LAKE LINDEN - When former Lake Linden-Hubbell High football coach Ron Warner was forging a Hall of Fame career, he never failed to credit his defensive coach.
"Russ Laurin has done a tremendous job of molding our defense," Warner said in 1995. "I handle the offense ... and Russ takes care of the defense. It's been a very good combination here for a long time."
If it seems like Laurin has been a part of the Lakes' athletic system forever, you have to consider that he arrived on the scene 50 years ago.
Russ Laurin, center, in white hat, works with some Lake Linden-Hubbell football players in a practice earlier this week. Laurin has directed various LL-H?teams in one way or another since 1963. (Paul Peterson photo)
He's worn many hats in his long tenure, including varsity football, track and basketball. Still an assistant coach in JV football at the age of 76, he has also been a JV skipper in basketball and track.
John Hanner, who played football and basketball under Laurin in the mid-1960s, says it would be hard to imagine the school's sports without his old mentor.
"Russ (Laurin) has been there ever since I can remember," said Hanner, a 1967 LL-H graduate. "He's just one of those people ... who is behind the scenes ... but always very involved."
Laurin, a 1954 Houghton High graduate, grew up watching coaching legends like Peter Bugni and John Gaffney produce football and basketball championships on a regular basis.
While not competing in the latter two sports, Russ was a standout in track for the Gremlins, where he specialized in the distance events.
Longtime friend Dave McAdam of Houghton said Laurin's biggest individual thrill probably came when he defeated Jeffers ace Roger Ryynanen in the mile run at a big meet.
"Ryynanen was a perennial U.P. champion," McAdam recalled. "But Russ, who usually placed second and third in the event, beat him that day."
After a hitch in the service, Laurin attended and graduated from Northern Michigan University. He took a teaching job at Lake Linden in 1962.
He was appointed football coach in 1963, but found the program in disarray.
Current LL-H athletic director Gary Guisfredi said that Laurin's first team never got off the ground.
"He (Laurin) told me that the players weren't showing up for practice, so it was decided to scrap the program that season," Guisfredi said.
But the Lakes resumed the program the next year, albeit, on a limited basis (just five games).
Without a conference affiliation, LL-H had to travel far and wide for games. In the 1966 season, the team played games at Norway, Marquette Bishop Baraga, Engadine and downstate Olivet.
"An article in the Mining Gazette said we traveled 585 miles to play Olivet," Hanner recalled. "But it really was quite an experience for everyone on the team."
A 16-0 win over bigger Olivet was led by a defense that didn't allow its foe past midfield, as well as a field goal by Bob Haralson. That was the highlight of a 6-2 season - L'Anse and Norway the only teams to defeat LL-H, then known as the Whiz Kids.
The Lakes made another trip below the bridge in 1968, but that jaunt resulted in a lopsided loss to a strong Manistee team that featured a quarterback who would later become a punter at Michigan State.
"That quarterback was really good," Laurin said. "He passed us dizzy that day."
Warner arrived at the school in 1972, taking over the coaching reins. He said the foundation for success had already been laid.
"The kids playing defense already knew what they had to do. I was able to concentrate on the offense," the former skipper said.
The coaching combination would give Warner a 231-59-1 record, several conference and regional championships, and two state championship titles by the time he retired in 2001.
"I know that Ron (Warner) really appreciated having Russ there," said Ken Klein, who played for the Lakes in the early 1980s and starred at NMU after that. "He supplied that steadiness on the sidelines, and of course, he has a wealth of knowledge."
Laurin has stayed on since, working with the JV squad for the most part. But he's also advised current coach Andy Crouch, himself a former standout for the Lakes.
"He really knows how to relate to kids ... and he's very good at teaching the fundamentals of the game," Crouch noted. "He's been a big part of this program for a long time."
Laurin was voted into the Michigan High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame a few years ago.
He was also the Lakes basketball and track coach for well over a decade.
While the Lakes didn't always enjoy great success on the hardcourt, they did pull off one of the greatest upsets in Copper Country sports history in 1969.
Facing an unbeaten Ewen-Trout Creek squad, the heavy underdog LL-H cagers scored a 51-50 stunner in an opening round district tourney game by slowing down the high-scoring Panthers, who had been averaging more than 95 points per game.
"No one believed we could do it, but coach (Laurin) told us before the game that they (Panthers) could be beaten if we made them play our game," recalled Jim Sarazin, a senior starter on the team. "It was a great night for all of us."
Laurin had more success as the track coach at Lake Linden. His teams captured no less than 14 conference titles and were twice runner-up at the U.P. Track Finals.
"He (Laurin) still helps us coaching track to this day," said Guisfredi, who is the current track coach. "I know last spring he was giving tips to our hurdlers and pole vaulters."
Also a fast-pitch softball enthusaist, he played and coached the sport in the Lake Linden area for years. Al's Bar was his main team in that period.
"Russ introduced a lot us to fast-pitch while we were still in high school," Hanner recalled. "He just enjoyed being around the game."
Klein, who was the head football coach at Houghton High for several years, now coaches the Lakes JV squad. He said that Laurin has been much more than a coach.
"He's been a role model and a mentor for just a ton of kids," Klein said. "I'm just honored to be able to coach with him this year."
An avid fisherman and hunter, Laurin takes at least two trips to northern Ontario every year.
"Those trips are very relaxing for me," he said. "It helps to take off the edge."