Like so many who have both taught students and coached athletes, Roger Olson could be loosely, but accurately, compared to a relay runner who passes the baton in a race. His goal was to make everyone a winner. Roger Olson passed away May 1 at the age of 75.
An athlete from the time he was growing up in Battle Lake, Roger could be found playing a variety of sports during his prep days. The lessons Roger learned as a player he enjoyed passing along as a coach.
“He was professional in all he did,” said former Fergus Falls boys’ basketball coach Bob Bjorklund, now the athletic director at Bethel University in St. Paul.
While Bjorklund never competed against the Battle Lake star, he definitely knew who Roger was when he moved to Fergus Falls in 1980. Bjorklund had played high school sports for Henning, a Battle Lake rival.
The two men assisted Don Stueve, another Henning grad, with his Fergus Falls Otters football program. Bjorklund is able to remember many insightful conversations with Roger on the bus trips they shared to and from games.
Roger raised his three children by himself after losing his wife, Kathy, to illness.
“I thought it was remarkable that he was able to do that,” said Bjorklund, praising Roger for the parenting job he did.
Roger coached the B team for Bjorklund when the basketball season began. He knew Bjorklund’s varsity coaching style well enough that he could give his B team players a good headstart into the program.
“I was lucky to have Roger as my B team coach,” Bjorklund said.
Roger had a teaching style in the classroom Bjorklund described both “descriptive” and “effective.”
In March of 1984, Bjorklund’s varsity faced state-ranked St. Cloud Tech for the Region 8AA championship at St. Cloud University. A victory meant a trip to state — something no Fergus Falls basketball team had done since 1957.
The hero of the region title game was Tim Swenson, who hit a jumper from 20 feet out with two ticks left on the game clock for a 46-44 victory.
Swenson can still remember the thrill of making the game-winning basket but he gives most of the credit for the victory to Roger, who had scouted their opponent twice and was convinced that the Otters had to use a “triangle and two” defense if they wanted to beat the Tigers.
“We had not played that defense all year,” Swenson recalled.
The defensive scheme totally baffled the Tigers and the Otters went into the locker room at halftime leading 27-19 on the Halenbeck Hall court.
Bjorklund remembers Roger savoring the victory as much as anyone after the game but shying away from taking away any credit he felt the team deserved.
“He was a humble guy and he didn’t take any credit for that,” Bjorklund said. “Roger was a masterful scout, he could see things in his mind. He convinced me to play a triangle and two. I am sure glad I listened to him.”
Swenson went on to coach prep athletics for 25 years before joining the Midwest Minnesota Community Development Corporation in Detroit Lakes.
“I respected everything about how Roger went about coaching, the way he handled players, the way he strategized and how much he knew about basketball,” Swenson said. “I think everything a coach thinks dates back to things they learned from every coach they played for.”
Stueve was a football coaching legend in Fergus Falls when he finally put down his whistle.
“As a man, they don’t come any better,” Stueve said Monday after hearing about Olson’s death. “He had more common sense than most,” Stueve said. “He was just a great, great person.”
Like Bjorklund, Stueve also benefited from Roger’s superb scouting reports. He also liked the way Roger treated his players.
“He was the type of guy as a coach who could always find the positive in a player,” Stueve recalled.
Roger also tried his hand at radio work. He joined his longtime neighbor and friend, Craig Olson, in the press box as a color commentator for many Otter football games.
“Roger was excellent at providing concise, yet thorough analysis of plays as they occurred throughout the games we were covering,” Craig said. “He looked at the game from a coach’s perspective and saw things that might escape the eyes of the average fan or announcer. Roger had that knack of picking up the key block or defensive read that led to a big play being made.”