Longtime Kenai sports radio voice, championship coach, dies at 66
SOLDOTNA, Alaska (KTUU) - Dan Gensel played many roles in his seven decades spent in Alaska.
He was a state championship-winning coach in high school basketball. He was an award-winning broadcaster of an Alaskan local sports radio station.
More importantly, he was a father and a husband of a well-loved family on the Kenai Peninsula. At any given sports event, he could be seen acting as either a coach, an official, or a broadcaster.
But it was the events that he showed up to in no official capacity that defined the man whose reach stretched across the more than 16,000 square miles of the Peninsula and left an impression on countless athletes who grew up in Alaska.
Gensel died Sunday at the age of 66.
A memorial ceremony is scheduled for May 23 inside the Soldotna High School gym, an appropriate venue considering the mass amount of success Gensel had coaching girls basketball teams 30 years ago. School officials said the ceremony will start at 6 p.m.
Gensel’s influence on youth athletics spanned far and wide. He collected a state championship as coach of the Soldotna girls basketball team in 1993 and mentored countless players through his time in that role. In 2018, he was named to the Alaska High School Hall of Fame and was given the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Since retiring in 1999 and transitioning to the radio booth, Gensel has racked up dozens of awards at KSRM Radio Group in Kenai, including a remarkable 25 Goldie Awards — handed out to the most outstanding broadcasters each year by the Alaska Broadcaster’s Association — and the Broadcaster of the Year title in 2020.
While many residents of the Kenai Peninsula had unique interactions with Gensel through the years, a common theme to their reaction upon hearing the news of Gensel’s death was the void that will be left behind.
Just 24 hours before his death on Sunday, Gensel was volunteering at the Kenai Peninsula Borough track meet in Homer.
Galen Brantley Jr., the longtime head football coach at Soldotna High School, said he remembered a jovial Gensel as he coached one of Soldotna’s top high jumpers, who is ranked among the best in the state.
Even years after retiring as an official head coach in 1999, Gensel was still connecting with young athletes across the Kenai Peninsula.
“It spans generations, you know, it really does,” Brantley said.
Brantley said Gensel’s approach to young athletes is part of what separated him from the rest, and his devotion to the sports scene on the Peninsula continued well past his official coaching years; Gensel could often be seen at games and events imparting words of wisdom to current students.
Gensel enjoyed his own success in athletics in his days at Kenai Central High School, where he graduated in 1975 after lettering in football, basketball and track. He also garnered Male Athlete of the Year for the school as a senior.
After earning a journalism degree with a certificate in teaching, Gensel landed back home on the Peninsula, where he immediately took up a position at the brand-new Soldotna High School in 1980. It was there where he later served as the school’s athletic director and activities director.
Brantley was a high school freshman in 1989 when he met Gensel, who was teaching speech courses in the English department.
“His ability to coach goes, you know, without question, I mean, he is phenomenal,” Brantley said. “And I think of his ability to not only (coach) the technical side of things — which he was very talented — but his ability to motivate and get kids to perform. You know, I think that that’s kind of an underappreciated part of it.”
Gensel took up the head coaching job at SoHi in 1987 and proceeded to rack up the most wins — 202 in total — for a basketball coach in school history in a 13-year span, a record that still stands. He had the opportunity to coach Molly Tuter, a 1993 SoHi graduate who went on to play college hoops at Division I Arizona State University and in the WNBA with the Phoenix Mercury. Tuter is also in the Alaska High School Hall of Fame.
Upon making the Alaska High School Hall of Fame in 2018, Gensel looked back on his coaching career and credited former SoHi football coach Bob Boudreaux — who holds the second-most coaching wins in school history behind Brantley — for providing the inspiration of how he went about his career and life.
“I learned not only the coaching aspect but the administrator aspect from Bob,” Gensel said in that interview.
Phil Leck, the current Soldotna track coach and school athletic director, said when he showed up at SoHi in 2012 as an assistant coach, he got an immediate vibe that Gensel was an important cog on the Peninsula sports scene.
“I could just tell right away that this is a guy that knew what he was doing,” Leck said. “Staying in hotel rooms together throughout the years on track trips, and just talking sports and talking life, and he was just an all-around awesome dude.”
THE VOICE OF THE PENINSULA
Since taking over the role as sports director at KSRM in 1999, Gensel was responsible for producing over 5,400 live radio broadcasts, nearly all of them covering Peninsula sports teams, according to the station, which broke the news of Gensel’s death on Monday.
