No bus drivers? Stillwater swim coach Brian Luke drives his own

After warmups at Stillwater Middle School on Saturday morning, swim coach Brian Luke grabbed three bottles of Diet Pepsi and headed to the bus that would take his team to their meet in Cottage Grove.

Instead of taking a seat in the back, Luke, 69, of Stillwater, hopped into the driver’s seat, stored his drinks – “my one addiction,” he said – and fastened his seat belt. Once the boys were situated, Luke put the bus in gear and drove away.

It’s a scene that Luke has repeated hundreds of times since he got his commercial driver’s license and started driving school buses in 2001.

Back then, the bus company contracted by Stillwater Area Public Schools had plenty of school buses, but not enough drivers to get students to activities, Luke said.

“They sent out a communique to all the coaches from the bus company that said, ‘We’ll pay for you to get your license, and we’ll pay you to take your team to meets,’” he said. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s a no-brainer since I’m going to the meets anyway,’ so I got my license, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Driving the bus makes life less stressful during the swim seasons, said Luke, who has coached the boys’ and girls’ swim teams at Stillwater Area High School since 1975.

“It’s nice to know the bus is going to be on time, and it will be where it’s supposed to be – that’s always a load off my mind,” he said. “Every coach, every time they go or leave something, it’s always, ‘Well, is the bus going to be here?’ Well, that problem has been eliminated, so that’s been nice.”

In the spring, when he’s not coaching, Luke helps out by driving the Stillwater Area High School’s track, tennis, synchronized swimming, lacrosse and baseball teams.

Luke, a retired Oakland Middle School science teacher, also sometimes drives students to field trips during the day. “I can do it as long as they’re done by 1 o’clock,” he said. “I need to be back here in time for practice.”

Bus driver wisdom

Brian Luke gets ready to depart from Stillwater Middle School with the junior varsity boys swim team. In the spring, when he’s not coaching, Luke helps out by driving other sports teams from Stillwater Area High School. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

In more than 20 years of driving a school bus, Luke said he has never had a flat tire, run out of gas or gotten lost. “I’ve been out driving in some weather I probably shouldn’t have been driving in, but knock on wood, I haven’t put one in the ditch yet, so that’s good,” he said.

The hardest part of driving a school bus is maneuvering its 45-foot length, Luke said. “You don’t want to get jammed up when you have to do a U-turn or a turnaround in a crowded area like a parking lot,” he said. “You have to watch what roads you turn on, so you don’t end up on a dead end.”

Luke, who owns a red 2019 Chevrolet Silverado Trail Boss, said he also had to get used to a difference in acceleration. “Moving in and out of traffic, you have to be a little more careful … because you can’t just shoot up there and move in,” he said. “If you’re going to pass a car, it takes awhile. You have to be aware of that.”

Drivers are not allowed to put a school bus in reverse at a school without permission, but “sometimes you get jammed up,” he said. “If you’re out on the road, it’s best to get spotters. You need to get someone to get down and look because it’s very difficult to see back there.”

Luke said he has learned to park the bus at an angle in parking lots at sporting events, so he can “drive out of there and make a turn.”

“You have to be cognizant of where you park it because the cars coming in could care less,” he said. “They’ll park right up to your front or back bumper. When the parking lot gets full, it’s tight to turn those buses. Luckily, I’ve never hooked a car, but there have been some pretty tight squeezes.”

‘Whoops! There’s Coach Luke’

Nathan Volkman, one of the captains of the boys swim team, said he likes having Coach Luke drive the team’s school bus. “It sets us apart from other teams,” said Volkman, 18, of Oak Park Heights, who competes in the 100-yard backstroke and 200-yard individual-medley relay. “Other coaches are really focused on the meet, and he’s just, like, driving the bus.”

Captain Jaden Petersen, 18, of West Lakeland Township, said he and his teammates like giving Luke a hard time if he slams on the brakes or drives over a curb. “We’re, like, ‘Whoops! There’s Coach Luke,’” He said. “It’s fun because we know him. It’s not like it’s a random bus driver.”

A bus driver as seen in his overhead mirror.
Brian Luke, longtime swimming and diving coach for Stillwater Area High School, started driving school buses in 2001. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Luke tunes the speakers on the pool deck and underwater at practices to his favorite radio station, KOOL-108, but the boys can listen to whatever they want on the bus, Petersen said.

Assistant Swim Coach Torie Buberl is one of Luke’s former swimmers. She graduated from SAHS in 2011, and Luke drove the school bus to and from swim meets when she was competing, she said.

“He’s aware of everything: red lights, green lights, what’s going to happen, the quickest routes,” she said.

Luke and other school bus drivers will be recognized on Wednesday as part of School Bus Driver Appreciation Day in Minnesota. School districts, bus organizations and communities will host a range of events meant to honor the drivers and draw attention to the statewide bus driver shortage. Among the tributes planned: a proclamation by Gov. Tim Walz, and the I-35W bridge will be lit yellow.

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