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In Play with Craig Mattick: Tom Culver

Avon High School

Tom Culver won five state championships as a head football coach for Avon. He also has spent time as the AD, principal, and superintendent in Avon, along with being on the board of directors for the South Dakota High School Activities Association.


Craig Mattick: Welcome to another edition of In Play. I am Craig Mattick. Today's guest has spent more than three decades in education. A teacher, a coach, an athletic director, a principal, a superintendent, and he's serving on the board of directors of the South Dakota High School Activities Association. And he has served in the military, including a year long deployment to Iraq. More than 25 years as the head football coach at Avon, but he has stepped away as the football coach. He's now the superintendent for Avon, and he's Tom Culver. Tom, welcome to In Play.

Tom Culver: Well, thanks a lot Craig. I'm really happy to be here.

Craig Mattick: Boy, that's a lot of hats that you have worn in the past three decades. Where do you hang them all?

Tom Culver: Well, it makes it kind of tough sometimes and sometimes you don't know at home if you're coming or going. Because that's the thing I don't think a lot of people realize about small schools is people have to wear so many hats to make a school survive and it's just something that you have to do. And I've always had a love for small schools. I attended Hanson, graduated from there. So I mean, it was a little bigger back then, but it was still a small school, so that's all I've ever been associated with.

Craig Mattick: Well, you've been with Avon since 1999 and before Avon, you've been at the Grant-Deuel school district, you've been in Wakonda, you've been in the Viborg school districts. Did you always want to be an educator?

Tom Culver: Yeah, I really knew it when I was a junior in high school. I remember telling my parents that that's what I wanted to do. And I mean, at first they weren't real supportive because my stepfather had an insurance agency and he made a pretty good living and he saw how much educators were being paid.

Craig Mattick: Oh, boy.

Tom Culver: Yeah, so that was why he wasn't really in favor of that. But I had two teachers and coaches that were pretty inspirational and that I really looked up to when I was in high school, and I just knew as a junior in high school that that's what I wanted to do.

Craig Mattick: Well, Grant-Deuel right there in Deuel County, was that your first job in teaching right out of college?

Tom Culver: Yeah, that was... And I took an unconventional route because I graduated from high school in 1978 and I never went to college until 1984. In '82, my wife Theresa and I were married, and anyway, she knew I had the desire and the dream of being in education. And she's a nurse, and she said, I" got to do what I wanted to do with my life. You should get to do the same thing." And so she encouraged me and supported me going.

And we were living in Alexandria at the time and we went into Dakota Wesleyan and did a visit there and kind of talked to them a little bit and I was kind of hooked after that.

But then after I graduated from Wesleyan, then Grant-Deuel was my first job.

Craig Mattick: What did you do though right out of high school and before you went to Wesleyan?

Tom Culver: Well, for the first year I worked at a business in Mitchell, it was called Mitchell Pet Foods. Basically what we did is... And I drove a truck to Sioux Falls every day at the old Millman's Meat Packing, I don't know if you remember, that was just off 12th Street and it's not there anymore. But we'd kind of pick up in barrels all the scraps from the day of processing and drive them back to Mitchell, and then we'd put them in these boxes and freeze them and then semis would come and they'd take them to pet food companies.

So I did that for a year and I thought, boy, I don't want to do this for very long. And then I actually sold insurance and worked for my stepfather at his insurance agency and I just hated it.

Craig Mattick: Ah, the lucrative business that your folks thought would be...

Tom Culver: Yeah. And see, I did kind of the opposite of what some people do because some people go into education and then leave and go to the money for that, and I started the insurance and then went to education. So somehow I got things kind of backwards.

Craig Mattick: So those, I think two years you were at Grant-Deuel, what were you doing?

Tom Culver: I was the only person in the social studies department. I taught six social studies classes. Or I think five and then I had a PE class too that I team taught with the PE teacher. And then I was assistant football, assistant boys basketball, and head track those two years there.

