For 30 years, Grant Thierolf has walked the sideline as Marion’s head football coach.
But the whistle finalizing Marion’s Class 3A regional loss to Cheney in early November also signaled the end of an era, as Thierolf has decided to step away from coaching football.
Thierolf’s longevity as Marion’s coach is a testament to his commitment both to the program and to his family.
“I never wanted to be one of those guys who bounced around,” he said. “I don’t think that’s fair to your family. I don’t think that’s fair to your kids.
“You’re not in it to see what the best job you can get because growing up in a small town, you realize that the athletes you get are the athletes you get. You hope that you can work with them and develop them into young men who enjoy playing football and are successful in school.
“That’s the type of coaches I had in high school. They showed that there’s more to it than just chasing victories. It’s about being part of the community and being part of the school community.”
From player to coach
Thierolf admits his first love was track and field, grown from a tradition of attending both the KU Relays and his hometown Beloit Relays, from an early age.
Thierolf grew up playing football, too, in a town boasting four state championships. Thierolf was a member of three of Beloit’s title-winning teams in 1975, 1976 and 1977.
“(I was) fortunate to play at a school where the expectation was very high (for football),” Thierolf said. “And fortunate enough to play with a bunch of classmates who were very talented and very skilled. We were pretty successful in middle school and high school.”
Even as the team excelled on the gridiron, Thierolf’s educators sparked in him an interest in the teaching profession.
“I had a great (high school) experience—great teachers who set a path for me as far as wanting to get into the field of education,” he said.
Thierolf continued his studies and athletic career at the University of Kansas, a school he had loved since childhood.
“My mom grew up in Lawrence,” he said. “She was a huge KU fan, still is to this day. My grandparents had season tickets to football, and season tickets on the front row to Allen Fieldhouse when the Fieldhouse was built.
“I’ve been going to KU games since I was 5. (My dad) being a farmer, we never took vacations, so going to Lawrence was a vacation.”
Thierolf played center and guard for the Jayhawk football team from 1978-82.
“I spent five years there and got my education and made the best friends that a guy could ever meet, as far as teammates that I had,” he said. “It was a great experience.”
Following graduation from KU in 1983, Thierolf taught junior high English and served as head coach for football, wrestling and track and field at Garnett.
“I was a terrible head coach,” he said of those early years coaching football. “I was young and stupid and didn’t know what I didn’t know, but it was a great learning opportunity.”
Thierolf heard about a job opening at Marion in spring 1988 and decided to apply.
A newly married man—he and Deanna were married the previous year—Thierolf said they were looking to move to the central part of the state.
“I’d never been to Marion,” he said. “Didn’t know anything about it, outside of what I had picked up from talking to other administrators and people who were familiar with this part of the state. I applied and was asked in for an interview and was lucky enough to get the job.”
30 years of memories
At Marion, Thierolf took over as head football coach from Bob Pierce, and built a 185-103 record over the next 30 years.
“I can remember every game and the outcome and who we played and who played well,” Thierolf said. “I may not be able to remember a lot of other stuff sometimes, but I can remember every game that we played.”
Some memories serve as highlights.
Thierolf recalled the 1994 and 1995 seasons during which Marion ranked among the top two teams in the state. The Warriors made it to the state championship game in 1994.
“That was just fun because it was somewhat unexpected,” Thierolf said. “We’d never even been in the playoffs since I’d been coaching here, and I think Marion had only been in the playoffs one other time, and that was maybe 1978.
“We thought we were going to be pretty good, and we just kept playing better and better and better as the season went on.”
In 1996, after virtually all of the state championship players had graduated, Thierolf’s team defied the odds and made it to postseason play.
“That year, we ended up 7-3,” he said. “Only one team made it out of districts that year, and we played Hesston for that championship. Their kids all came in with full beards and looking like men, and they’re big and we were little and there were only 25 of us at that time because we had one or two hurt.
“Probably (the most fun) game we ever coached. We ended up winning, 28-25, and had no business being on the field with them, whatsoever, but our kids wouldn’t quit. Every time they scored, we came back and scored.”
Current Marion assistant coach Shaun Craft was quarterback at the time.
“We had so much fun that year because no one expected a thing out of us because we’d lost all-state players all around,” Thierolf said. “That was one of those years we had four or five players that were really pretty good and we had to fill in with the rest of everybody, and they just did a fantastic job. We lost in the first round to Beloit, who was eventual state champions.”
It was Thierolf’s first trip to Beloit as a coach, bringing his football story full-circle.
Time to move on
So, what kept him going to the field for 30 years?
“I love being out and coaching,” Thierolf said. “I love being around the kids. Love being around the other coaches. I loved the preparation aspect of it, the thinking, ‘What do we have to do this week? What do we have to stop? What do they do well? What do we need to make certain that we control, if we can control that?’ That was all a fun part of it.”
Thierolf likened his goals as a coach to his goals as a parent.
“I really want our kids to come out of here, No. 1, having a good experience, but No. 2, I want them to be productive members of society, so that they’re good workers. I think that’s one of the things we’ve stressed a great deal is try to outwork people. I want them to be good husbands and good dads.”
While Thierolf plans to teach and coach track and field at Marion in the spring, he is giving up football and will relish more time in the fall to watch his sons coach.
After 30 years, the responsibilities that drove Thierolf in his quest for success— mowing the grass during the summer, getting the fields cut and lined for practice, showing up every day for summer and early-morning weight-lifting, carrying equipment to the practice field—are the same things that make him say now is the time to step down.
“I don’t just pop out of bed and say, ‘Man, I can’t wait to get to the weight room this morning,’” he said. “I still love going to practice, but it’s all the other things that go along with it.”
Thierolf ends his coaching career at Marion with an 8-3 season that saw the Warriors advance to the postseason for the first time since 2014. The Warriors defeated Halstead, winning their first playoff game since 2013.
“We knew that our group of seniors was going to be a good class,” he said. “Last year we had some good depth at line, and this year we didn’t have as much depth there, but we had some kids who we knew were going to play hard. We knew that we had some kids who were fast, and we just looked at trying to get into an offense and a defense that would utilize that speed as much as possible.”
Thierolf said he tried to keep wins and losses in perspective.
“If we lost a game, we tried to go back to work the next day, and if you win, you try not to get too excited about it,” he said. “You get excited, but you keep it in perspective and just go about work.”
In many ways, he said, football is like life.
“You get knocked down, you get back up,” Thierolf said. “You can either stay down and keep getting covered, or you can bounce back up and fight again. And not fight in a literal sense. You get diagnosed with something, you fight it.
“Sometimes fighting is moving on to the next thing, realizing that this isn’t a fight that’s worth fighting. You see that in football all the time, too. A player hits you late, and you realize, I can’t retaliate, I’ll just take care of it the next play. If you all come together and play as one, good things happen.”
What kind of legacy does Thierolf hope to leave?
“I hope we have a bunch of kids who’ve enjoyed playing football,” he said. “I think one thing a coach realizes—I don’t know how soon in their careers—but as a head coach, you’re not going to be the best head coach for every kid that you have. And if somebody is, then they’re a fantastic coach, because you’re always going to have personalities that you just don’t mesh with, philosophies that you just don’t mesh with, and you can’t be that guy that fits best for every kid.
“But you hope that you find that middle ground where you fit best for most of them. I hope that we did, and I hope that’s the legacy that we left, that we did the best we could.”