Bemidji native John Noga retiring from coaching as one of the state's best
Noga had just four losing seasons in 38 years as a girls basketball coach, 36 of those in Parkers Prairie, as he leaves with 619 total wins.
PARKERS PRAIRIE — For the better part of almost 55 years, John Noga of Parkers Prairie has shifted with the Minnesota seasons from one sport to another.
As a 5-year-old growing up in Bemidji, it was football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring and summer.
“In my neighborhood, we had a tight group of guys and we just played sports. That was my extended family growing up, and you went from season to season,” Noga said.
It continued in college, where Noga played both football and baseball at Bemidji State. He’s now enshrined in the Athletic Hall of Fame at both BHS and BSU.
Noga started as a business major his freshman year, but it took just one semester to realize that was not his calling. Teaching and coaching were his passion even back then as he worked as a coach at lower levels through his college years.
For almost four decades, jumping from one season to another continued. Noga was a varsity girls basketball coach in the winter. A softball coach in the spring. Now, at age 61, he decided it was time to retire from both posts at Parkers Prairie after this 2022 softball season.
Noga will also retire from his physical education teaching position at the end of the school year, but he will keep his position as the Panthers’ activities director.
“I’ve kind of always said to myself that when I couldn’t actively demonstrate some of the things that I’m trying to teach the kids, it’s kind of a sign that it’s time,” Noga said. “… I just felt like now it was time. I struggled with the decision a little bit, but I’m at ease with it.”
A model of consistency
Noga has never really tracked his own accomplishments during his career. He started the softball program in Parkers Prairie with his wife, Nancy, 34 years ago. He has been the head coach ever since, and he has no idea what his overall record is coaching on the diamond.
Noga’s numbers in basketball are more clear. He will go down as one of the best girls coaches in Minnesota State High School League history.
He guided Parkers Prairie to an 11-11 record this past season. That moved him to 619-289 for his 38-year career, while 619 wins puts him ninth on the MSHSL’s all-time wins list for girls coaches.
It takes longevity to gather over 600 wins, but it also takes consistency.
Noga started his varsity head coaching career in his early 20s, guiding the girls team in Akeley to a 20-1 season in 1984-85.
Early success at a young age gave Noga the confidence that he was ready to lead a program. Akeley, which now consists of a co-op with Walker and Hackensack, went 15-5 in Noga’s second season.
“I really enjoyed my two years there, and then they consolidated, and I was the low man on the totem pole,” Noga said. “I was looking for another job.”
Noga interviewed with many school districts around the Alexandria area. Parkers Prairie offered him an opportunity to teach and coach the varsity team for either boys or girls basketball.
“I had a good experience coaching the girls at Akeley those two years,” Noga said of why he decided to take the girls’ job. “My wife, that’s how I met her. She played girls basketball in Bemidji, so I got to see a lot of girls basketball there. I knew that she would enjoy me coaching girls basketball because she would enjoy going to the games. Then with Sari and Micaela, that ended up being a good decision.”
John and Nancy’s daughters, Sari and Micaela, ended up being two of the best players to ever come through Parkers Prairie in basketball and softball. Both went on to play collegiately in basketball — Sari with the Gophers in the Big Ten, and Micaela at the Division II level for Minnesota Crookston.
Sari finished her high school career with 3,571 points and 1,736 rebounds. That rebounding total is No. 1 all-time in Minnesota history, while her point total is eighth. Micaela scored 2,417 points.
Those two were part of some of the best seasons in program history at Parkers Prairie, but Noga consistently won before and after their careers. He had just four losing seasons over the course of his 38 years. The last of those was more than 20 years ago in 2000-2001.
Having good players is a big part of that, but Noga prided himself on being able to adjust his coaching style to each particular roster.
“I always had hard-working kids,” Noga said. “They always had good attitudes, always listened well. … Then it’s also about finding a kid’s strengths, especially offensively, and putting them into positions where they could be successful.”