Wrestling in Kansas: “As pure as any soul” – Oral histories and remembering Burlington coach Doug Vander Linden

Burlington coach Doug Vander Linden is a legendary figure in the Kansas wrestling community.



Legendary Burlington head high school and middle school wrestling coach Doug Vander Linden passed away Aug. 9. He was an incredible coach and mentor to decades of wrestlers. Vander Linden also served on the Kansas Wrestling Coaches Association executive board for many years.

He became the second Kansas wrestling coach to accumulate 400 career dual victories and coached more than 30 seasons with Burlington. In the late 2000s, Vander Linden spear headed the creation of a new Burlington wrestling facility. He and others created the Southeast Kansas Takedown League to grow wrestling in the area.

Vander Linden was a significant driver for the growth and sanction of Kansas girls’ wrestling. Without him, girls’ wrestling would not be where it is today in Kansas.

Professionally, Vander Linden served as Burlington School District’s longtime technology director and was largely instrumental in assisting Coffey County with internet access and infrastructure. Vander Linden partnered with local leadership to form the Coffey County Area Network, which includes school districts, libraries, facilities and county governmental buildings. He earned national acclaim for his work.

Vander Linden, who never wrestled, revived a dying wrestling program. From 1970-83, Burlington never had a state medalist. From ’04-21, Burlington had 20-plus state boy placers. The girls had tremendous success the last two seasons with E’owynn Codney and MJ Huff. Codney is currently second and Huff seventh on the all-time Kansas girls’ wins list.

Coach Vander Linden obituary: https://www.jonescampbellfuneralhome.com/obituary/doug-vander-linden (Photos courtesy of Kit Harris, Baldwin head wrestling coach)


Individual state champions: (per KSHSAA)

2017: Colby Johnson, 4A, 145

2016: Colby Johnson, 4A, 138

2011: Colt Skillman, 3-2-1A, 103

Individual runner-ups:

2019: Cael Johnson, 4A

2019: Brett Bober, 4A

2018: Brett Bober, 4A

2012: Jake Elbrader, 3-2-1A

Top Team Finishes:

2019: 9th in 4A

2018: 8th in 4A

2016: 10th in 4A

2012: 8th in 3-2-1A


Individual state runner-ups:

2022: M.J. Huff, second, 4-1A, 101

Top Team Finishes:

2021: 8th in 4-1A

2022: 8th in 4-1A

SIK’s Bethany Bowman and Conor Nicholl reached out to well-known retired/current Kansas wrestling coaches during the last two days. Their oral histories and remembrances for coach Vander Linden are below. These were compiled via phone and Zoom interviews, text and email. Lightly edited for clarity.

Tim Johnson, longtime Burlington parent, coach and wrestling supporter

“When it comes to losing Doug, I don’t know where to begin or end, nor do I have the words to honor or do justice to the legacy the man leaves behind.”

“We could talk about the team trophies, championships, medals, awards, contributions made to professional organizations, and special recognitions that DVL collected over 30 plus years of leading the Burlington wrestling program…..but that isn’t the legacy Doug Vander Linden will be remembered for.”

“From introducing little ones barely out of diapers to the sport he loved, to the tears he shed as he sent graduating seniors out into the world, Doug’s legacy is the relationships he built with everyone he ever met. He was never too tired, too busy, too sick to serve others.”

“DVL taught me what it means to be a teacher, a coach, a husband, a father, and a grandfather. More importantly, Doug taught me how to be a friend.  Losing Doug has left a huge hole in our community and in so many hearts.”

“There’s a vacant chair sitting in the corner of the mat in Burlington that can never be filled. Thank you for the opportunity to speak about DVL.  He and I burned up a lot of bus tires together and I miss my friend.”

Coach Rusty Emling, Chanute wrestling assistant and former Burlington assistant wrestling coach, has known Coach Vander Linden 25-plus years.

In 2006, Emling and Johnson were 3-2-1A Assistant Coaches of the Year. That season, Burlington went 18-5 in duals and had a then- school record seven state qualifiers. That team was second at regionals for the first regional trophy in school annals.

Try to build a good wrestling program there at Burlington from the scratch, from very few kids coming out to having a lot of kids around. Our families still do things together, and Michelle (Vander Linden) and Kathi my wife are constantly always talking and getting updates and that’s how our relationship is with the Vander Lindens.”

“Doug was a genuine person and he cared about everybody, from the beginning wrestlers from starting the kids’ club, from the high school wrestlers to the … girls’ wrestling, to new coaches. I don’t know how many coaches I have known that he has touched and impacted.”

Coach Doug Vander Linden and a young wrestler.

