All in the family
ISHPEMING – After Ishpeming football coach Jeff Olson led the Hematites past the Detroit-Loyola Bulldogs for a second straight Division 7 championship in November, he solidified his place as a living legend in Marquette County. In every game over the course of their 14-0 season, he proved that teaching the fundamentals can lead to victory.
According to his mother, Phyllis Olson, Jeff’s vision for how the game should be played was handed down to him from his grandfather, Leo Tollefson.
“Leo always sat and analyzed what could have been different about a game,” she said. “Even in games they won, he only saw what he could have done better while he sat there, biting his nails. Everybody watches a game, but it was just in him; he saw how it was supposed to be done.
“He would have been a great coach.”
Tollefson was born in Norway in 1897. His family eventually relocated to L’Anse, where he became a star basketball player in high school, leading his team in scoring. He wasn’t the tallest player on the team, but his hard work earned him the center position.
He went on to spend three months overseas during the end of World War I. Although she couldn’t confirm it, Phyllis said that she believes Tollefson was a walk on at the University of Michigan’s basketball team. He visited the campus, but missed home too much, so he returned to the U.P.
“With these last two years, it got me thinking,” she said. “I always felt like Jeff was a half-clone of Leo. And finally, everything has come full-circle, and Jeff has accomplished what Leo never had the opportunity to. It gives me such a sense of satisfaction and completion.”
Tollefson died on his 79th birthday, when coach Olson was just 13 years old. However, Karen Olson, Jeff’s sister, said the impact he left was deep-rooted in their family, even despite his absence.
“We all had to play sports,” she said. “That was kind of a prerequisite in our family.”
She added that although Phyllis never played softball, she was the best coach she ever had.
“It was the fundamentals she taught us,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that grandpa influenced Jeff through genetics. (Phyllis) also got it from grandpa. It is something that has passed down through the ages.
“Even though grandpa wasn’t out there watching or talking to Jeff, he was still there because of what he taught him.”
She said that although many people know Jeff simply by his coaching, he can actually be very funny when he gets a chance to open up.
“We’ll all gather around on Christmas Eve and Jeff will make us laugh so hard it hurts,” she said. “Grandpa used to be the same way. He always had a sense of humor about him.”
Olson added that, Tollefson’s humor came to an end when it was game time.
“He always had his radio right next to his chair, and we all had to be quiet when the game was on,” she said. “He was always listening to football or basketball.”
Justin Marietti can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 245.