There’s a story from his near 40-year coaching career that Dwight Gunnare just can’t seem to escape.
“This one time, coach got really excited during the game — really, really excited — and tried to throw like a ‘hoorah’ fist pump … and turned around and smacked our assistant coach, like sucker-punched her pretty much,” recalled Jenna Bolstad, who played women’s basketball for Gunnare at Miles Community College from 2006-08.
“And that assistant coach just happened to be my daughter,” Gunnare confirmed with a hearty laugh. “That’s 100% true. We were playing Sheridan (Wyo.) College and we needed to beat Sheridan College by (11) points because of point spread. … That was the only loss of the season so far, and it was the last sub-region game. Eboni Sweat, I can remember it perfectly, took a charge. It was a huge play, and I spun and turned and yelled, ‘Yes!’ And my fist hit my daughter. It was an enthusiastic fist, it was a happy one, but yes, that story is true.”
And that story might also be the epitome of who Gunnare is as a coach — unintentional jabs notwithstanding.
As Bolstad remembers, Gunnare implemented a specific play in practice the week leading up to that memorable game against Sheridan in case the Pioneers were leading by only eight points and needed a 3-pointer to secure the 11-point differential in order to host the regional tournament. The special play wasn’t needed, as MCC won 72-51, per an article published by the Billings Gazette.
It’s that attention to detail and intensity, though, that has propelled Gunnare to a long coaching career full of numerous accomplishments. A native of Wagner, S.D., Gunnare ultimately spent 26 years coaching in eastern Montana before becoming the head women’s basketball coach at Casper (Wyo.) College in 2008. He’s now led the Thunderbirds for 13 seasons and won 340 games, including 22 during the 2020-21 season. Casper won its first 20 games to start the season, then lost to Otero (Colo.) in the Region IX championship and ended its season with a loss to Three Rivers (Mo.) in the National Junior College Athletic Association national tournament.
“We just have a lot of good things in place that kind of let us run a consistent program, have our expectations and a certain group of things that we’re looking for when we recruit kids, and the formula has worked pretty well for us to date,” Gunnare said.
While he’s led both the Miles and Casper women’s basketball programs to the NJCAA’s biggest stage, Gunnare’s coaching path started in tiny Ashland, Montana. He and his wife moved to the southeastern Montana community after graduating from Black Hills (S.D.) State, where Gunnare played college baseball.
Just 22 years old at the time, Gunnare started his coaching career mentoring junior high basketball players at Ashland for six years.
“Had an amazing, amazing experience there,” he said, sincere joy resonating in his voice. “My last couple years, the games would start at 4 o’clock, that gym was full and people were stomping their feet on the bleachers and just loving seventh and eighth grade basketball.”
Gunnare really started to put his coaching stamp on eastern Montana in the 1990s at Colstrip High School, though. He led the Fillies for 11 seasons, compiling an overall record of 175-87 and winning Class A girls basketball state championships in 1993 and 1999.
“Holy cow, what a decade of opportunity to coach some great girls basketball and some great athletes. We had quite a run,” Gunnare said, also noting some of the “great coaches” he worked with: Mark Ator, Joe Sukut, Joe (Alan) Egan, Roxie Wilson, Tim Stroebe and Jim Wilsey.
“I think we made the state tournament eight years in a row, and out of seven of those, we were playing on Saturday night, either for a championship or for third and fourth,” Gunnare added.
Leaving behind a successful program at Colstrip was a difficult decision for Gunnare, but he opted to advance his career and get into college coaching at Miles CC. He took over the Pioneers’ women’s basketball program in 2002.
He found more success at MCC, winning 126 games in six seasons, culminating with a 31-2 record in 2007-08. Gunnare was named the Mon-Dak Conference coach of the year in 2006-07 and 2007-08, and was also the NJCAA Region IX coach of the year in 2007-08.
“I think it’s just caring for kids on and off the floor,” Bolstad said of what made Gunnare successful at MCC. “I went through some tough times when I first got to campus at Miles just with my mom and medical issues and whatnot, and I was in his office all the time and he just had time for me, and it wasn’t even basketball. It was everything outside of basketball, which was really great for me.”
Bolstad played for Gunnare for two years and then finished her college playing career at Black Hills State. She entered the coaching ranks in 2010 and is now an assistant coach for the women’s basketball program at Montana Tech.
“(Gunnare) actually kind of was my inspiration to get into coaching,” said Bolstad, a Culbertson native. “Just very passionate about the game, very knowledgeable. He’s always trying to do what’s best for us as athletes, and I think I try and model that with our kids here at Tech and the places I’ve been. But just a great, great guy to be around, a great mentor for me and a friend, someone I look up to.”
Bolstad and Gunnare both left Miles in 2008 — Bolstad to continue playing at Black Hills State and Gunnare to continue coaching at Casper.
Gunnare hit the ground running — he was named the Wyoming Conference coach of the year in 2008-09, his first season at Casper — and has experienced nothing but success in the Cowboy State. Since coaching the Thunderbirds, Gunnare has been named the Region IX coach of the year nine times, including each of the past four years.
“I talk often with my wife and think often, I can’t believe how fortunate I’ve been. It’s almost 40 years,” said Gunnare, 61. “I just feel extremely fortunate to have four stops, loved every one of them. No lesser memories at any place. I have just as good of memories of Miles as I do Casper as I do at Ashland Public and as I do at Colstrip. And I don’t think a lot of people, in whatever profession they are, would be able to say that, so just feel very fortunate.”