Vander Linden was one of the first people to reach out to Emling and head coach Andy Albright at Chanute after Chanute’s 285-pounder Nathan Cunningham unexpectedly passed away last season. Vander Linden was a proponent of athletes doing three sports and involvement in other events, like theater. Vander Linden and his son helped start “Wrestling for Christ” several years ago. Vander Linden followed the “sandwich” philosophy of coaching: love them, tell them improvements and love them again.

“He was just a rock to a lot of people where they turned to when they didn’t have any answers, and it just seemed like Doug was always …coming up with a good solution to solve things and deal with things and how to handle people.”

“A lot of our former wrestlers, that’s a second father figure. I know that my kids, he was a second father figure.”

“One that you needed something, he was there with a big ol’ hug and a smile, and was guiding you in the way that you needed to be guided.”

Vander Linden was huge in the community. He was the longtime Burlington technology director and was a leader in setting up internet in the area for communication, school system and emergency systems. Vander Linden earned national attention for his work. (https://www.edweek.org/leaders/2021/a-wrestling-coach-pins-down-the-education-technology-of-the-future). As well, Vander Linden coached youth baseball and softball and was a community leader, including leadership at the church and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“Biggest one is that father figure. A lot of kids know that they can count on him and be there at any time.”

“There’s going to be a big void in this world without Doug Vander Linden. And we just need maybe us to take a little bit of time and be like Doug. Help somebody else out to be better, to help, be kind to somebody new, be not so hard on a young official.”

Coach Doug Kretzer, former McPherson head coach. Kretzer, his daughter Mya, and Vander Linden were the three main movers in the growth of Kansas girls’ wrestling. Kansas sanctioned the sport three years ago.

“All of us are heartbroken, and really just at a core level hurting, because of his level of selflessness.  Man, he loved wrestling and he loved kids, and he loved the vehicle that the sport provides to allow young people to grow, and one of my favorite things about coach Vander Linden is that he wasn’t a wrestler. He was a basketball guy, and he took the sport on. It was just an amazing story of how he got involved, and how he grew to love the sport almost later in life without being a participant, which is a pretty cool story about him.”

“Amazing, amazing guy that we got cheated out of a lot more years with him.”

On development of girls wrestling: “The girls wouldn’t be wrestling right now without Coach Vander Linden”

“I didn’t know him at all until I took my proposal to the KWCA, and what I was trying to do for girls’ wrestling, and it was evident that immediately upon my presentation that he got it. He got it immediately where so many other coaches did not get it.”

“He was an immediate advocate. He immediately saw that it was a worthy endeavor, and that we needed it, the sport needed it. He could see further out than just what was happening on his team, how being a member of KWCA could help Burlington. He was always about the sport and how to grow it and how to reach more people and how to reach more kids through that sport, and he saw that with the girls immediately.”

“He and Nate Naasz, they were behind me, and they called me almost immediately after my presentation and asked me to be on the board as a girls’ rep. The three of us got on this thing together, and he was a huge factor when we needed someone other than just a coach and a dad that could see it. He had the foresight to see how important it was, and how it made sense. As I got to know him better and better and better after that, we became great friends and regular conversations.”

“He and I joining forces, we became an unstoppable team, and girls wouldn’t be wrestling right now without Coach Vander Linden. No matter how badly I wanted it, he was the piece of the puzzle. I was the key, and he was the lock in my opinion, and without the two of us, to insert the key into the lock and turn that switch, I don’t know if girls would be wrestling in Kansas right now. I wasn’t being stonewalled, but people were not taking it seriously as I was, and he immediately was full force on board and ‘we have got to do this,’ and it become more important than anything. … It became the KWCA’s No. 1 goal after that presentation.”

McPherson hosted the first-ever girls’ tournament with 17 girls. Burlington didn’t attend. Then, Vander Linden called Kretzer. Within days, Burlington put one on the schedule a month later. That tournament had higher numbers. Next, Fredonia hosted the third girls’ tournament. McPherson hosted the unofficial girls’ state tournament.

“He was a locomotive. He was a freight train of passion and it didn’t have anything to do with gender. Coach Vander Linden, he’s just as pure as any soul I’ve ever been around.”

The Burlington girls’ tournament took on additional import. A high percentage of girls’ tournaments were wrestled at the same time as JV boys’ tournaments. Vander Linden didn’t do it that. He had the girls’ tournament alongside a varsity boys’ competition. Burlington hosted many tournaments a year: boys, girls, varsity, JV, kids’ club.

“His tournament, he made it a premier event. … He brought those girls’ matches into the big gym, under the lights, introduced with the music and the smoke, and made those girls feel like they were just as important as the boys. It was pretty awesome, and they grew it and grew it. It wasn’t just an event. The whole intention of the event was specifically to give these girls a platform and show people that they deserved it. He got it. Man, he got it right away. I can’t tell you how much of constant it was of a fight with the majority – and when I say the majority, I mean 98 percent of them.”