I really enjoyed my time there. There were some really, really good people at Grant-Deuel, some that I still stay in contact, and I left there in spring of '89, so I mean that's a long time ago. But have some of those people are friends on Facebook and if you get a chance to see them, it's pretty neat to talk about the old times.

Craig Mattick: Yeah. After two years at Grant-Deuel you go to Wakonda. What was it about Wakonda?

Tom Culver: I went to Viborg first.

Craig Mattick: Oh, Viborg and then Wakonda. Okay.

Tom Culver: Yeah, I spent six years in Viborg and I liked it there. For a while there I thought I wanted to be a basketball coach, but that didn't work out the greatest. I don't know, it takes a special kind of person to be a basketball coach. And I liked it, but I just wanted something different.

But Viborg and Wakonda were in the same conference, and got to know Ron Flynn a little bit and some of the success that they had had over the years and stuff. And so when I left Viborg, I went to Wakonda because I thought, gosh, the opportunity to work with Ron Flynn and some of the other coaches there. I mean, both those places were really good experiences and still have a lot of friends in both of those places.

Craig Mattick: Well, you say that it takes someone special to be a basketball coach. It also takes someone special to be a football coach, Tom. When did you start getting into the football craze before you got to Avon?

Tom Culver: I actually started helping coach football when I was my last year at Dakota Wesleyan. I student taught at Hanson. I student taught second semester, so that would've been the spring of '87, if I remember correctly. And so all year long I volunteered assisted in football, basketball, and track. And then all my years at Grant-Deuel, I was an assistant at Viborg, I was junior high and helped out with the high school.

And then my first year in Wakonda I was assistant football, and then my last three years there I was the head. So that's where I first got head coaching experience and Ron Flynn gave me that opportunity. And then when I came to Avon in '99, I've been the head up until the '22 season.

Craig Mattick: You talked about growing up in the Hanson area, Alexandria. How big was the family and was it a big sports family when you were growing up?

Tom Culver: We had five of us in the family. There was a youngest one, a sixth girl, that she died when she was 16 months old. She had quite a few issues when she was born and she lived 16 months. But the rest were all in. I was the oldest of five, or six, but the sixth one passed away. Pretty much my whole family. My mother actually played basketball in Iowa in the fifties. They were the old six-on-six. So she played that. She was a defender. I remember seeing yearbook pictures and stuff like that.

Then the brother two years younger than me, he had played baseball and some stuff early, but he was more into cars and stuff like that. He ended up owning his own autobody shop for a lot of years.

But the rest of the siblings were my sister Brenda, who was four years younger than me. She was a three time all conference basketball player. Then my youngest brother, he went to Dakota Wesleyan and played football.

So I mean, sports has been a pretty big part of growing up. In small town South Dakota in the seventies, you didn't have a whole lot of stuff to do.

Craig Mattick: That's right, that's right.

Tom Culver: And so we played sports all the time. I mean, if it was football season and we were younger in elementary and junior high, we'd be out playing football in the evenings and on the weekends. Basketball season, we'd be playing basketball. One of my friends had a hoop in his driveway and if it was cold enough, heck, we had gloves on and we were playing basketball out there. And then we were playing baseball and we got chewed out a few times of breaking windows. Especially as we got bigger and could hit the ball a little farther, we had to move out of this empty lot that we played. And they mowed it for us all the time so we had a field to play on. But as we got bigger, we started hitting the ball farther and then we'd hit houses and they told us we couldn't play there anymore.

Craig Mattick: There were no all conference awards for you in any athletics at high school?

Tom Culver: No, I was a starter in basketball and football, but didn't make all conference. And in fact, the funny thing is, when I was in high school, I mean, at Hanson it was basketball. We had about 180 kids in high school when I was there. And my senior year, I think we had 27 kids out for football. We just didn't have many that went out for football or cared about it or anything.

