NORWALK, Iowa — Back in 1991, Chris Larson was the senior starting point guard for the Monroe boys basketball team. The squad had a forgetful season the year prior and started the 1990-91 season 0-4. The team soon found a spark and rode a magical ride all the way to the state championship. The Cinderella story ended with a 9-point loss to unbeaten Wilmot, but memories were made.
The next fall, Larson found himself on the Drake University campus, and as one thing led to another, he joined the basketball program as a manager. Shortly after graduating in 1997, at age 23, he was named the head boys basketball coach at Norwalk, just south of Des Moines in central Iowa. For the next 24 seasons Larson led the program, compiling 344 wins and winning the 2020 state championship while coaching the state’s Mr. Basketball (Bowen Born) and earning the state’s Coach of the Year award. After a loss Feb. 26 against Ankeny in the Iowa playoffs, Larson decided it was time to announce that he was stepping away from the game he loved.
Larson said it was the magical 1991 run that helped his confidence as a coach. From the miserable start to the season, to the 40-point drubbing by Monona Grove, all the way to the playoff win over that same MG team that pushed the Cheesemakers to the state tournament.
It was how we treated each other. Bill Dehn always said ‘Good things happen to good people,’ and that still resonates 30 years later.Chris Larson, 1991 Monroe High School graduate
“We just kind of came out of nowhere,” Larson said.
That Monroe (18-8) team, 30 years ago March 15, defeated Holmen (21-4) 65-59 in the state semifinal. Wilmot (26-0) edged another Cinderella story, Kimberly (11-14) by just two in its semifinal to set up the March 16, 1991 Division 2 championship game.
Larson said that it had been 26 years (1965) that Monroe last went to state — and that season the Silver Streaks won the title. “Joe Deignan is still my best friend and we talk a lot. We remembered back in 1991 thinking that 1965 was ‘so long ago’ when it was 26 years before us. We said, ‘Can you believe it’s been 30 years? We’re the old guys now,’” he said.
Behind head coach Bill Dehn, the 1991 Cheesemakers came up just short at the UW Field House, losing 73-64. Joe Deignan led the team with 27 points and Eric Ayen had 11. Larson hit the only two 3-pointers in the game for either side.
“We had a couple of young freshmen on that team that could really play. We had guys like Brett Davis, Joe Deignan, Ron Neuenschwander, Eric Ayen,” Larson said. Also playing in the state tournament were Dan Bartholf, Greg Markham, Bryan Davis, Mike Martin, Kevin Gratz, Matt Eakins and Brian Kubly.
When looking for colleges, Larson was traveling through Iowa looking to tour some smaller DIII schools. He remembered talking to guidance counselor Laurie Plourde, who suggested to “stop in” at Drake. The moment Larson stepped on campus, he knew it was where he needed to go. “I fell in love with Drake,” Larson said. He met a manager for the men’s basketball team, and as another manager’s spot opened up, Larson jumped on board. He said it helped him prepare to get ready for coaching, because he was able to analyze the game from the sideline and not have to worry about his own game on the court.
At Drake, Larson also met his wife Jennifer, who was a law student. While he always envisioned coming back to Wisconsin and the Madison area after college, he took advantage of an opportunity to teach and coach in the Des Moines area, and the pair simply settled down in suburban Des Moines and never left.
“In 1997, Mike Collins and Denny Wulf had an irrational day and they decided to hire a green, naïve, but passionate 23-year-old basketball coach to run their basketball program,” Larson joked in his resignation post on Twitter. “That day started an amazing journey for the next 24 years that has taken me and so many others to such special places. It has been the absolute privilege of a lifetime to serve this community as the basketball coach for over half of my life.”
Coincidentally enough, Norwalk’s head football coach, hired a few years after Larson, is Juda graduate Paul Patterson. “It’s really a small world.”
In his time as head coach at Norwalk, Larson compiled 344 wins in 561 games (.613), six conference titles, 10 Iowa Sweet Sixteen appearances, six state tournament appearances, five Final Fours, three Class 3A championship games and won the program’s first state title in 2020 — all while much of the entire sporting world was shut down at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were fortunate we got to play. Wisconsin was shut down; basically, everything was shut down. We had 100 fans that could be at that championship game,” Larson said. “They streamed the game online, and it was ridiculous how many people watched. We were the only ones playing sports in the world.”
In his Tweet announcing his resignation, which came two days after the loss to Ankeny, Larson lamented his love for not just the game, but also the relationships he’s developed with players, fellow coaches, parents and those in the community over the years.
“There is nothing in the world better than working hard with a group of people to accomplish a challenging goal and winning,” Larson Tweeted. “With that said, mostly all I can think about these last few weeks as it winds down is all the relationships I have made. My assistant coaches have become my best friends in life … many players have become some of my greatest friends as well …”
Texts and social media messages bombarded Larson, from former teammates and players to fellow coaches and simple basketball fans in the Midwest.
He credits much of his success to the style of play and ideology he learned under Dehn, as well as other prominent professional coaches like Brad Stevens of the NBA and Andy Reid in the NFL.
“It was how we treated each other. Bill Dehn always said ‘Good things happen to good people,’ and that still resonates 30 years later,” Larson said. “I don’t know I would have the confidence as a coach without experiencing that state run (in 1991). I’ve used a lot of the lessons I learned from that year in my coaching. I lean on that. It’s now how good you are, but how good you play.”
He also took some of the local lessons he grew up with in his hometown with him. He remembers the work of Monsignor Thomas Campion and the Apostolate to the Handicapped did in Monroe. Similarly, when his son was an infant, he needed to be hospitalized. While at church one day in 2002, he decided he wanted to do something more. Since then, he and his program have raised funds to purchase Christmas toys for the patients at the local Blanks Children’s Hospital. The project was just one of the efforts the program did that won respect and admiration throughout the community, and the team works in conjunction with a local bank each year to do it.
“I believe I served my community,” Larson said. “It all goes back to my growing up in a community where we all served each other. Father Campion, Mr. Sathoff — they were always talking about that.”
I believe I served my community. It all goes back to my growing up in a community where we all served each other. Father Campion, Mr. Sathoff — they were always talking about that.Chris Larson
Larson’s son, Grant, played point guard on his state team in 2019. Both he and his son now share a happy coincidence on the court — they each scored 16 points in the game that led them to the state tournament. Also, 16 was the career high for both Chris and Grant.
“Nothing but happy memories. I loved every minute of it,” Chris said.
Larson said he’ll probably stick around and help the program out a bit here or there. He said he has no plans to deviate from his day job as assistant principal at Lakewood Elementary in the Norwalk school district.
He plans on being present in the household more often. He thanked his wife for being the ultimate “coach’s wife,” and said that his twin daughters, Anna and Katie, are freshmen and he wants to be able to be there to support them, whether it’s playing in a basketball game or performing in a concert. Grant is headed to Wartburg College to play football.
“It’s hard to be the best parent or husband when you are putting everyone else first all the time,” Larson said.
In his parting passage on Twitter, Larson wrote “It is time for me to replace some of that energy into being the best dad I can be. My family is amazing.”