Menomonie's LaBuda retiring after 32 years as one of nation's most successful football coaches

Spencer Flaten, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.
·10 min read

Feb. 23—Anyone can win once.

Every once in a while, a generational talent can arrive at a high school and carry their team to greatness. A determined group of hard workers can out-hustle the opposition on any given night. The ball can bounce a team's way a few times.

Cracking the combination to sustained success, however, is where it gets tricky.

In that regard, few can claim to have done better than Joe LaBuda.

The numbers would impress at any level: Five state championships, 22 conference titles and a winning percentage which ranks among the best in the country.

To find such prolonged success at the high school level is nearly unheard of. It's the unmatched legacy that LaBuda is leaving behind.

LaBuda, the longtime head football coach at Menomonie, is retiring after 32 years at the helm.

"This was a tough decision," LaBuda told the Leader-Telegram on Monday. "As I look back on things, it's been an incredible privilege to work with the amazing young men that I had in the Menomonie football program the last 32 years. I've been extremely blessed."

Building a high school football dynasty isn't easy. No matter how good any given team is, there's always a new one to shape the following year. There's no free agency, few transfers to speak of and a limited pool of players to draw from. You can only work with what you've got.

That's part of the appeal of prep sports: Each new victory, every small triumph on the practice field, every mark of progress has to be earned despite whatever the past held. No matter how good things were before, each year is a blank slate.

And each time, LaBuda filled that slate with winners — and often champions. It was a tradition that lasted more than three decades.

"That's part of what I liked about being a coach," LaBuda said. "Every year is different. Every year is a new job because every group of kids is different. That's what made it so enjoyable."

Menomonie went 321-60 with LaBuda at the helm. Under his watch, the program never had a losing season. It holds the state record with 31 consecutive playoff appearances.

Per MaxPreps, he ranks in the top 50 in the United States in all-time winning percentage among high school football coaches. Among coaches with at least 300 career victories, he had the 18th-best all-time winning percentage in the country entering last season.

How did he do it?

He's quick to heap praise on his assistant coaches, many of whom were with him for most of his time at the school.

"I think sometimes people fail to see that I was extremely blessed with the group of coaches I had here at Menomonie," LaBuda said. "I had an incredible group of coaches that stayed together a long time."

But now LaBuda is hanging up his playbook. Since retiring from teaching four years ago, he said it's been difficult to remain as engaged without being in the school every day.

"Coaching's all about relationships, and with that I found it more difficult not being in the building on a daily basis," he said.

The retirement ends a career which spanned three decades and impacted over one thousand student-athletes. Given how it started, LaBuda might have never guessed that would be the case early on.

Humble beginnings

When he first stepped on a practice field in Menomonie, LaBuda didn't have much to work with.

After starting his career as an assistant at North Marion in Florida, the Wisconsinite returned home upon landing the gig at Menomonie. His first group was small, in more ways than one.

Fewer than 30 upperclassmen had signed up, and LaBuda had to draw from the school's sophomore class to even be able to hold a team scrimmage. Only one player weighed in at 200 pounds, and just six stood six feet or taller.

"After my first two days of practice, I kind of shook my head and said, 'What did I do?'" LaBuda said with a chuckle. "Because I was at a place in Florida where there were multiple Division I athletes every year and teams that were loaded with incredible speed. I wanted to get back to Wisconsin, and I never regretted it, but at first I just shook my head and said, 'Jeez, what did I do?'"

For the first time on Wisconsin turf, he was about to take on the question that all high school coaches face: How do you get the most out of what you've got?

LaBuda found the solution in that fall of 1989, guiding his team to a 6-3 mark.

"You can't really say you have a favorite team, because there's been so many of them that you enjoy, but I would say that team is always near and dear to my heart," LaBuda said. "It was my first team, and it was a minor miracle that we finished 6-3. Those kids played so hard."

Those six wins weren't quite enough to qualify for the playoffs that year.

That would never be the case again.

Menomonie began its state-best postseason streak in 1990, winning a Big Rivers title along the way. A few years later in 1993, Menomonie — then named the Indians — knocked off a Monroe team which hadn't lost in three years 6-3 in overtime in the state semifinals before winning a 49-31 thriller over Ashwaubenon for the Division 2 state title.

The standard was raised. And it hasn't lowered since.

The gold standard

That postseason run in 1993 started a decade-plus of dominance for Menomonie. Beginning that year, the program made its way to Camp Randall Stadium in Madison for the state finals in seven of 11 seasons.