Matt Wilson, owner of KSRM Radio Group, co-hosted a morning radio show with Gensel for the past 16 years and said Gensel was the go-to source for Peninsula sports history and recent scores.
“Dan was it. Coach was the person that everyone went to in Alaska for sports,” Wilson said. “If you thought of sports, you thought of Dan.
“The reporters across the state tuned in to what he did to write their stories, and to put together what was out there, just because he had a way of delivering things in a way of speaking that no one else did.”
Wilson said when it came to broadcasting high school games, Gensel delivered a remarkable analysis of the action and subtleties of the game, a talent that Wilson said is slowly fading in the age of the Internet.
“In broadcasting, and especially in radio, we always say that we’re creating theater of the mind,” Wilson said. “And so we’re painting a picture of what we’re seeing, and trying to make sure that when you’re hearing that, that you’re being able to imagine being there and being a part of that experience.
“Whatever event he was at, he would paint that picture so that you knew exactly what play was going on, and what was happening on the field, and he was able to deliver that in a way that we don’t hear broadcasters do that anymore.”
Gensel was adept enough to cater to a wide audience; from the casual fans who didn’t know sports but only tuned in to listen to their grandchildren on the radio, to the rabid fanbase that followed every ball and strike in local games.
His calls were deep enough to even get coaches listening. Former Soldotna girls basketball coach Kyle McFall said he sometimes watched a recorded livestream video of a game with Gensel’s audio calling play-by-play to help him break down the game and come up with better ideas.
“He had insight from his years of watching basketball and coaching basketball that, you know — it was almost like he was another coach that you could just listen to and gain knowledge from,” McFall said.
Leck said Gensel’s ability to dissect plays that were happening on the court or the field made it clear that he had “it.”
“In his coach mind, he can coach and see what’s happening in his brain so much faster than the average person that’s just watching the basketball game,” Leck said. “So he’s able to call the game and analyze the game and see, ‘Oh, man, this should have been done this way.’ And sometimes he doesn’t have to say that. But if you’ve listened to enough of his broadcasts, he says some things that the coach in him is coming out in his broadcasts, and he doesn’t need to go back and watch the film. He can see it within a split second of when it’s happening, or anticipation of before it’s going to happen.”
McFall, now the current principal at Kenai Alternative High School, took over the Soldotna girls program in 2014 after Skyview High School closed and reopened that year as a middle school. McFall was in charge of a team looking for a fresh identity as students from both schools went from foes to teammates and said Gensel provided advice and help to make for a seamless transition.
“I just felt like I was having all these ideas thrown at me, and when I sat down — when he came in and talked to me — it kind of just made things simpler, and it was like as an outside voice,” McFall said.
“He was just willing to go out of his way to help a young coach who, you know, he didn’t know and would come over from another school.”
FOR LOVE OF THE GAME
When Gensel wasn’t showing up to coach, officiate, or call a game on the radio, he was often showing up just to be there.
Brantley said it was that kind of dedication that played a role in who Gensel was and why he touched so many lives.
“He loved this place, you know. This was home,” Brantley said, adding that Gensel even kept working in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, broadcasting games once they started up again so older family members could stay updated with local scores and game action.
“We wouldn’t have gotten through COVID without him, you know,” Brantley said. “With all the things that, you know, parents and grandparents had to miss through that time period.”
Brantley said Gensel connected with people young and old and often left them feeling empowered about their own potential.
“I always appreciated that he made me feel like I was doing something good,” Brantley said. “There’s a whole lot of kids that are now adults in this community that are, you know, better husbands, better fathers, better mothers, better wives, because of their relationship with Dan and the example that he set.”
Wilson said Gensel would clip audio from a radio call and send it to the parents of a kid who scored a goal, touchdown, or bucket. Brantley said he was the happy recipient of a few radio calls from Gensel over the years.
“It was like he was excited to see my own children succeed as we were as parents, and that always meant a lot,” he said.
Both Wilson and Brantley said that Gensel’s passing would leave a massive void in the community, a hole that will be very difficult to fill.
“His impact has been really shaking this community, learning of his passing,” Wilson said. “And he has just — from being a teacher from being a mentor, a coach, a broadcaster, a friend, a grandpa — he has a very huge impact and had a huge impact on the Kenai Peninsula.”
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