“As a society, it’s in. It’s here, it’s never going away, and it’s just like track and cross country and whatever else the other sports are that girls want to do. No girl is weird if she wants to wrestle now. But coach (Doug) was different. He saw it, he saw it immediately, and that was not the norm. He was different in that capacity.”

Coach Doug Vander Linden

Nate Naasz, former wrestling coach, KWCA administration

Naasz first met Vander Linden his first year at Fredonia. Naasz became the head Lincoln coach. Then, Naasz came on the KWCA state board, where Vander Linden really became a mentor for him. Naasz was the KWCA academic chair. Vander Linden served as a treasurer for at least 17 years.

Then, Vander Linden was the vice president when Naasz served a two-year term as president.

“Then when he took over as president, we actually had an open slot for VP and he asked me if I would be willing to step back in. So right after him being my VP I served as his VP for two years. Then he went out of the president’s role last October in Salina at our banquet as soon as we concluded that started my term with the treasurer.

“We are in the process of transitioning that role from him to me but he was still actively serving on our board as the US Wrestling Kansas liaison and so he served as kind of a conduit between both our organizations. He did a lot and I could sit here and talk to you all night long, about everything he contributed to other coaches, the KWCA, US Wrestling Kansas, Wrestlers for Christ-his impact is large and there’s a vast void that he’s left behind.”

“We became very close, I mean we loved each other, we told each other that and I’m very, very blessed to have been able to count myself as one of his friends. I love him and Michelle and their family and it’s just tough knowing what they’re going through right now.”

Naasz on Vander Linden’s impact, faith and reach

“It all goes back to his faith and his walk with Christ. I mean he was you know, a follower of Christ first and foremost and everything else branched out from that. He was a missionary. He didn’t go to other continents, he went to wrestling tournaments and baseball games and teaching conferences and every person that he ran into was a brother or sister of Christ. He lived it. A lot of people talk about it, but he absolutely lived it.

And he put his money where his mouth is. I don’t even want to know the hours that he actually put in if you clocked what he was doing early in the mornings and late at night. I’d roll my eyes-I’d wake up to I don’t know how many emails sent at 3 am -like brother what are you doing? He would do anything for anybody.”

“I’ve seen a lot of these posts you mentioned and I keep seeing the word mentor. And that’s what he was. He had experience and he was intentional about it. He was INTENTIONAL. It wasn’t by accident. He got up every day with a purpose. He reached out to people, he followed up with people he checked in on them and it wasn’t a popularity contest-it was real, it was genuine. He literally cared.”

“When he asked how you’re doing, he didn’t want a ‘I’m doing well, i’m doing fine,” he wanted you to open up and talk about and I have to know that that’s exactly how he was on a daily basis in the school buildings and in the practice room. You watch programs and you could just see how tight the bonds were within that program. Definitely one of those guys a lot of us tried to emulate and wanted to be like and I know many of our board members and former board members and just other coaches, they all feel the same.”

Naasz on Vander Linden as a coach:

I would say he was pretty intense. But it wasn’t about the winning and the losing, he was intense about people. Honoring the sport, honoring each other, their opponents, their teammates through hard work, cause that’s what sports are. It’s not militaristic, it’s not end all be all-it’s what are the actual lessons that we are going to take about this? And he was so spot on with capturing the hearts and minds of his athletes.

“So the expectations were high, but he could push his athletes to that level because they knew he loved them. Once you do that, you unlock everything. So his athletes performed, you know a lot of them beyond what they are truly capable, but it’s amazing when you have somebody in your life that you know cares about you -you’ll go that extra step. That was Doug.”

“I have to imagine that those kids just reveled in his presence and just wanted to be at his feet and wanted to listen to him talk and that’s why he was so important to our coaches because he gave the same thing to our coaches. And he would call out other coaches if he thought that they weren’t living up to the standard of ‘Hey you said this is what you wanted to be…what’s going on brother?’ And I can only imagine, if he’s doing that to us adults, he has to be doing it to the teenagers.”

“And how lucky are they to have that type of expectation, and when they don’t meet the expectation, it wasn’t I’m going to get mad and yell at you-we’re going to talk about it and we’re going to go in and reteach it and we’re going to figure out what we need to do to get it so you can meet the expectations that we have. It’s not binary. It wasn’t like “you failed.”

It was kind of like, the GPS, you know you can take a wrong turn but it’s going to recalculate. You know you get that recalculating until you know, make a right turn here, take a left turn here and now all of a sudden you’re back on the right track-and that’s exactly what I have in my head when I think about Doug and Burlington.”