Looking back, in '63 and '65 and some other years, Alexandria before the consolidation there, won a couple state championships and some of those people were still around, and I mean, basketball was just king there.

And now I think there, because with what coach Haskamp has done and the winning there, football's just as big there as basketball. Basketball's still a big deal there, but football's a big deal too.

Craig Mattick: So Tom, you're in education and you're coaching for 12 years. And then in 1999, Avon comes a calling. What led you to Avon?

Tom Culver: Well, it kind worked out neat. I was at USD when I was at Wakonda. I was finishing up my master's degree to be a principal. And one of the last classes in May, one of the professors, Dr. Floyd Boche was the guy's name. And we're kind of wrapping up so he kind of announces, "Tom, could you stay afterwards and talk?" And I'm thinking, okay, what did I do? I haven't had to stay after class since I was in high school.

So he said, "Tom Oster from Avon called. He's going to be the superintendent there. The superintendent's retiring and he's moving up." And he wanted to know if there was any people in the classes, he thought they were graduating, there'd be good candidates for a principal job. And so he mentioned my name. And so he said, "I've talked to him, he knows, so get ahold of him."

And so the next day I called him and we talked a little bit and they said when they were going to open things up to apply and everything. And so I ended up applying and got the job. And they were also looking for head football because Tom had been the head football coach while he was the principal also. So that's how we arrived at that.

And that was the year that I was either going to make a move or stay, because our daughter, we have one daughter, and she was going to be a sophomore. And I thought, okay, if we're going to do something that's now, because we don't want to move her when she's a junior or senior. And we made that move, and she wasn't real impressed at first. At semester time we asked her, I said, "So you want to go back to Wakonda or do you want to stay here in Avon?" She said, "No, I want to stay in Avon." She ends up meeting her future husband and five kids later and five grandkids for us, it turned out to be a pretty darn good deal.

Craig Mattick: All the dominoes fell in the right spot, didn't it, Tom?

Tom Culver: Yeah, that's for sure. It's amazing.

Craig Mattick: When you look at football at Avon in your career there, 179 wins, 80 losses in 26 years. Avon did not make it to a football championship game before you got to Avon. But it was 2002, what your third year at Avon, you take the Pirates to the Dome and face Gettysburg. Gettysburg very familiar with getting to the Dome and to the championship game. How did you prepare Avon for that very first title attempt?

Tom Culver: Well, I had a little bit of experience. My first year at Wakonda when I was an assistant, Wakonda Gayville-Volin won the 9-A that year. We beat Kimball in the championship game.

But when I came here, I knew, one of the things, that the kids that were eighth graders and freshmen at the time were pretty talented. And some of their dads had been on undefeated teams in the seventies, late seventies, before playoffs started. So I mean, these guys knew what it took. Football was important to them. And these kids were pretty athletic and they were hard workers. They were so competitive.

So I remember, I think it was like my second year here, I think it might've even been in 2002, we were three or four games into the season. And I remember telling the kids, we were practicing... And we had some really good sophomores that year. So in practice, those sophomores, they were really busting their butts trying to prove, so when they got their chance, they wanted on the field first. We had 30 some kids out, and if we got a lead, they had to set themselves apart if they wanted to get and be the first ones in and get more playing time.

And I remember in the offensive huddle, I talked to our starters, and I just told them, "Guys, you are never going to achieve what you're capable of if you don't become better practice players." And to their credit, they listened, they understood, and they changed that work ethic.

Because up until in junior high, JV, I mean, it had been so easy for those kids because they had just beat teams fairly easily. And now you get to the varsity level, it's a little different story and the coaches are going to prepare their kids better, they're going to be scouting and all this stuff.

So to those kids' credit, they bought into what we were doing and they worked really hard. And there were some days, some weeks I should say, that the best competition we had was during practice. And that just makes everybody around better.

Craig Mattick: 2002 would be the first of eight trips to the title game, winning five championships, when it comes to coaching football Tom, early on who were some of the other coaches that you looked up to? Coaches that you may have called and said, "I need some help with this," whether it's offense or defense. Who were some of those other guys?

