WORTHINGTON — At Minnesota West Community and Technical College, Jeff Linder was in the construction business.
And we’re talking about both football programs and fellowship.
“My dad is a real good football coach, and he is great at building relationships,” said Tyler Linder. “That’s why I want to become a teacher and a coach.
“He is the man I look up to. He is the man I strive to be.”
Tyler, a former star tight end at Minnesota West, is one of the many, many former Bluejays who were stunned to learn recently that Jeff Linder is stepping down as Minnesota West head football coach.
Indeed, it’s the end of an era at the college.
A Worthington native who played offensive tackle on excellent Trojan high school teams and then for the Bluejays, Jeff has been coaching at West for more than three decades — the last 28 as head coach.
“It’s just time,” said Jeff, 56. “When I was weighing the decision my family came into play quite a bit. My wife and seven children. I’ve missed a lot of my kids’ things when they were growing up.
“I just felt like this was the best thing for me and the program, to get some fresh ideas and a lot more energy in there.”
Jeff is the longest-tenured coach in Minnesota West football history, which dates back to 1939. He graduated from Worthington High, where he was a star player on Southwest Conference championship teams for Trojan football coach Dennis Hale, in 1985. Jeff played two seasons at what was then Worthington Community College and finished his schooling and football career at Bemidji State. He returned home and served as defensive coordinator for four years under Bluejays’ coach Don Varpness.
He took over from Varpness in 1995 and coached the Blue Jays for more about 250 games, winning more than half of them.
“I’ve had some great runs here and have been incredibly fortunate to be able to coach here this long and have the support I’ve had from the community and administration,” Jeff said. “I love all my players. And that goes for my assistant coaches, too. Because I couldn’t have done any of it without my coaches and their families.”
He said Hale, Varpness and former Worthington High School head basketball and assistant football coach Ron Vorwald have been particular mentors.
“They’re the reason I coached,” Jeff said. “From all the good things I learned from them, I decided I wanted to coach. It looked like a rewarding career. And it definitely was.”
Jeff said his assistant coaches at Minnesota West, among them Geno Lais, Scott Barber, Brad Holinka, Tyrone Wacker, Ben Devries and Connor Kunkel, have meant so much.
“I’ve always had good help,” Jeff said. “And a lot of times we had all former Bluejay players on the coaching staff. That was a unique and special thing for us.”
While proud of his coaching record, that’s not truly what makes his heart swell.
“To be honest with you, I had a pretty good record but the record I want to see is success in life for my guys after they move on. That is what is rewarding for me,” he said. “I’ve had a fulfilling coaching career, I guess you could say. And my heart is full.”
Jeff led the Bluejays three times to the championship game of the Minnesota College Athletic Conference playoffs, losing each time to Rochester.
He’d rather his success is measured in other ways. Those who know him best say it’s always been that way.
Doug Wolter, the recently retired sports editor at the Worthington Globe, dealt with Linder for decades.
“He really cares about his players,” Wolter said. “It’s one of the big reasons people wanted to come to Minnesota West, so they could play for Jeff Linder. He loves his kids and would do anything for them. And they appreciate him for it … He’s been like a father figure to a lot of them.
“He’s part of a great coaching legacy at that school and it’s sad to see him go.”
Bob Purcell is Minnesota West’s longtime athletic director and is familiar with the process of replacing coaches.
But the loss of Linder hits home for Purcell.
“I’ll tell you, we have been office mates right next to each other for roughly 28 years,” he said.
Then he paused a moment.
“He’s just a great guy. He bends over backwards for the kids, no matter who they are. You ask me for a reaction to this … there’s just not enough compliments I could say about Jeff Linder. He’s been a great, great coach for us.”
Linder was six times named MCAC Southern Division Coach of the Year. In 2004, he won a statewide award for coaching excellence from the Minnesota Vikings.
“Those things aren’t given to junior-college coaches a lot of times,” Purcell said.
Many of Linder’s contributions — even his legacy — are intangible.
“We’ve had a lot of administrators come and go, so might not realize all the good things he’s done for this school,” Purcell said. “You think of all the kids who played for him, and I don’t know of any that weren’t happy when all was said and done.”
While Jeff was a rugged player, his son said his dad has always been tough enough to show a soft side.
“My father is one of the most caring people I know,” Tyler said. “He’ll go out of his way to help someone. He treats his players like family members.”
So Tyler had a lot of “brothers” at Minnesota West.
“That’s so important,” he said. “You feed off of each other, because the coach is so caring for you and you also care for the coach.
“He’s got to have changed thousands of lives in his career.”
Jeff and his wife, Jen, have four sons, three daughters and two grandchildren. Youngest son Jack is 11 and a budding athlete. Older brother Anthony is set to graduate from WHS this spring and will play football at Southwest Minnesota State.
Jeff said Jack is struggling with the idea that his father will no longer be a head football coach. Older brother Tyler is, too.
“It’s definitely tough, because my whole life he’s been a football coach,” said Tyler, who has graduated from Minnesota State and is earning master’s degree credits this spring with designs on a high school coaching and teaching career. “I’ve been helping him since I was 5 or 6 years old, filling up water jugs …
“Football has been our whole life and it’s going to be tough transitioning out of that, seeing our dad not out there on the field.”
Unlike his brothers, Tyler played at Minnesota West for his father. He said his dad’s decision to step down is a bit bittersweet.
“I got to have him as a dad and a coach,” Tyler said. “He didn’t treat me like his son when I was on the field. I was just another player, which was a better experience for me because it allowed me to be a part of the team and not be left out, you know, because I was the coach’s son.
“Football has always been my favorite sport — because of him,” Tyler said.
Purcell said he hopes the job will be posted next week. Whomever steps into the breach will have the full support of West administration.
But there’s no doubt that Worthington football fans will miss Jeff Linder.
“They are,” Purcell said. “You know, here’s something else people don’t know about coach Linder. He’s probably helped as an assistant or head coach every sport at our college at some point or another. Seriously.”
Jeff was formerly a head coach of the West baseball and women’s softball program. Purcell was a highly successful wrestling coach for the Bluejays before taking over as AD. Linder even stepped in for him one time.
“My grandmother passed away, and Jeff helped me one weekend,” Purcell said. “And he won the Northwestern Open, basically, with four champions, two seconds and a couple thirds.”
“And we were about the only junior college team there at that time …”
Linder plans to continue teaching at Minnesota West. But late next summer when football starts, he won’t be manning the office next to Purcell.
“Jeff did it all here,” Purcell said. “He helped where we needed help. And nothing was too big for him, because he cared so much about being a Bluejay.”
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