Brian Dutcher, a University of Minnesota alum, has his San Diego State Aztecs in the Final Four this week in Houston. About 23 months ago there was reason to believe Dutcher might become the new men’s basketball coach at Minnesota.
Dutcher’s contract back then had a reported buyout of nearly $7 million if he were to leave San Diego for another head coaching job—with one exception. The San Diego Union Tribune reported in September of 2020 that Dutcher had a contract in place allowing him to leave for Minnesota with a $1 million buyout.
That signaled Dutcher, a Bloomington native, had a strong interest in coming home even though the Gopher job wasn’t open at the time and wouldn’t be until early March of 2021. A homecoming would have meant living in the Twin Cities and being near his father Jim, the former Golden Gophers head basketball coach, and his three sisters.
When the announcement came that Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle and head coach Richard Pitino had parted ways, Dutcher was coaching his team in the NCAA Tournament. After the Aztecs were eliminated in a first round loss to Syracuse, Coyle and Brian spoke by phone about the Minnesota opening, per Jim Dutcher.
Jim told Sports Headliners yesterday his son and Coyle talked about getting together but never did. Soon after the initial conversation, Coyle called again to say he had hired former Gopher guard and assistant coach Ben Johnson, who was then an assistant at Xavier. Jim said he understood the reasoning at the time for Coyle’s decision to hire a coach with “Minnesota connections” for recruiting and building the program around more high level local talent.
Would Brian have accepted the Gopher job if offered? “I don’t know,” his father said.
What’s for certain is Brian publicly demonstrated his interest in the U by including the modest buyout in his contract. “It’s my school, where I went, and was able to be part of that basketball program with my dad,” Brian told the Union-Tribune. “But it’s still a buyout. It’s not like it’s free.”
Brian, who after graduating from Bloomington Jefferson High School was a student manager for his dad’s teams at Minnesota, has the Mountain West Conference Aztecs in the Final Four for the first time in school history. They play upstart Florida Atlantic Saturday, with the Connecticut and Miami game to follow. Connecticut is the betting favorite, with the Aztecs second.
Jim, who turns 90 on April 17 and still lives in Bloomington, will fly to Houston Thursday along with eight other family members including two grandchildren. There was a decision made awhile ago that if the Aztecs advanced to the Final Four the family would follow.
Despite advancing age, Jim has frequently made trips to San Diego to visit family and watch the Aztecs. He acknowledges “creaky knees” but otherwise is healthy.
“I don’t use a walker or a wheelchair,” Jim said. “I just kind of shuffle a long. But my health is good. I don’t take one pill. My blood pressure is good. It’s just that arthritic knees make it hard to get a long.”
Either through network telecasts or via streaming, Jim and family in Minnesota have watched every Aztecs game in 2022-2023. They have seen the 31-6 Aztecs win the Mountain West regular season title and tournament championship and rattle off four straight wins in the single elimination NCAA Tournament. It was a team that improved over the weeks and months.
“They play defense,” Jim said. “That’s what keeps them in the games. They’re one of the top three defensive teams in the country. …They’re not a great offensive team but the four teams they played in the NCAA Tournament, all of them had their season low scores when they played the Aztecs.”
In a trip to San Diego several months ago Jim met the players at practice. What he’s learned about them is they are a “tight group” with no academic or off court problems. “It’s just a really good group of kids,” Jim said.
Brian uses 10 players in games and on some teams that could cause dissension about playing time but not for the Aztecs. “…They sometimes get better when they go to the bench, and so that’s helped them keep their defense at an elite level because the guys are always rested,” Jim said.
The Aztecs reflect the admirable character of their coach. Humble and without ego, Brian has the same high values as his father who coached the Gophers to the 1982 Big Ten title. The Dutchers have a calm, rational and common-sense approach to basketball and life.
Basketball advice from father to son? Jim acknowledged the two occasionally talk about situational things like handling full court pressure, but Brian has the whole coaching package from recruiting to X’s and O’s. “He’s a better coach than I ever was,” Jim said.
Brian trusts his team even to the extent of falling off a ladder into the arms of his players. It’s become a tradition after winning big games at San Diego State for the coach to climb a ladder and cut down the nets. “…He does that trust fall where he falls backward (and) they catch him,” Jim said. “So he’s done that for a number of years.”
Brian, 63, has been head coach of the Aztecs for six seasons following decades of assistant coaching including at San Diego State starting in 1999. Brian’s 2020 team was 30-2 during the regular season but there was no NCAA Tournament because of the pandemic.
Jim believes that was Brian’s most talented club, with better personnel than this year’s team that is two wins away from winning the school’s and the Mountain West’s first national title. The Aztecs don’t have an NBA prospect on the team, Jim said.
This is a new time in college basketball with players being compensated for name, image and likeness. Each of the Aztecs receive $2,000 per month for community service work like visiting elementary schools or participating in a walk for charity, Jim said. He referred to the amount as “peanuts” compared with what some schools are reportedly paying out for high-end talent.
Brian’s teams have won multiple Mountain West regular season and tournament titles and been to four NCAA Tournaments. His teams have won 77 percent of their games, certainly among the best percentage in college basketball during his six-year span.
Jim said at one time Brian’s goal was to coach until he was 65. But he’s built a power at San Diego State and in the near future the Aztecs may join the Pac-12 Conference. With UCLA and USC leaving the Pac-12 and headed for the Big Ten in 2024, new recruiting opportunities for the Aztecs beckon in southern California.
Brian could certainly coach beyond 65, dad said. Amen to that.
Great article about Jim Dutcher and the San Diego State Aztecs & their Coach, Brian Dutcher! Hard to imagine a better Basketball Family than the Dutcher’s.
Good Luck to Brian & the Aztecs in the Final Four!
Coyle totally blew it in passing over Dutcher. He also could have fired Pitino a year earlier and picked Eric Mussleman. Coyle fully owns the current Gophers BB trainwreck.