our guts out in practice and to give our all during meets. We blew away the competition that day. It was an appropriate outcome to all the work and training schedules put together by Coach Jansen.”

Nielson said the impact passed down to the next generation as well.

“I went to many Hi-Liner track meets over the years with my sons on the track team too,” Nielson said. “I was on one of Coach Jansen's first teams and my son Mark was on his last team.  Mark and many members of the team shaved their heads to show solidarity with Coach Jansen during his illness. We lost a great Hi-Liner who found a way to encourage many athletes to dig deeper and get more than you thought you could give. Thank you Coach Jansen!”

Coach Jansen led teams to a total of eight state titles. In addition to the track and field teams of the early 1970s, the state title teams included the 1980 VCHS girls’ cross country team, the 1966 and 1967 Tuttle boys’ cross country teams, and the 2001 VCHS boys’ cross country team.

Jansen received coach of the year awards on the state level seven times, and once on a national level. In 1979 he was named the National High School Athletic Coaches Association Coach of the Year.

Coach Jansen and His Far-Reaching Impact
Bill’s widow, Marge Jansen, said in the beginning of his career, he actually planned to start a baseball team. When only seven boys showed up at the meeting, he decided to form a track and field team instead.

“That’s how it started,” Marge Jansen said.

Marge Jansen said although Bill was busy with coaching and teaching, he was a great family man.

The couple had four children, Billy, David, Mark and Aaron. She added that he would help motivate the kids by handing out booklets after each season, with photos and highlights of the season.

Billy Jansen followed in his father’s footsteps and teaches and coaches at Rugby High School.

“I had the great opportunity to interact with my dad as a student, an athlete, a co-worker, a fellow coach, and of course as his son,” Billy Jansen said. “My father was very competitive and cared deeply about everything he did. He worked very hard. He lead by example. I grew up with that example and the best testament I can give my father is that I am following in his footsteps. I have been coaching for 33 years and teaching for 27 years.”

Coach Jansen’s teams won 75 conference titles over the years and logged 971 career wins. Over the 43 years, Bill taught and coached he positively impacted the lives of countless students athletes.

One student athlete who worked with Coach Jansen in the 1980s is Stacie Bell (Froelich) who graduated in 1987. Bell said Coach Jansen’s legacy is defined by the dedication, passion and giving spirit he exhibited on and off the track, both for his students and for Valley City.

“He was also a tremendous coach, the best I have ever had,” Bell said.

Bell added that Coach Jansen’s characteristics included high integrity, determination and encouragement and added that his respectful and professional behavior with peers, parents and teachers was an example she still thinks about after being in the professional community for nearly 30 years.

“Mr. J. Made everyone that dedicated themselves feel like champions even if they did not win a ribbon or medal,” Bell said. “He had high expectations, but also demonstrated a support that set him apart from other teachers and coaches.”

Coach Jansen instilled confidence and ethics in his students and athletes that stayed with them far past high school.

“He emphasized that hard work and determination would result in success,” Bell said. “Through his encouragement, athletes achieved things they never thought possible. He instilled confidence in me that took me well beyond track in all areas of my life. At the time, I am not sure all of us realized all he was trying to teach us. After all these years, he is still making an impact on his students. Even though he coached individuals, many of whom excelled in individual events, he emphasized teamwork. He helped everyone believe in themselves, in others and to strive to be the best you can be.”

For those who may not have known Coach Jansen, Bell said understanding the depth of his impact on others can be seen in the leadership shown by his former students and athletes and how they have carried his teaching into their adults lives. And in how his students continue to honor him in how they impact the world around them.

Rory Beil also graduated from VCHS in 1987 and believes the care Coach Jansen showed the kids he worked with defines his legacy as well.

“He was a man of few words so when he did talk you listened closely,” Beil said. “Kids knew he cared about them. Having caring adults in a child’s life besides parents is very important. It is strong predictor of resiliency. He knew that before the research showed it.”

Beil pointed out that different kids were impacted in different ways by Coach Jansen’s influence.

“For me, I am a high school track coach 31 years after leaving VCHS because of Mr. J.,” Bell said. “I followed his footsteps and fell in love with the sport, its simplicity, its accessibility to all, etc. Track and field isn’t ‘cool’ at all schools but it is at my school now because it was at VCHS then.”

Bell is the head coach at Fargo Davies High School.

Coach Jansen’s principles helped guide his students and athletes, according to Beil. “You knew where he stood,” Bell said. “He was a rock. His kids were fun but always respectful. They learned from him. The bar for expectations always felt higher around Mr. J.”

Beil added that faith, physical activity and health were all important to Coach Jansen who led the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“We would routinely see him jogging around town, mostly on the steep road around Pioneer Park before jogging became cool,” Bell said. “His lifestyle and actions spoke volumes about who he was. They spoke so loudly he didn’t need to say much.”

Bell can remember vividly his conversations with Coach Jansen, where they were and what Coach Jansen said.

“I suspect most of the athletes that competed for Mr. J, certainly those who competed in the 70s and 80s, made some of the best memories of their life while competing for him at Hanna Field,” Bell said. “I did.”

Coach Jansen even found a way to help Bell at the Packer Relays in West Fargo when facing chronic hamstring issues that plagued him his senior year.

“I needed an alternative so suggested to him I run to my grandma’s house down the street and back to stay in shape in lieu of hurdling,” Bell said. “He thought running the 800m (for the first time in my life) was a better idea. I ran and qualified for the state track meet. Later he told me he knew I would. That experience stretched my perception of what I was capable of.”

At Beil’s final track meet as a Hi-Liner, he faced disappointment that Coach Jansen helped him through.

“At the state track meet my senior year in 1987 I was one of the favorites in the 300m hurdles,” Bell said. “It was the second event on the final day and I was scheduled to run two events after it. In the finals, however, I false started and was disqualified. I had hoped to be a state champion. Instead, I didn’t even get to run. I was distraught. As I sat crying next to the fence behind the starting line, Mr. J calmly walked up to me and said matter of factly, “if you are going to feel sorry for yourself, you might as well go home” then walked away. I was so mad at him after it but I told him years later that that was exactly what I needed. He knew it.”

Lynda Brandt (Sauer), who spent 11 seasons competing for VCHS in cross country and track, said it is hard for her to put into words what Coach Jansen meant to her.

“He has a special place in my heart,” Brandt said. “He drove out to my farm to ‘invite’ me to be on the cross country team the summer before seventh grade.”

Brandt graduated in 1989 and said she knew Coach Jansen believed in her.

“He expected us to be our best, on and off the track,” Brandt said. “He was a great role model for us.”

She recalls Coach Jansen winning the North Dakota High School Coaches Association Coach of the Year award for girls’ track and field in 1988.

“He was so deserving!” Brandt said. “It was an honor to run on his team.”

Coach Jansen’s organization is another trait Brandt remembers, recalling how he would keep track of all the records and statistics and compile them into the color-coded books he handed out at the end of the season.

Jansen’s legacy will live beyond the awards, statistics and titles. It is in the hearts and minds of all those who were inspired and motivated by him to succeed.