By Jim Rueda
Free Press Sports Editor
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.”
“If you aren’t involved in anything, no matter what your ethnic background, there’s a good chance trouble will find you. I saw the wrestling program as an opportunity to be a second home to a lot of these kids.”
Twenty years ago there was only one Latino family in town. Since then, thanks to recruiting by a few local businesses, 30 percent of the general population and 50 percent of the student body is Latino.
And somehow, St. James has made it all work without any significant racial strife. This past season his Latino team members were mostly second-generation kids in the community.
“I remember talking to an assistant coach in the cafeteria this season when the kids were all having lunch together,” Hildebrandt said. “They were all joking and interacting with each other just like it was one big, happy family. It makes you feel good to see things like that.”
Hildebrandt intends to stay on as the dean of students for at least five or six more years. If a coaching position opens up with the junior high team, he might be interested in that, as well.
“Whether I’m coaching or not, I’ll still be in the hallways talking to kids,” Hildebrandt said. “I still want to keep them involved as much as possible — whether it sports or any other activity.”
Jim Rueda is the Free Press sports editor. To contact him, call 344-6381 or email him at jrueda@ mankatofreepress.com.