Chip Scoggins
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Dwight Lundeen goes to Happy Hour every day from 3 to 5 p.m. during football season. At age 74, it's a ritual that still invigorates him.

Happy Hour is his term for football practice, and the Becker High coach is entering his 52nd season at the school, which adds up to a lot of Happy Hours.

"I truly love it," Lundeen said one afternoon this week from the bleachers overlooking Becker's lush green field.

Prep football kicks off Friday night with "Zero Week." Stadiums will be filled again as communities come together under the lights, another step in a return to normalcy, or at least closer to it.

Three friends and coaching old-timers will be on the sidelines, same as always: Lundeen, Mike Grant at Eden Prairie and Merrill Pavlovich at Delano. The trio has combined for 1,042 victories and rank 3, 4 and 5, respectively, in state history in career wins. Verndale's Nine-Man coach Mike Mahlen sits No. 1 at 408 wins and counting.

The coaches are linked in more ways. Lundeen's brother-in-law is an assistant coach for Pavlovich. And Grant's nephew is a safety and backup quarterback at Delano.

Their position on the all-time win list occasionally comes up in friendly banter.

"Lundeen reminds me that he's ahead of me," Pavlovich said. "I remind him that he's coached six more years than me."

Lundeen started Becker's program in 1970 at age 22. He's been the school's only football coach. He cited a remarkable stat that put those coaches' longevity into perspective: On average, according to Lundeen, high school football coaches in Minnesota last only 4½ years in that post.

"If you're not clear at all on what your purpose is and what your goal is, you can't last," he said.

Time has not diminished their enthusiasm for coaching, even as the job has changed considerably. Teenagers have more distractions now. Parents are more vocal in their complaints. The pressure to win and to appease brings more stress.

"My rule of thumb is, when I get up in the morning and I don't want to go to practice, then it's time to move on," said the 74-year-old Pavlovich, entering his 46th season. "I still enjoy the game and I still enjoy the kids."

Practices are much more relaxed than when they first started. Shorts and shoulder pads have become standard attire, and there is very little tackling. The coaches have evolved along with the sport, still able to relate to players.

"Kids are kids — they want discipline, they want to be acknowledged and accepted and needed," Lundeen said.

His coaching philosophy: "Love 'em up and treat them well."

Lundeen even enjoys the chaos of morning weightlifting sessions when the combination of 100 kids screaming and music blasting full volume is enough to cause a migraine.

"Gosh that's fun," he said.

Grant retired as Eden Prairie's activities director so he's strictly a coach now. In his 39th season as a head coach, he jokes that "I know a lot more, but I'm sure of a lot less."

He's not as strict on some of his rules, though his practices have long been upbeat and laid-back. To him, the benefit of coaching is more rewarding than fun because the stress never goes away.

"You feel rewarded when kids that you've known since third or fourth grade grow into great young men," he said. "I love when we go onto the field and it's a big game and these kids are having that opportunity. Never do I sit there and say, 'Boy, am I having a great time.'"

Their legacies are cemented as institutions in their communities. A freshman approached Lundeen at a recent practice with this gem: You had my grandpa and my dad and now you have me.

"That's pretty cool," Lundeen said.

Occasionally, a parent thinks Coach isn't so cool, or smart.

Joked Pavlovich: "When I walk in a room, 50% of the people clap."

Grant told his players this week that he will make mistakes that might cause them to think that he's an idiot.

"When your parent tells you that Coach Grant is an idiot, you can say, 'Well, he's already admitted to that. Let's just move on,'" Grant said. "I apologize for every stupid mistake I'm going to make this year. Blanket apology."

Lundeen takes a unique tack when parents approach him to complain. He invites them to his home for a chat. He sits in his La-Z-Boy, the parents on the couch. He listens to their gripe, tells them that he loves their child, then calmly explains his reasoning on playing time or whatever has upset them.

These coaching vets have survived brushfires long enough to all be approaching the 400-win milestone. Lundeen needs 29 wins to reach that figure. Grant is 42 shy, Pavlovich 87.

That's not the reason they still coach, but 400 is a special number.

"I just keep telling my defensive coordinator to shut them out and we'll win," Lundeen joked.

Grant idolizes his college coach and mentor, the late John Gagliardi, who retired from St. John's as college football's all-time winningest coach with 489 wins.

"If I were lucky enough to get to 400," Grant said, "maybe John would be proud."

They are too busy preparing their teams to dwell on win totals. Besides, from the sound of it, none of them can see the finish line. Nor are they looking for it.