Tom Culver: Well, one of the first people that was most influential was my high school football coach, Lowell Thompson. He had played at South Dakota State. He was a Castlewood graduate. And he's out in Pierre now. He actually left education and went into the insurance business out in Pierre. So he did it the opposite that I did.

So I talked to him and some of the stuff that we did were similar to what we did in high school. But the one thing that I remember from him more than anything is, keep it simple. You don't have to have 40 offensive plays, you just eight to 10 plays, but you got to be really good at them. And I think that was one of the things.

Two guys that I learned a lot from when I was at Grant-Deuel, Kevin Berg was the head coach when I went up there, and then Doug Griffith. And Doug is still helping out at Warner. But those two guys were really excellent coaches. And you get out of college and you come and you think, I may know a little bit. And I got there and I realized I don't know anything. These guys are pretty smart.

And then when I was student teaching and volunteering at Hanson, Jim Haskamp and I talked a little bit. He was an assistant then that year. And then I think the next year, so he became the head. John Nyhaug at Viborg, when I was there for six years, still track me to different things or there were an event, I'll see John around and it's always good to talk to him. But he was key.

And then probably the other one that wasn't a football coach was Ron Flynn when I was at Wakonda. Because he had ways of saying, and this is before email, and I go into the teacher's staff room, check my mail or something and go in there and there'd be a note in my mailbox. And Ron, he would say, "Don't forget to put the special on special teams." Or if we had a big win, he would have a note in your mailbox. I don't remember who it was we played, we had a big win and it was halfway through the season or so, and then there was a note on Monday in my mailbox, "If you're proud of what you did yesterday, you haven't done very much today." And he just had a way of keeping you grounded and giving you good advice about coaching and everything in general.

So those are probably the people that have been most influential and helped me out through the years.

Craig Mattick: Avon wins the title in '02, you beat Gettysburg. The next year you're back. You're back to defend the title. But you ran into a pretty good De Smet team. What happened in that one? 59 to nothing. Avon never gets shut up. What happened?

Tom Culver: Well, at the clinic in January after that year... I mean, we had won 23 games in a row and we had some pretty good kids back. And I had seen them play live twice, because I figured that sometime along the line we're going to play those guys. At least I hoped anyway but sometimes you got to be careful what you wish for. But I figured that we had a chance to play them. And some of the stuff that they did, I thought that we would be able to exploit based on what we did.

And the funny thing about it is, there's a shot in our Avon paper from the championship game, and it's from the sideline, and I'm talking to one of our players. And there's like two minutes left in the first quarter, and the score is 8 to nothing. And at halftime it was 46 to nothing. And I'm just going, oh my gosh. We had a couple fumbles.

Craig Mattick: I remember that.

Tom Culver: We had a receiver catch a pass and he got hit. But De Smet was... I mean, their nose guard... Well, the two guys at the middle of this, I think his last name was Anderson, it was the nose guard. They didn't find out until afterwards that he went to a Nebraska, a Husker, individual camp and won defensive lineman of the week. And I'm thinking, oh my God.

Because our center we had that year was really good, and he was about 205 pounds. He was the fastest kid on the team. And he came off one time, he said, "I can't block him." I mean, so we started double teaming him to try to have a chance. Well, then the middle linebacker is Blake Hoyer, who had a pretty good career at USD.

And then they had all kinds of speed and athletic ability. I mean, they were so talented. And we were pretty physical and stuff, but I think they lost the year before to Plankinton-White Lake and I think they came and they said, "This isn't going to happen two years in a row." And they had great players and we made a couple mistakes and then it just kind of snowballs. And against good teams like that, you just can't make mistakes.

Craig Mattick: Well, you made up for that because in '04 you make your third straight trip to the Dome. You win the 9-A championship beating Doland/Conde.

