Joe Kemp returns as Wabasso head football coach

Photo courtesy of Don Borstad Joe Kemp walks the sideline ahead of Wabasso’s 2017 Class A Football State Championship game against Minneota at U.S. Bank Stadium on Nov. 25, 2017.

WABASSO — Despite having a plate full of other priorities, Joe Kemp’s maroon and gold blood wasn’t going to let him deny picking up the Wabasso playbook again this fall.

Kemp, the Wabasso High School Activities Director, will be returning to the gridiron in the fall as the Rabbits’ head football coach.

Kemp previously coached the Wabasso varsity football team from 2005-2020 before stepping down to focus on teaching and working as the school’s AD. He holds a 123-59 career record at Wabasso.

During his time coaching, the Rabbits went to eight section finals and won five section championships. Kemp’s first season as head coach in 2005 ended with a state tournament appearance. Kemp also coached the team to state in 2006, 2016 and 2017, with the Rabbits finishing 2017 as state runners-up to Minneota.

The Rabbits won the Section 3A title again in 2020 in a condensed season that didn’t have a state tournament due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Kemp’s decision to return to coaching the Rabbits’ football team may not be news to citizens of Wabasso as he officially took the job this past March, but this fact may have some unaware teams flustered.

The head coaching position opened up after Cody Kittleson resigned to move back Kindred, North Dakota, where he’s originally from. Kittleson was also a prior defensive coordinator under Kemp and was the head coach for the Rabbits from 2020-23.

“The job was open for — I know I let it sit for a couple of months — football’s busy [laughs],” Kemp said. “From when I first started in [2005], to what it’s like now coaching with all the film and the offseason stuff, it’s definitely a big beast to handle.”

Even with the demands that come as head coach, Kittleson’s exit opened a window again for Kemp.

“I had some conversations with my wife, Jessica, it was just kind of a, ‘I should do it,'” Kemp said. “We do have my third son [Drew], he’ll be playing, he’s a freshman, so it had a little bit to do with it whether I got back into it or not, I wasn’t thinking that way, of course, until it opened up. So I do have a little bit of vested interest. Plus being from Wabasso, you want to see us be successful, so hopefully that can happen again.”

The Rabbits had just one season under .500 while Kemp was head coach, and that came in 2018 after graduating several seniors from a team that was one win away from a state championship. The Rabbits were 2-7 in 2018 after a 13-1 season in 2017.

Numbers have been an issue for Wabasso for a while, but even more so in recent years as the program has had just one win in the last three years Kemp has been away.

“We started to lose a little bit of numbers and then of course, there was a change in the dynamics of Class A football in the area,” Kemp said. “We ended up with a lot of schools going nine-man around us. We were playing some really big schools. We’ve always taken pride in the fact that we’re a small school that’s competed up. We’ve opted up, our enrollment’s 130 and we’ve opted up since 1994.

“Last year, our football team with Cody, they were competing against Windom and their enrollment is 280. … Then if you’re not successful playing those bigger schools, then some of these kids don’t go out. And I think a big thing was we had that big senior class in 2020 and it was tough to get back after that.”

Kemp helped coach junior high football and knows some of the younger players well, but he joked that he hopes players and fans don’t think he forgot how to be a head coach at the varsity level.

“I have had some of these kids,” Kemp said. “I think what they’re going to see is that I have high expectations all the time, I’m a competitor. I’m older, but I like to compete all the time. We’re going to find a way, whether they’re biting, scratching and kicking, I’d like to get my kids to be tough. We play a physical style of football with a lot of play action, we’ll get to some spread stuff. I really want to make it an enjoyable experience for the kids and not that winning is everything because it’s not, but winning in the game of life is. But if you can teach them that stuff and you can teach them to compete, I think they’ll get a lot out this sport. There’s nothing better than Friday night, in my mind, watching them celebrate a win.”

Kemp said he’s looking to fill another position on the coaching staff, but Chad Olson will be back as defensive coordinator. David Schmidt will be staying on the staff also.

Kemp knows there is work to do and that an instant turnaround is an uphill battle, but he’s excited to do what he can to help get things back on track.

“I was born and raised here and I just bleed maroon and gold,” Kemp said. “I want to see us successful in every single sport. Not saying that it’s me, but I want to be helpful in getting us there.”


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