From the sidelines to the Senate: How Rich Wardner became North Dakota’s most influential coach
The unconventional course of Rich Wardner's career took him from coaching high school sports to the pinnacle of North Dakota politics. At the end of the year, the master motivator will retire as one of the longest-serving Senate majority leaders in state history.
BISMARCK — As the North Dakota Senate prepared to adjourn on the fourth day of a grinding November special session, Majority Leader Rich Wardner rose from his seat to lay out a detailed game plan for finishing up the chamber’s remaining work.
Suddenly, Wardner revved his voice. Scowling and vigorously shaking his fist, the 79-year-old Dickinson Republican bellowed at his weary colleagues that they would aim to end the session the next day “and prove to all the pundits that they didn’t know what they were talking about — that we here in the North Dakota Legislature can get ‘er done.”
The fiery speech probably mirrored one he delivered as a 28-year-old coach to the Mohall High boys basketball team at halftime of the 1971 district championship game. Despite a near-collapse in the second half, Billy Thom, the Yellowjackets’ star player, knocked down several clutch free throws to ward off archrival Lansford, Wardner recalls in crisp detail.
Wardner eventually traded athletics for politics, but the coach in him has never faded, his friends and colleagues say.
“The passion is so close to the surface all the time,” Dickinson Rep. Mike Lefor said. “He can go into coach mode so fast.”
U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, who played freshman football for Wardner at Dickinson High School and served under him as a Republican state senator, said the man has earned a reputation for bringing out the best in the people he leads.
“When I was (Wardner’s) player and when I was his chairman of the Senate Judiciary (Committee), I did the work because it was the right way to do things,” Armstrong said. “You didn’t ever do it because you were scared of him — you did it because you didn’t want to disappoint him.”
At the end of the year, the master motivator of the upper chamber will retire as one of the longest-serving Senate majority leaders in North Dakota history.
As he reflects on the unconventional course of his career, Wardner realizes coaching and teaching prepared him better for the political arena than any law school or internship ever could.
“I was dealing with people all the time,” Wardner said. “I wasn’t looking to manipulate them — I was looking to motivate them.”
Snap, wrap and drive
Like so many from his generation, Wardner grew up on a farm and thought he’d never leave.
The elementary school he attended near Mercer, a small town north of Bismarck, had 15 students. Wardner spent much of his childhood happily working in the hayfield or taking part in 4H activities.
It wasn’t until his first year at Mercer High School that Wardner started playing basketball, a sport he picked up even with his limited access to a real practice court in the offseason.
“We had a basket upstairs in the hay barn, so as the hay was fed (to the cattle) we got a place to play,” Wardner said. “When I look back on it, it was quite hilarious, but at the time it was great fun.”
While sitting out with an injury, Wardner stepped in to coach seventh and eighth grade basketball and discovered he had an affinity for the craft.
Though he had improved as a player by his senior season, Wardner said he wasn’t good enough to get on the court for Dickinson State University, so he worked as a student manager under “masterful” head coach Lavern Jessen.
After a few years of teaching and coaching in Mohall, about 40 miles north of Minot, he landed the head basketball coaching gig at the local high school. The team placed third in the Class B state tournament his first year at the helm, giving Wardner “bona fide” credentials.
Wardner later moved back to Dickinson, where he coached seven years of varsity basketball and 20 years of freshman football while teaching science and math classes. He and his wife Kayleen have lived in the Western Edge city for more than 40 years.
Over his coaching career, Wardner learned he could get the most out of players by allowing them “flexibility and freedom out on the floor” and giving credit for jobs well done.
He developed an animated style with players and was known to “whoop it up” from time to time.
“You roll your eyes at him because you’re a freshman and you think it’s not cool, but secretly you so appreciate that somebody believes in you,” Armstrong said.
Some of Wardner’s motivation techniques were a little less traditional.
He found that giving players nicknames like “Scrap Iron Gadaski,” “Digger” and the “Skunk Dogs” made them more confident on and off the field.
Dan Glasser, who played basketball for Wardner and now coaches Dickinson High’s boys team, said he’ll never forget being a member of the “bullfrog defense.”
Armstrong recalls Wardner giving him a T-shirt after he played a good game in Watford City.
“(He) could make you feel like the toughest, meanest linebacker in the history of the world even if you were subpar,” the congressman recalled.
Wardner said he taught generations of football players to “snap, wrap and drive” when trying to tackle an opponent, and he often awarded players McDonald’s Big Macs for recording sacks or cracks (hard hits).
But winning games wasn’t the only goal for Coach Wardner — he wanted to develop every kid regardless of their athletic ability, he said.
He arranged separate games between lesser players so they could get time on the field and kept statistics for everybody in uniform. Wardner gets emotional when he talks about the self-belief sports instilled in some of his players who had previously lacked confidence.
“For three months, (these kids) were somebody, and it made a difference how they acted in school,” he said, choking up.
A coach’s approach to politics
Wardner said he entered the North Dakota Legislature as a “political neophyte” in 1990, and it took him a few years to climb the steep learning curve. But he figured out he could apply some of his coaching and teaching experience to lawmaking.
As if scouting a rival team, Wardner dug into public retirement programs and oil tax distributions, becoming an authority on the complex subjects during his tenure in the House of Representatives.
He switched to the Senate in 1998 and eventually worked his way onto the powerful Appropriations Committee. After former Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem died in 2011, Wardner’s Republican colleagues elected him to take the reins.
The leadership philosophies and motivational tactics of his old coaching days adapted well to the new role.
He could delegate responsibilities to committee chairmen and other senators much in the same way he would a quarterback or a point guard.
“You allow your people to make decisions, and believe me, they respond,” Wardner said. “They do not want to make bad decisions. They go do the extra work.”
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, said Wardner put “a yeoman’s amount of time” into understanding budgets and policy so he could provide senators with the facts and context they need to make good laws.
Wardner even incorporated some nicknames during caucus meetings, dividing GOP senators into four teams — cougars, badgers, bobcats and foxes — to study the budget over Zoom calls in 2020.
Lefor, who serves in the same district as Wardner, said it’s immensely valuable to have someone as driven and enthusiastic as the Senate leader during an exhausting legislative session. And having to make a speech after Wardner fires up a crowd is “one of the worst things that happens in my life,” Lefor joked.
Armstrong said Wardner delivered his patented “rah-rah” speeches when the Senate needed to hear them, but he was especially skilled at motivating members behind the scenes.
In 2013, Armstrong, then a lawyer handling many driving-under-the-influence cases, went to Wardner insisting they needed to kill a bill to reform DUI penalties after it had been approved by the House with major flaws. Wardner pointedly told Armstrong he had just a few days to fix the bill so they could pass legislation that addressed a serious problem in the state.
"We got it done," said Armstrong. "I don't know if I could have done it in two days for anyone else."