And then in 2005, your fourth straight trip to the Dome, Tom. And even though you dropped down to class B, you beat Montrose 40 to 14.

So what was going on in Avon during those four straight years in the Dome in football? I mean, I know you had a good quarterback in Danny Fathke. He was a two-time MVP-er. What was going on in Avon at that time?

Tom Culver: Well, I think the big thing, in 2002 one of the things we did is, I went to Tom Oster and the school board, and I wanted to start, at the time we called it advanced PE, but now we call it fitness and conditioning. And I wanted to start that class and I said, "I will teach it." And it was primarily weightlifting and then maybe add in a few lifetime things. But it was primarily to get kids stronger. So the fall of 2002 was the first year that we had it, and so we had a bunch of kids that just fell in love with lifting weights.

And then the other thing is in the 2004 team, a story that I like to tell, we were undefeated and went up to Scotland and one of our good players sprained his ankle in the second half and we ended up getting beat late in the game by a touchdown. And then we were pouting a little bit and we went out, played Burke South Central, and got beat out there. And so we had kind of a meeting and regrouped and everything.

And anyway, when the playoffs, that's when you were still in the region. And anyway, we had to play Scotland again first round, and we beat them. And then we had to go to Freeman who was undefeated and play them. And anyway, we ended up beating them.

But anyway, the night before, and I didn't find this out until the spring at graduation, one of the dads told me, that a few of the boys, senior boys that year were over at their house and they were watching TV and stuff on the night before the game and they were just kind of hanging out together. And out of the blue, this guy's son says, "I just want to take that walk one more time."

And what he was referring to is when we kind of started, our players come out of the back of the locker room and they go out through the parking lot to the street and then they walked down the street single file to the football field. And there was a possibility that if we beat Freeman, and then there had to be an upset or two upsets I think, and then we could host the semi-final game.

Well sure enough, we beat Freeman and then these two upsets happened, and so we hosted the semi-final game. And so that kid got to take... I mean, when he told me that, I kind of got teary-eyed a little bit thinking that how much football meant to these kids. And some of the traditions and some of the little things that most people think, no big deal. But these kids at that time thought that was a big, big deal.

And then the other thing that I used to do every year is, at homecoming I would have a former player. Well, when we first came in before we went to the Dome, I would get somebody from the seventies that was on undefeated teams that talked about what they did. I mean, it's just little traditions that I tried to start and to keep alive. And then it got to the point where the kids are asking, "Well, who's coming in this year?" I'd say, "Well, It'll be a surprise." I'll tell you.

But I think that was the thing, between the weightlifting class, the athletic ability of the kids, but the work ethic and their desire and love for football. I mean, as a football coach, you get four year stretch there where you playing championship game four times and win three of them. It takes a little luck, but it also takes some kids that are willing to do whatever it takes and work hard. And I mean, the nice thing about that is those were all such nice kids. And still have great relationships to them to this day. One of them actually lives next door to me, so it's kind of nice, and married my niece. So at family gatherings and stuff every once, so I get to talk a little football.

Craig Mattick: During this time, you're also serving America in the military. When did that begin, Tom?

Tom Culver: Well, I first joined the guards in 1985. And anyway, I was at Wesleyan and I was toward the end of my first year at Wesleyan and I was telling my wife, I said, "God dang, I don't know if we can continue." And obviously college was a lot cheaper back then than it's now. And I almost joined guards when I was in high school but decided not to. And so I said, "I'm going to call the guard recruiter and have him come visit."

And so I called him and he came out and we talked and everything. And then my old football coach at the time was an officer in the National Guard and he was the commander of the Mitchell unit. And so the recruiter called him and said, "What do you think? Should I sign him up?" And my old Coach Thompson said, "Well, absolutely. You better get..." And it was probably three weeks I had a meeting, signed papers, and three weeks later I was on a plane to Oklahoma.