Beginning in 1993, Menomonie made three straight trips to state. The Indians won titles in 1993 and 1995, and brought home the silver ball in 1994.

They returned to state in 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2003. That stretch brought three state championships and a runner-up finish back to Menomonie.

"With some of those teams that went 14-0, those were exciting times with very loaded teams," LaBuda said. "But do I think any differently about the other teams that didn't? No. Some of the teams we had way overachieved. ... There's so many teams that are near and dear to your heart."

The highlights from that period are plentiful. In 1995's state championship game, Menomonie again squared off with state power Monroe. LaBuda's bunch came out on top again, 27-21.

Two years later, it was Germantown who had the misfortune of running into Menomonie with a championship on the line. The result was similar: Menomonie pulled away for a 29-14 triumph.

They repeated the feat in 1999, defeating Brookfield Central 19-8 in a dominant defensive display. That team did it with one lineman who weighed over 200 pounds.

Menomonie and Brookfield Central played for a championship again in 2002, and it ended the same way: The gold ball rode home with the boys from the Big Rivers after a 17-14 win.

Model of consistency

Years later, the Mustangs were still churning out victories.

Menomonie has always been a Big Rivers contender under LaBuda, and was never an opponent teams wanted to draw in the playoffs.

The school reached the state semifinals 16 times under his leadership, including in 2019 — the last full season he coached after the coronavirus pandemic altered the 2020 campaign.

Do the math: In half of LaBuda's seasons in charge, the Mustangs made the state's final four.

LaBuda believes the success stemmed from both outstanding coaching through the younger levels and a unique youth system.

In Menomonie, they use a different blueprint than others. The Mustangs' K-7th grade program does not play tackle football. They only incorporate the tackling element beginning in eighth grade.

"We intentionally did that, and I think it kept more kids wanting to go out for football," LaBuda said. "People say how can you be successful without tackle football? But through all the years, it never seemed to hurt us."

And a particular source of pride: The Mustangs found success from within their own means.

"There are so many schools with these monster facilities and people are able to jump ship between schools and things like that. That hasn't been a reason for our success," LaBuda said. "We've done it with Menomonie kids who have come up through our program and had that mantra of trying to outwork everybody. Our kids took pride in that, and we won with Menomonie guys."

More than a game

In LaBuda's final season, the Mustangs went 5-1. They could not participate in the shortened postseason due to pandemic protocols.

He finishes his coaching career ranked seventh all-time in victories among Wisconsin coaches. He's got the fourth-best winning percentage in state history at 84.3%, and among coaches with at least 300 wins, nobody's got a better percentage.

But those numbers aren't what mattered to LaBuda.

"To be honest, those kinds of things are just numbers. Numbers don't last," he said. "I kind of have always looked at it this way: God's not going to care how many wins you had when that time comes. You hope that the program had an effect on young men's lives."

That was a role which LaBuda said carried a lot of weight. He and his coaching staff wanted to shape their players into successful young men.

"We tried to be very demanding of kids, and one the things we constantly talked about was hard work," LaBuda said. "We hope that they carry that with them through life, that they do things the right way. We tried to develop that work ethic in them, doing community service and things like that."

He's reminded of that aspect of coaching to this day. Whether it's seeing a former player coaching on the opposite sideline — yes, LaBuda has gone head-to-head with men he coached as boys many times — or getting a call from someone looking to catch up, the lasting effects are easy to see.

"The other day I got a call from one of my former Florida players who's a principal in Daytona who I haven't talked to in 20 years," he said. "It's those relationships you build with players and coaches, those are far more important than the wins and losses."

What's next?

The longtime coach will have a lot more free time on his hands moving forward. He'll try to enjoy all that retirement has to offer as he steps away from the game.

"I'm getting to the age where I'm thinking about the things I want to do before I'm too old to do them," LaBuda said. "I've got a brother out in Wyoming that I'd love to go hunting with in the fall, and obviously you can't do that when you're coaching football. Just things like that that I want to do before I'm too old."

But he'll keep tabs on the program he built. LaBuda is confident that things will stay the same at Menomonie. He's excited about the next few classes of football players coming through the school.

That helped make the decision to retire a little bit easier. He wanted whoever takes over the job to have as easy of a transition as possible.

"You never want to leave as a head coach when the cupboard's bare," he said. "Menomonie football will keep going strong. Things aren't going to change just because I'm retiring. They're going to remain successful, and I'll be their biggest fan."