“He was one of the greatest men that I’ve ever had the honor of knowing and I’m definitely going to spend the rest of my life trying to live up to who he was.”

Bill Johnson, current Norton administrator; retired Hall of Fame Norton wrestling coach

“Doug Vander Linden to me was the ultimate professional.  I had the privilege to witness his excellent leadership during our time together on the KWCA Executive Board, and in the wrestling arena.  For over 25 years Doug was the guiding force of the KWCA.  Over the years he held positions as President, VP, and Treasurer.  His wisdom and excellent organizational skills helped bond a group of unorganized coaches.”

“I always admired his ability to motivate his athletes both on and off the mat.  His passion for kids was more than obvious, and he worked tirelessly to build Burlington Wrestling into a state power.  But his religious faith and ability to share with others is what really set him apart. With the passing of Doug Vander Linden the earth lost a great man, but Heaven gained an Angel of God. Doug you will be greatly missed.”

Mike Porsch, longtime head Hoxie wrestling coach; ’21 and ’22 3-2-1A state champions

“Doug was a really good guy who always knew you and when he asked how you were doing and how the family was doing you could tell he was genuinely interested. I had the pleasure of competing against his teams and also coaching on some national dual teams with him both were great experiences.”

“I would be very surprised if there were very many people who worked harder or spent more years helping to make Kansas wrestling better across the state. He was active in the KWCA and helping to organize middle school dual teams for as long as I can remember. He will be missed by myself and the whole wrestling community. I will be keeping his family and teams in my thoughts and prayers.”

Tate Thompson, head Pratt wrestling coach, ’22 4-1A girls’ state champions

Coach Vander Linden has always been one of the hardest working coaches and advocates for our beloved sport of wrestling. At no time during his tenure did he stop moving forward, always encouraging other coaches, and promoting our sport at every turn. Coach Vander Linden was a mentor to many of us in a variety of ways. The one thing that is undeniable with Coach Vander Linden is that he never let anything stop him from living the way he wanted to live. He didn’t give up any required duties, he didn’t stop showing up and doing his best to serve his school, his community and wrestling across our entire state. 

Doug didn’t want sympathy, he didn’t want to be treated any differently than he ever had, even with stage 4 cancer. That’s just who Coach Vander Linden was, dedicated to his job and sense of duty, making no excuses and no matter what, he was an example of how to live a life full of passion for his job and family, how to show compassion for his fellow coaches and athletes across the state and no one that knew Doug ever doubted his passion, his love, his authority and his sense of servant leadership.

Doug was a great competitor in the moment, and earning his respect, which he would come up to you and tell you if you did, was the highest of compliments because Doug wanted to win in competition, but he didn’t want a walkover.

Coach Vander Linden wanted to see the same passion from opposing coaches and their athletes as he and his athletes exuded. On the mat, it was a battle, off the mat, if you earned his respect, Coach Vander Linden had the uncanny ability to build you up and make sure you knew your worth.

He did this because it is who he was, but also because the more coaches and athletes that were as passionate as him, the more possibility that our beloved sport of wrestling could thrive, which was of the utmost importance to Doug.

You seldom come across a person more dedicated in every aspect of his life, hard working and passionate in every way. Doug was one of the great ones and he never expected anyone’s pity, all he ever wanted was to see the parts of his life where he focused his passion and love to thrive: family, faith, team, athletes, coaches, parents, students, he rooted for us all and showed us all what dedication, work ethic and passion could do. That’s his legacy! 

Thank you Coach Vander Linden, we will take it from here, with passion and love for all that we do!

Damon Parker, head Washburn Rural girls’ coach, won boys and girls state crowns at WR

“Doug Vander Linden might have been one of the most genuine and caring humans that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.  He did more behind the scenes work for the sport of wrestling than anyone out there, and he was one of the key figures in growing the sport of girls wrestling.  Not only that, his coaching resume was dang near unbeatable.  People forget that he had over 400 career dual victories.  400!  I remember writing him a congratulatory note after #400, and I had the realization that I would have to continue coaching for 42 years to pass him.  He is an absolute Kansas wrestling legend.”

Travis Keal, started Mill Valley wrestling from Day 1; state champion coach; retired after ’22 season

“I spent several years on the KWCA Board with Coach Vander Linden. He was a great ambassador for Kansas Wrestling, and he genuinely cared about the growth of the sport in our state. Coach V worked many hours with many people at all levels to insure that Kansas wrestlers and coaches had the best opportunities to be successful. Coach V was a great leader, man and friend. He will be greatly missed by all in the Kansas wrestling community.”

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