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Kevin Schnepf, Published April 23 2013

Schnepf: Change ends a 30-year run for sportscaster Jon Cole

Fargo - Like hundreds of other high school basketball players in North Dakota, Jeff Ralph got his 15 seconds of fame when Jon Cole stuck a microphone into his face.

Cole asked Ralph about his dunk during Grenora’s opening-round win at the 1983 Class B state tournament. Thirty years later, Ralph – now the head basketball coach at Wahpeton – still remembers the interview seen on statewide television.

“I remember watching a tape of it with my kids and they just laughed,” said Ralph, referring to his youthful look and youthful response.

But Ralph’s kids may have been more amazed that their dad was being interviewed by Jon Cole – the same Jon Cole who was conducting interviews at last month’s state tournaments.

Yes, it has been three decades of Jon Cole roaming the sidelines at state tournaments, grabbing a star player once the final buzzer sounds, before body-hugging the player for his patented close-talking interviews.

As the sports anchor for NBC affiliate KUMV-TV in Williston, Jon Cole has not only become the face of sports in northwestern North Dakota, he has become the face of state-tournament coverage.

That came to an end Tuesday when the North Dakota High School Activities Association officially accepted to have Forum Communications, which owns WDAY in Fargo and WDAZ in Grand Forks, cover state tournaments instead of the NBC Network.

“I was shocked,” Cole said when he first learned of the change at last month’s Class B girls state tournament. “I’m not going to be able to talk to that young man or woman who hit the game-winning shot. It’s very, very tough. Very disappointing. It’s been a part of my life since 1983.”

It’s a life a 23-year-old Cole had no idea would evolve when he hopped onto a Greyhound bus in his home state of Massachussets to hunt for a sportscasting job in the Midwest. He made stops in Duluth, Minneapolis, Fargo, Bismarck, Minot, Williston, Billings and Salt Lake City.

Once he returned home after a 27-day journey, Cole got a call from Williston. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I tell all the oil workers out here now that their journey is not that much different than mine,” said Cole, now 55-years-old and still single. “I went where the jobs were.”

He has since been a part of all but two of the last 30 Class B state boys basketball tournaments. The five-time North Dakota sportscaster of the year says he will always remember his first ‘B’ tournament – the one with Jeff Ralph and the Grenora team that wore striped socks to match their striped uniforms.

He remembers the 1991 ‘B’ when Watford City – the team he covered all season – won its first state tournament. It was Watford City’s Fred Fridley vs. Munich’s Marty McDonald. He remembers Hunter Berg and Grenora losing to Jim Kleinsasser and Carrington in 1995.

Whether he was interviewing Jeff Ralph, Fred Fridley, Marty McDonald, Hunter Berg or Jim Kleinsasser, Cole always had a knack of asking a question without really asking one. It was his way of trying to keep the kids relaxed.

And, with the noise of a state championship celebration bearing down on him, he was always right in their face

“You didn’t know if he was hugging you or if he was interviewing you,” said Fridley, who now works at Sanford Health in Bismarck. “But after awhile, you got used to it. We were so close together, he didn’t even have to move the microphone … we could both talk into it at the same time.”

Fridley maintains anytime he talks to someone about this new television contract, Jon Cole’s name has always been mentioned.

“And all of them say ‘boy, it’s going to be weird not seeing him on the sidelines,’” Fridley said.

On the sidelines where he displayed as much enthusiasm as the kid who just hit the winning shot.

“I wish I was playing … honestly, I wish I was playing,” said Cole, who got cut from his high school basketball team when he was a freshman. “I always tell the kids how lucky they should feel to be playing.

“The one thing I love about it is these kids dream about getting to the ‘B.’ It just means so much to them. It’s not that difficult to get someone to talk about what they love. Most of these kids love to be interviewed.”

And Jon Cole loved to interview them.

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor

Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

or kschnepf@forumcomm.com