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U Hoops Job? Set the Hiring Bar High

 

I don’t have confirmation on speculation Richard Pitino will be terminated as the men’s basketball coach at the University of Minnesota. I know this: if athletic director Mark Coyle seeks a replacement, he should be determined to hire the best coach possible.

Richard Pitino

That means making inquiries about the nation’s premier coaches. While it might appear to be a frivolous exercise to investigate the availability of elite coaches like Tony Bennett from Virginia or Mark Few of Gonzaga, it’s not. There can be factors—unlikely as they may seem—that could spark the interest of a power coach to Minnesota.

Neither the public nor the media may know what these background factors are. A top coach might want to move on to another program because of a personal or professional conflict such as a marital divorce, or rift with the school athletic director and president. Maybe the coach is convinced the ceiling has been reached with his program’s resources and potential. He wants one more challenge to build on his legacy.

If naysayers had their way years ago, Lou Holtz never would have landed at Minnesota. The Gophers football program was the pits in 1983 after a 1-10 season that included the 84-13 debacle against Nebraska in Minneapolis. Holtz, a turnaround master, wasn’t getting along with his athletic director at Arkansas. Gophers AD Paul Giel and booster Harvey Mackay had the vision and will to convince Holtz to accept the Minnesota job.

In two seasons Holtz transformed Minnesota football on the field and at the box office. Big Ten championships and Rose Bowls beckoned, but then Holtz left for his dream position at Notre Dame where he went on to win a national championship. He is the only coach in college football history to take five different programs to bowl games. It would have been six except he was off to Notre Dame only weeks prior to Minnesota playing in the 1985 Independence Bowl.

After the failed performance of Pitino and two predecessors, it’s vital the Gophers secure the best hire for the first time this century. The program has the potential to annually produce teams landing in the top half of the Big Ten. Not to just have an occasional winning season here and there, but sustained success like the neighboring Wisconsin Badgers.

There are never guarantees of future successes with a coach. That’s why Coyle should not pursue a person with limited, or no head coaching experience. The more successful a coach’s background at his previous stop, the more likely success can be expected at a place like Minnesota. No guarantees, but at least the margin for error has been reduced.

There are many coaches whose names are rumored with the Gopher job if it opens up. Among that group, I am endorsing Minnesota native and U alum Brian Dutcher who has his San Diego State Aztecs playing in the NCAA Tournament starting Friday.

Disclosure: I know Brian and I am friendly with his father, Jim Dutcher, the former Minnesota head coach who led the Gophers to the 1982 Big Ten title. During an interview yesterday Jim wanted it understood he wasn’t talking with Sports Headliners to campaign for his son becoming the Minnesota coach.

“I don’t know how interested he is in the Minnesota job,” Jim said. “I don’t know if they have any interest at all in him. To this point there’s been no contact. His whole concentration right now is the NCAA Tournament for the team he is coaching.”

Jim didn’t initiate our phone conversation. He was willing to answer questions specific to Brian’s more than 30 years of experience as a major college assistant coach and head coach.

Brian, a student manager for his father at Minnesota and 1982 U alum, worked as a graduate assistant at Illinois before becoming an assistant at South Dakota State and then an assistant at Michigan starting in 1988. At Michigan he worked for head coaches Bill Frieder and Steve Fisher. When Fisher received the head job at San Diego State in 1999, Brian went West. He became Fisher’s top assistant and head coach in waiting until taking over the program for the 2017-2018 season.

During Brian’s basketball life he has been around Big Ten championship teams at Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan. With the Wolverines, he was part of the staff helping Michigan to the 1989 NCAA title. In four years leading San Diego State he has coached the Aztecs to two Mountain West Conference regular season titles and two tournament championships including last Saturday’s win over Utah State. The last two seasons his record is 53 wins, six losses.

The 2020 USA Today National Coach of the Year, Brian has long been known as an outstanding recruiter. “He’s relentless,” Jim Dutcher said. “When he makes that contact (with a recruit), it’s going to be steady all the time. …He won’t give up on the guy until somebody tells him, ‘No, I am not going to come.’ “

Brian helped Michigan assemble the legendary Fab Five group in the 1990s and to this day remains close to Juwan Howard, now the Wolverines coach. At San Diego State he recruited Kawhi Leonard—an in-the-shadows high school player who Dutcher and Fisher saw potential in. Leonard, among the best players in the NBA, still comes back to campus at San Diego State where Dutcher has given him free access to the gym. “He was a very good recruiter at Michigan and he has done a great job of recruiting at San Diego State,” Jim said.