Anyway, I actually did it for 10 years and decided to get out. And so I got out in '95. And then in 2006, I decided to get back in. I wanted to finish what I started and at least get my years in to retire from the guards and stuff. And so in 2006-

Craig Mattick: Oh, it was a year later? Yeah, it was a year later when you got back in. You're called up to serve a year in Iraq. What were you feeling at that time?

Tom Culver: Well, probably the biggest thing I was thinking like, okay, now I got to tell my wife this, when I got the phone call. But I mean, she was obviously worried and scared about it and my mother-in-law thought I was crazy when I got back in. And I said, "If me being in and if I have to go over..." And at the time when I left in October of '07, when I left my first granddaughter was three months old. And I said, "If it keeps those groups from coming over here and attacking family members here, I'm willing to do that."

Craig Mattick: What was your job?

Tom Culver: But then... Yeah?

Craig Mattick: What was your job?

Tom Culver: When I got back in, I was at the Mitchell unit, was artillery. But when I was overseas I was the evening shift top commander. So the top commander is basically the person that is monitoring the communication stuff. We had things on ways to track vehicles or communicate with our convoys out on the road, and if there were incidents or anything, we'd have to make reports to higher up and to take care of anything. We were kind of the operations center for our convoys. We had six different groups that were convoys up north to Baghdad and other places like that.

Craig Mattick: What month in 2007 did you deploy?

Tom Culver: We left the end of October in 2007.

Craig Mattick: It was during the football season.

Tom Culver: Yeah. I was here for the first playoff game. And it was really hard. And I know Tom Oster tried to... He contacted the guards and asked if it was possible, because our unit was going to Mississippi for two months, I think we left October 28th, and asked, "Can he stay until the end of the playoffs and then join up down there?" And they said, "No, that wouldn't be fair to anybody else." I understood that, and it was not easy. Because we were 9-0 at the time.

Craig Mattick: It wasn't only you, but Tom Oster also was deployed. So it was you and Tom, the principal and the superintendent and the football coach, all being deployed for a year in Iraq.

Tom Culver: And I know at the start of that year, we had had... I don't know if you know Joe Kramer from Mitchell?

Craig Mattick: Mm-hmm.

Tom Culver: He was Wesleyan's football coach, and then he was at Mitchell. And I think he coached at Pierre for a while too. But anyway, he was hired to come in to kind of take over for me while I was gone and be the principal. So he started in August when we started school and we was helping out with football, and then he stayed. Then when I got back to next year, well, then Tom Oster had got the job as the Secretary of Education. So in November Tom left, but then Joe stayed on and finished out that year. So he was actually here for two full years.

And that was kind of interesting because I had to... And I had taken football theory, people talk about a small world, but I took football theory in college from Joe Kramer. I said, "I'm probably the only person that you get the grade twice to see if I actually learned anything in your class." And he laughed and he thought that was kind of funny. So yeah, that was an interesting year.

Craig Mattick: So it's late in 2008, the 2008 football season, that you and Tom come back from Iraq. And the Pirates, it's their last regular season home game. You were back. I think you guys had the big ceremony in Sioux Falls and then you took off to go home to see everybody back. What was the reception like at that football game when you were able to go back and see everyone for the first time in a year?

Tom Culver: Well, it was pretty cool. Because I remember we left Mitchell and it was my son-in-law and daughter and then my wife and I and then our granddaughter Macy. And so I told my wife, and I had called her from, we were in Mississippi for three days before we came back to Sioux Falls. And I said, "You got to get me warm clothes, because I'm not going to be used to this." So we left Iraq on October 16th and it was 106 degrees that day. And I think I saw that the day that we got home, it was low forties and raining. And I'm thinking, oh my gosh. But anyway, I kind of changed while we were in the vehicle on the way home.

And then anyway, they dropped me off by the field on the north side and I went through the gate. And then as the kids, we made it just in time before they started walking down the street. And out on the street the parents and the other kids and the cheerleaders make a tunnel out on the street. And I was standing on the track and gave a hug to all the kids as they came down onto the track. So that was pretty cool because I hadn't seen the kids in a year.

