Pat Bowlin, a Harding high school and University of St. Thomas grad, earned his 600th career high school girls basketball coaching victory on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, when his Cotter team beat Visitation 50-23 at the University of St. Thomas. Bowlin has more than 700 high school softball victories. (Courtesy of Pat Bowlin)
St. Paul is a special place to Pat Bowlin, who grew up on the city’s East Side and graduated high school in 1978 from Harding, where he became one of the St. Paul City Conference’s all-time leading scorers.
Bowlin then went to college at St. Thomas, and his first coaching job was at St. Bernard’s. His father, Pat, still lives in the city, as do his brothers, Tom and Steve.
So it was only fitting that if Bowlin was to reach a major coaching milestone, he would do it in St. Paul.
The schedule presented such an opportunity. Bowlin, the longtime girls basketball coach at Winona Cotter, was informed by his athletic director that he was at 597 career victories heading into the season.
Cotter’s third game of the season was at a Thanksgiving tournament at his alma mater, St. Thomas. The stars were aligning, all Cotter had to do was start the season 3-0. Cotter blew out Caledonia to start off, but in the second game of the year — the first of the holiday tournament — Cotter found itself trailing Hill-Murray 13-2. No matter, the Ramblers rallied for a 65-56 victory for win No. 599. The next day, Cotter beat Visitation by 27 points on Nov. 30 to earn its coach win No. 600 in the city in which he grew up.
“In a lot of ways, it was the perfect script,” said Pat’s son, Patrick Bowlin, who was in attendance for the win. “If you could plan it some way, that was exactly how I think he would’ve wanted it done.”
Players had T-shirts and signs made up to commemorate the occasion, and a number of family members braved the horrid weather conditions to attend. Bowlin has celebrated a number of these big, round-number milestones before. He has 744 softball wins, too. But this occasion was different. Location, he admitted, had a lot to do with it. So, too, do the circumstances. He lost his mom, Jean, in September, and she was at the top of her son’s mind that Saturday.
“It was, without question, the most emotional I’ve been in a while about anything like this. It was definitely different and special in many ways,” Bowlin said. “The girls were really excited and I had family there and things like that. To me, one of my slogans is the best thing about sports is it brings families together. And something like this was cool.”
Pat Bowlin has always wanted to coach. He got great coaching, beginning with his dad on the baseball diamond, and continuing on with those like former Harding basketball coach Gerry Keenan.
Bowlin wanted to give the gift of great coaching to others, and he has done that as often as possible. He left St. Bernard’s for Cotter in Winona when a friend of his became the president down there and insisted Bowlin join him. It gave Bowlin, who went on to become Cotter’s athletic director, a chance to use his administrative license. But he was only going if he still got to coach.
And he did — basically all year round. He was Cotter’s football, girls basketball and softball coach. The sports are all obviously different, but Bowlin knew coaching was much more than Xs and Os. Keenan always cared most about developing his players as people. Bowlin wanted to do the same.
Patrick said his father gets the most out of his teams. Kids play hard for him and remain connected to his programs years after graduation. Each of Bowlin’s programs are centered on similar pillars: fundamentals and work ethic.
It proved to be a winning formula. Bowlin led St. Bernard’s girls basketball team to state in 1988. He has led Cotter to two state tournaments in girls basketball, two state titles in softball and a state football appearance in 2006.
That was a special calendar year in which all three teams went to state, a time Bowlin will never forget. When he took the job at Cotter, he figured it would be a 3- to 5-year stint before he moved on to another location. He has been there 29 years.
“I’m still here, and it’s been a great blessing,” he said. “Winona is a great town, and I’ve had tremendous support from administration and families, so there was never really any reason to leave.”
Bowlin and his wife, Laurie, have six kids — five daughters and a son. In the heart of their child-raising, Bowlin suggested he give up one of his coaching gigs, but Laurie wouldn’t let him. Sure, it was hectic, but Laurie was supportive, and their kids loved all of the teams.
Patrick’s earliest memories are in a gym, at a game or on a bus with one of his dad’s teams. Eventually, the kids joined those teams. Bowlin coached every one of his kids, which he calls one of his greatest blessings. When his youngest, Gabby, graduated and went off to play at Gustavus-Adolphus, many assumed Bowlin would retire.
He has no idea why. He’s only 59 years old, and with the kids out of the house, he has more free time than ever.
“I don’t have a hobby. I don’t hunt, I don’t fish, but I love to coach,” he said. “I have just as much fire as I’ve ever had. I really love it.”
He did give up football coaching after the 2010 season, and eventually moved on from athletic director and elementary school principal, but he continues to coach softball and girls basketball. Cotter’s basketball team was 5-0 entering this weekend’s play. Patrick didn’t seem so sure his dad would ever retire.
But if and when he does, Bowlin would love to serve as an assistant coach on one of his kids’ staffs. Patrick coaches volleyball at the University of St. Thomas, girls basketball at Totino-Grace and softball at Cretin-Derham Hall. His daughter, Devin Drager, is the women’s basketball coach at Maple River, and his son in law, Eric Larson, is the boys basketball coach at Rochester Lourdes.
“So, yeah, we could have our own coaching clinic,” Bowlin joked. “It’s kind of fun. We definitely will share texts back and forth and talk about our teams, and we’re all kind of able to look at each other’s games and things and help each other out, so yeah, it’s a nice little coaching fraternity.”
He loves that he has had kids follow him into the profession. It’s a job that has gotten more difficult over the years, but he still thinks it’s one of the best out there. The fact that a couple of his kids went into it shows they had a great coach themselves when they were growing up — who just happened to be their dad.
“He was great. I look back very fondly on the memories I had playing for my dad,” Patrick said. “He has this level of care combined with a level of competitiveness that’s really kind of the perfect balance. … I look up to him so much, and that balance that he has is what I think is incredible about him.”