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A local legend: Former players, friends remember influential coach Jack Luoma

Jack Luoma, front center, poses with Bemidji High School’s 1974 state championship basketball team. Front row, from left, assistant coach Jerry Solheim, Luoma, assistant coach Phil Buhn; back row, from left, Jim Hickerson, Bob Luoma, Dale VanHouse, Eric Boysen, Jim Schmeckpeper, Jack Schwartz, Steve Vogel, Stan Drew, John McRae, Don Hubbell, Jesse Vaughn, Mike Rowlette, Perry Dreyer, Tim Koski. Pioneer File Photo1 / 2
Jack Luoma2 / 2

BEMIDJI – Everyone knew Jack Luoma.

“It always seemed like, wherever we went, that Jack knew all those people and all those people knew Jack,” said Phil Buhn, a longtime friend and an assistant coach for Luoma’s Bemidji High School basketball teams in the 1970s.

Luoma might have known so many in part because few have influenced the area athletics scene like he did – he is one of just six people enshrined in both the Bemidji High School and Bemidji State Athletic Halls of Fame.

After all, everyone knew the head coach of the Bemidji Lumberjacks. Luoma’s 1973-74 Lumberjacks went 22-3 and won the Class AA state title.

But the Hibbing native’s sense of humor and outgoing personality were the biggest reasons why Luoma had friends everywhere.

Luoma, 86, died Sunday morning due to complications from Parkinson’s and a broken hip. His legacy will live in on with those who played with and for him.

“He was one of the people I looked up to most after I got out of high school,” said Don Hubbell, who played for Luoma and was a guard on the 1974 state championship team. “Even to this day, he’s one of the top two or three influences in my life. Everybody held him in such high regard at school and around town.”

Described by his former players as “an old-time coach” and a “bulldog,” most credit Luoma with knowing exactly how to get the most out of all of his players.

“He was just a really good leader,” Hubbell said. “And he knew how to push certain buttons. He knew which guys to jump on and he knew when to lay off.”

Teammate Perry Dreyer, another guard on the state title team, said Luoma valued work ethic above all.

“He was a people person, and generally pretty easygoing, but you had to work hard,” Dreyer said. “If you were working hard, playing hard and made a physical mistake, it was OK. But if you made a mental mistake because your head wasn’t in the game, that wasn’t OK.

“He really pushed work ethic with us. His message was work hard and good things will come to you. I know most of us still live by that in our lives today, and Jack taught us that.”

Everybody knew him

Once, early in his head coaching career, Luoma took the Lumberjacks to his Hibbing hometown to face the Bluejackets.

Not only did Luoma know the officials in the game – he had gone to high school with both of them – but he knew everybody in the crowd.

“After the game, as we were walking off the court, some guy yelled out to him, ‘Hey Jack!’” Buhn said with a chuckle. “Well, Jack turned around and the guy yelling at him turned out to be (former Minnesota Gov.) Rudy Perpich.

“Jack even knew the governor!”

Luoma had left Hibbing for Bemidji in 1945 to play basketball and football for Bemidji State Teachers College.

After graduating in 1949, he spent a brief stint in Casper, Wyo., before returning to Bemidji in 1950 to take a job teaching math and physical education at BHS.

He began his coaching career as an assistant to another legendary BHS coach, Bun Fortier, before taking over the head coaching job in 1970.

Luoma was the head boys coach for 10 years and finished with an overall record of 140-81. In addition to the 1974 team, Luoma also made the state tournament with the 1978 squad.

Buhn said Luoma helped put the Bemidji area on the map when it comes to basketball.

“It’s funny, because when they moved up to two classes they moved Bemidji east to play with the Duluth and Iron Range schools,” Buhn said. “We were the outsiders there and people didn’t know much about Bemidji basketball.”

In 1974, the Lumberjacks beat Virginia and both Duluth schools on three consecutive nights to qualify for the state tournament.

“It gave us a little respect around the state,” Buhn said.

When the Jacks made the state tournament, they edged a high-octane Richfield team 52-50. One journalist in the postgame interview room asked Luoma about the Lumberjacks’ defense.

“Jack told them it wasn’t defense that beat Richfield, it was the All-American Bemidji boys who kept them off balance by doing the little things,” Buhn said.

Dreyer and Hubbell said Luoma had high expectations for the team that year – and with good reason.

“We had a team full of guys that had been playing ball together for 15 or so years,” Dreyer said. “I think he knew he had a winning team, but he also knew we had to play up to our potential.”

Their warmup jerseys that year looked suspiciously like those of the Harlem Globetrotters, and Dreyer said the BHS band would play “Sweet Georgia Brown” during warm-ups.

“He did have high expectations for us,” Hubbell said. He’s the one that set the bar before the season, told us where we should be. I think he helped us all buy in.”

Presence will be missed

Luoma handed off head coach duties to Mel Johnson following the 1979 season, after which he became the Bemidji High School activities director.

He held that position until he retired in 1987.

“I think almost everybody on our team played a sport in college, but I’d guess that everyone on the team would say he’s the most influential coach they ever had,” Hubbell said.

Hubbell, who now lives in western Nebraska, drove nearly 12 hours to pay his respects at Luoma’s funeral, which is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. today at St. Philip’s Church.

“We all respect the man so much,” Dreyer said. “Everybody on the 1974 team will miss him dearly.”

Jack Hittinger

Jack Hittinger is the sports editor of the Bemidji Pioneer. He is also the Bemidji State beat writer. He hails from the Great State of Michigan. Read his Bemidji State blog at and follow him on Twitter at @Jackhitts.

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