Craig Mattick: What a moment. What a moment that was.

Tom Culver: Yeah. That was something I'll never forget that. It was pretty neat. And that was the best part about being back and then got to watch the Pirates play again, so that was fun too.

Craig Mattick: Well, you made it to the 9-A title game that year, in '09. You lost to Hanson though that year. How ironic. Hanson comes in and plays that game.

And then you're not done after making six appearances in eight years, four championships. 2011, you drop down to 9-B, lost to Waverly/South Shore. And then the last appearance by Avon to the Dome, 2013, class 9-B, you beat Hamlin. I think Devin Tolsma was the MVP that year.

What do you remember last about that 2013 championship?

Tom Culver: Well, it was interesting because we got the opening kickoff. And we had some talented kids, and Devin was Joe Robbie MVP. Brandon Kocmich was our other running back. And those two guys had 3,200 yards rushing between the two of them and they were great at blocking for each other and everything.

But I remember one thing, the night before West Central was down. And I know Coach Mueller and Coach Uttecht for a long time. And I remember they made... I think they scored on, it was a pass play and then a trick play of some kind. And they were down at halftime and came back and won it. And at halftime we were down 22 to 8. And anyway, at halftime we're talking to the kids and we're saying, "Hey, if you watched the game last night, West Central was down, they came back. Why not us? We can do the same thing."

And the funny thing about it is, I remember we had scored and we had another opportunity and we fumbled as we were driving. But we got the ball back with about a minute and a half ago, something like that. And we were probably close to midfield, so I mean, we were in decent range. And we're kind of noted for wishbone offense and run it, powered at you and stuff like that. We ended up, we have a spread formation that we ran. And anyway the first play, they were running a 3-2 defense. And the one linebacker, they were actually two brothers, I think Grantham, if I remember right, with their last name. And the younger one blitzed on the first pathway. I thought, okay, if you're going to do that again. And I called a screen that way.

And anyway, because I knew if we let the three linemen go, then we had... I mean we basically had all three of our linemen could block the middle linebacker, the other linebacker, and he was the better of the two. And we ended up scoring a touchdown on the play in. And I thought, well, I'm just trying to get a first down and we get moving down the field and then we score. The problem is we left too much time, but we ended up intercepting a long pass and the game was over.

But I remember Mike Henriksen after the game interviewing me. He said, "Now, who would've thought at West Central and Avon, primarily a running team would win games on...

Craig Mattick: Pass plays.

Tom Culver: ... passing plays." Some type of pass play and stuff. And I said, "Well, we don't like to do it if we don't have to, but we practice it every day, and thank God we did." So sometimes it's the way things work out.

Craig Mattick: Tom, you've been wearing many hats at the same time. Football, athletic director, principal. But you've decided to wear basically one hat now, and that is superintendent at Avon. What led you to that decision?

Tom Culver: Well, one of the things is, we've got three granddaughters and two grandsons. The granddaughters, one's a junior this year, one's a freshman, and one is a seventh grader. And they all three play volleyball. The varsity games are all right because the freshmen and the junior both start and play a lot on the varsity. The seventh grader, and like with all of them when they were in junior high, I never got to see any games because we were practicing when the junior high is playing.

I don't know, it's been harder, because I'm sure you're aware, you've heard from other people and stuff, it's getting harder to coach these days because everybody thinks they're an expert and they know more and they like to second guess. And I don't know, the worst part about this is not being around the kids every day because as superintendent sometimes you get stuck in your office more than you would like and you don't get to have as much contact with the kids.

And that was a nice thing about coaching that I still liked, as superintendent you still had that contact with the kids. And I always had some high school girls that were my stat keepers. So it was a way to have a lot of contact with other kids and hopefully teach them some life lessons so they be productive members of our society.