Brian’s not a flashy recruiter but he achieves results by being prepared and selling himself and San Diego State. His players can join a winning program, with a stable coaching situation. They will be expected to achieve academically, give maximum effort on the court and behave as solid citizens when not playing basketball. They will be held accountable for all of this.

“The kids that go through San Diego State’s program, they’re tied to the school forever,” Jim said. “They come back for games. They stay in touch with the coaches and the school. So they’re kind of the definition not what a team is, but… what a basketball program is. They don’t have those up and down years. You have a good product on the floor every year.”

How would Brian go about recruiting if he were the Gopher coach? “You always start with your home state,” Jim answered. “You’ve gotta get the best players out of your state if you’re gonna have a good program. Then they (the coaches) would supplement it with what their needs were nationally.”

Recruiting Minnesota players requires what Jim  describes as building a bond with people in the state including with prep coaches, recruits, and Gopher alumni. When Jim came to Minnesota in the 1970s he reached out to former Gopher coach John Kundla to learn all he could about the program and the state. Understanding a place’s culture and history is key to successful in-state recruiting, he explained.

Recruits are attracted to how Brian builds and sustains relationships. “They really stress a family attitude with their team,” Jim said. “You’re part of the Aztec Nation. You’re part of our family, not for four years but forever. So you just kind of build that bond. He understands (the importance of family).”

Most programs, including Minnesota, can’t expect to have a roster loaded with blue chip players every year. Identifying potential talent is part of Brian’s success story. “They’ve got people that have turned out to be all-conference, or players of the year, that weren’t highly recruited in high school,” Jim said.

Aztec Matt Mitchell, not coveted as a prep, is the 2021 Mountain West Player of the Year. He has helped the Aztecs win 14 consecutive games after stumbling earlier in the winter. “They stress we gotta be better tomorrow than we are today, both individually and as a team,” Jim said. “You see it as the year goes on, the team is playing better and better. You can just see the improvement both individually and teamwise. …”

When Aztec players screw up, they will hear about it from the head coach. “He is not an in your face kind of guy but he does hold players accountable,” Jim said. “They know what’s expected of them and if they’re not doing it (right) then he’ll hold them accountable, either in playing time or whatever it takes.”

In practices the Aztecs are led by a coaching staff that will make decisions on how their team should best prepare for the next opponent. While they will practice with focus and effort, Brian won’t overwork his players. “Brian knows you don’t leave your game on the practice floor,” Jim said. “You gotta be rested. You gotta be mentally and physically ready to play. So they’ll take a day off and rest legs. …”

Nothing completely prepares a top assistant for the head job. He has to be in that role to experience all the responsibilities including managing the actual game. During Brian’s four years leading the Aztecs his dad has seen improvement by his son. “I think he has become a really outstanding bench coach,” Jim said. “That’s why you’re voted coach of the year.”

Jim Dutcher

The Aztecs have made a habit of winning games that aren’t decided until the last five minutes. Part of that success comes from making adjustments during games and at halftime. “San Diego State has got a reputation for closing out games,” Jim said. “I think a lot of that is around their defense, but also a lot of that is about coaching (during games).”

Defensive teams that statistically and in performance rank with the better programs in the country is a vital part of Brian’s approach to coaching. “Brian has been around the game for a long time, and he understands that to be a consistent winner…it starts with good defense because a lot of teams can have good offensive shows but they go on the road and they can’t win on the road,” Jim said. “Good defensive teams are good road teams. So I think he has a really basic understanding of what it takes to be not only a good team—but to be a good program—you kind of have to hang your hat on the defensive end, and they’ve done that.”

At 61 years old, Brian will coach many more years. Maybe that will be in San Diego, or perhaps coming home to Minneapolis. Wherever he is, dad believes Brian will continue to coach with a lot of experience, knowledge, passion and energy. “He is a young 61,” Jim said. “Brian doesn’t seem to be that old.”

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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