ST. JAMES — After 27 years as head coach of the St. James wrestling program, Gene Hildebrandt has decided to step down.
And his legacy extends far beyond the wrestling mat.
The 56-year-old leaves behind an impressive record, including 471 career victories (ninth on Minnesota’s all-time list), two state team titles, nine section team championships and 21 South Central Conference team titles.
“I’ve thought about this for the last several years,” Hildebrandt said. “Other coaches have told me I would know when it was time, and I know this is the right decision.”
Hildebrandt has two grown daughters and a son, Ethan, who will be a senior at Southwest Minnesota State this fall. The coach said one of the reasons he made the decision now is because he wants to be sure nothing will get in the way of going to watch his son wrestle his final season with the Mustangs.
In addition to all of his team accomplishments, Hildebrandt has coached seven individual state champions, 66 section champions and 91 conference champions. He is a member of both the St. James and Minnesota’s Dave Bartlema Wrestling Halls of Fame.
Beyond the wins and accolades, however, Hildebrandt may be best remembered for something more important. For more than 20 years he has made a concerted effort to get Latino students involved in athletics at St. James.
Many of them have ended up in the wrestling room and have helped keep the team competitive while other programs have declined. While the coach knew the Latino population was a potential boost to his program, that was never the main reason he tried to get them involved.
“My grandfather came over here as an immigrant orphan from Germany and I can imagine how alone he must have felt,” said Hildebrandt, who has also been the dean of students at St. James since 1995. “I just felt it was the right thing to do to reach out to these kids.”