Hardworking and humble: Remembering Jim Unke
NEW ULM — Friends, family, students and faculty are mourning the loss of longtime Martin Luther College Athletic Director Jim Unke, who died Saturday after suffering a fatal brain injury caused by a stroke on July 15.
Unke recently turned 64 on July 23.
A staple at MLC for the past 25 years, Unke served as the men’s head basketball coach from 1997-2016. Unke compiled a record of 163-301 during his time as head coach for the Knights and won a pair of Upper Midwest Athletic Conference regular season championships in 2002-03 and 2008-09. He also coached a team to the UMAC tournament championship during the 1999-00 season that ended in the school’s first-ever trip to the NAIA National Tournament. Unke was also a four-time UMAC Coach of the Year.
In addition to his long history of coaching at MLC, Unke served as MLC’s Athletic Director from 1997 until his death.
Paul Koelpin, who was the MLC men’s head soccer coach for 27 years until resigning from the position in late 2021, remembered Unke for being a great leader that gave student athletes a real chance to compete.
“What I appreciated tremendously about Jim was that he never forgot the place of athletics for MLC,” Koelpin said. “He understood that Martin Luther College was a place that trained teachers and pastors and that’s what it was for. And he wanted to make sure that these people that wanted to come to college could have an athletic experience and that athletics could be part of the experience of their college years. But he didn’t have any pretensions as to how many championships we’re going to win, he was never ever a person that talked in those kinds of ways. He just wanted to make sure that athletics were a good and positive experience for the students that were here.”
Marcus Hopp, the MLC Head Athletic Trainer from 2000-20, described Unke as a hard worker and a family man.
“From Day 1 I met him, he was the epitome of a true professional,” Hopp said. “He took me under his wing being the young athletic trainer. … He was such a hardworking individual. He’s the first person on that campus, in that building, in the athletic office and he’s usually the last person to leave at the end of a long day or evening. The hours of an athletic director are similar to that of an athletic trainer. Like I said, first one in, last one out. And he did it without any complaints. At a small Division III college, the athletic director’s role is much different than at a big university, and Jim literally did everything, even things that probably weren’t anywhere near his job description.
“He understood my hours were difficult. When I was single, it wasn’t as important to have family time, but once I had a family of my own, he was very big on work-life balance. He knew I worked many nights and many weekends and my family time suffered from that. And he’d always do everything he could to get me out of there and, ‘Go home, see your family.’ And I always respected him and appreciated him for that. He’d tell my family to come up there. When my kids were little, they were ball boys in football, and basketball they helped in practices. My daughter would shag balls during volleyball warmups before a game. He’d just say, ‘Bring the family up here.’ He was a big family guy and he respected that with me and my family.”
Hopp also described Unke as being very easy to get along with.
“He was the easiest guy to get along with,” Hopp said. “In 20 years of working up there, and there were some frustrating situations that Jim would encounter as the athletic director, and I can’t remember one time he got upset. And there were plenty of times he could have [laughs].”
Koelpin also said he appreciated Unke’s commitment to the school’s soccer program, which included getting the soccer pitch on Oakwood Avenue built.
“If there’s something that very much and strongly stands out for me was how excited Jim was to get that soccer field built and to do it right and to have it be a grass field that would be really nice,” Koelpin said. “The whole set-up was nice. The building there, the press box area up above, everything. He wanted it to be a really functional place. It had storage, it had a game management situation that would be easy to do.
“He put a lot of time, effort and energy into making sure soccer wasn’t just something that was going to be thrown out on the back 40 and play where you will. It had been that way a little bit in the sense that we played games on fields that were decent, but there were lots of bumps, they weren’t made to be game pitches precisely.
“So it’s something I won’t forget, how much somebody who never played the game really, never played soccer [did for the program]. His youngest son Jake did, played New Ulm youth soccer and I coached Jake in the summer, which was kind of fun. Jake didn’t play soccer in college, but that’s when Jim got to understand the game a little bit more.”
Prior to his time at MLC, Unke also also served as an eighth-grade teacher, basketball coach and athletic director at St. Paul’s Lutheran School in New Ulm from 1983-87.
Unke also captained the expansion of MLC’s athletic facilities, which included the fundraising and construction of the Betty Kohn Fieldhouse.
Unke was also awarded a UMAC 10-Year Service Award for his contributions as part of the league’s 10-year anniversary in 2019.
Minnesota Valley Lutheran Athletic Director Craig Morgan was another person that Unke was great friends with, sharing many laughs, memories and conversations.
Morgan quickly became friends with Unke when the two attended Dr. Martin Luther College together.
“We lived in the same house together in college with a bunch of guys and we all got to be good friends and stuff like that,” Morgan said. “We played on the same basketball team at DMLC [Dr. Martin Luther College] at the time. Then he went off to fill an emergency call at East Fork [Lutheran High School], then later he got a teaching position, got a call and assigned to St. Paul’s in New Ulm. I was up in Bloomington Lutheran in Bloomington, Minnesota, and he invited our school down for a tip-off tournament at the beginning of December.
“So we came down and played his teams, and Bloomington Lutheran was also in the MLC Tournament, and Jim was pretty much instrumental in keeping us in the tournament because people wanted to kick us out because we had won it quite a few times. He said, ‘Why would you kick someone out that’s winning the thing?'”
Morgan and his family also have a tight-knit bond with Unke and his family. In addition to the two families having children that are best friends, Morgan’s daughter, Leah, is married to Unke’s son Dan. Leah and Dan have four children together.
The impact Unke had at MLC will be talked about for many years to come. But the impact he left on his friends, family and loved ones will never be forgotten.
“He was a good friend who always had time to help you, always had time to listen,” Morgan said. “He gave you advice when you asked for it. He was our kids’ second dad. He was a very humble guy. … He’s got a lot of people that looked up to him at the collegiate level and a lot of our parents really appreciated all the things he did at MVL. He was our board chairman for a while, he also took our guys and played spring and summer tournaments with them. He was very involved with the kids. He was a great dad, great family person and a great husband to his wife.”