But you get to the age where you want to enjoy things a little more. And it's definitely been different, and it was a hard, hard decision. But I think so far it's been good. That first game, that day was pretty tough. But that's to be expected, I think.

Craig Mattick: I guess we can add one more hat for you, Tom, as you're on the board of directors of the High School Activities Association. What does that mean to you?

Tom Culver: Well, that was an honor, because a lot of schools obviously voted and convinced their school boards to vote for me. And I think in the last they had a runoff, because there were four people, and so nobody got 50%. But I think it was like 94 schools voted for me. And I was impressed by that because that mean that hopefully that people knew that I'm going to be honest and I'm going to do the best I can for the kids of South Dakota. And it's been a pretty good experience so far.

Craig Mattick: A couple more questions for you, Tom. What's the biggest challenge facing small town South Dakota school districts?

Tom Culver: Well, I would say the biggest thing is staff. This year our vocal teacher is also our band teacher. And the board has compensated her for the extra time and effort that she's doing and hopefully it's, like she said, hopefully only for a year or a semester or whatever.

But I mean, even for parents, and with the way things are, at one time the school was probably the highest paid job in some of the communities. But now with the competition for workers and everything, staffing is a big thing. And then keeping the kids numbers up. Because without kids, the funding, your state aid drops, and it makes it tougher. So those are the two big issues I would say.

Craig Mattick: Before we go, not only to Tom Oster, but to you too, Tom Culver, thank you for your commitment to education all these years, but also thank you for your service to this country and the sacrifices you have made. A lot of us say thank you, Tom, you and Tom, for doing that.

Tom Culver: Thanks. Yeah, I appreciate that. I've grown up with the belief to give back. As a social studies teacher, one of the things that I always believe is we have the greatest country in the world. Yeah, we make some mistakes. We've done some stuff. But to me this is a country worth defending and it's a country worth educating our kids to be good citizens for. So I really do think those two things go hand in hand quite a bit. But I do appreciate your comments on that.

Craig Mattick: Last one for you, is it Dakota Bodden? He is now your athletic director at Avon?

Tom Culver: Yeah, Dakota Bodden.

Craig Mattick: Dakota Bodden, the AD. And then Justin Lucas is now the football coach at Avon.

Tom Culver: Yes.

Craig Mattick: So what has been your biggest piece of advice to those two individuals trying to fill some pretty big shoes?

Tom Culver: Well, for Dakota, I would say you got to be organized. And with the other teams, the officials, one of the things that I stressed is, and our board members have been supportive of is, we need to take care of the officials and our opponents when they come here. We want to be a good host. And I want to take care of our officials because there's come a time... Stuff happens with... Last year we found out with all the weather issues that we had and rescheduled, that it got hard to find referees. And alls I had to do is email a region coordinator and say, "Hey, I need one more official for this date." And if you take care of them, they're going to help you out. So that makes your job a lot easier.

And then for the coaches, this isn't just about football, it's about those kids. You got to love them. And sometimes you might have to do some tough love, but they always need to know that you have their best interests in mind, and win or lose, it doesn't define who they are as a person. Because sometimes you just get beat by better people. And that's the way life is. Sometimes you don't get a job because the other person was better, or whatever it is. So I just think there's a lot of lessons that you can teach in the sport of football.

Craig Mattick: If you like what you're hearing, please give us a five star review wherever you get your podcast. It helps us gain new listeners. This has been In Play with me, Craig Mattick. This is a production of South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

Nate Wek is currently the sports content producer and sports and rec beat reporter for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He is a graduate of South Dakota State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism Broadcasting and a minor in Leadership. From 2010-2013 Nate was the Director of Gameday Media for the Sioux Falls Storm (Indoor Football League) football team. He also spent 2012 and 2013 as the News and Sports Director of KSDJ Radio in Brookings, SD. Nate, his wife Sarah, and two kids Braxan and Jordy, live in Canton, SD.