NCAATHE ROAD TO NEW ORLEANS
This is an article from the March 19, 2012 issue
NO. 12 SEED WEST REGION RPI 39
Dan Monson was coaching Gonzaga in 1999, fresh off an Elite Eight appearance that would permanently put the Bulldogs on the map, and he was living in Spokane, the city in which he was born. Life seemed perfect. Then he was offered the job at Minnesota, a Big Ten school reeling from one of the worst academic-fraud scandals in NCAA history. "I turned it down five times, but they just kept offering more money, kept taking away the obstacles," Monson says. "I was in my hotel room [in Minneapolis] and looking in the mirror, and I said to myself, Maybe this is happening for a reason."
Monson accepted the Gophers' job, but three years later he was offered the chance to coach Washington. This was different: a program close to home that had always been high on his list of dream jobs. Monson, though, still had six years left on his deal with Minnesota, and felt uneasy about abandoning the players he had recruited to rebuild the program. So over the next five seasons he struggled to revive the Gophers, reaching a single NCAA tournament, in 2005, while Lorenzo Romar quickly turned the Huskies around. Friends comforted Monson by suggesting that a grander purpose would reveal itself. Everything happens for a reason.
Those were the very words that Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi used in November 2006, seven games into the season, to explain his decision to part ways with Monson, who resigned under pressure. For the next four months, as Monson scrambled to find work and was passed over for other coaching jobs, there was that phrase again, repeated so often by people Monson knew that he could anticipate it. "Please don't say it," he'd plead. "Say anything else!"
Sitting in his office two weeks ago, Monson, now the coach at Long Beach State, is again confronted with that irksome platitude. The 12th-seeded 49ers (25--8), who play New Mexico in Portland on Thursday, are one of the nation's most dangerous potential bracket busters. The Big West Conference champions defeated Xavier, Auburn and Pittsburgh this season, took San Diego State to overtime and hung in with Kansas and North Carolina on the road. In fact the 49ers, who have four senior starters and are led by undersized point guard Casper Ware, have much in common with Monson's 1999 Gonzaga team. Given how reluctant Monson was to take the Long Beach job and how poor a fit he thought the school and the city were for his coaching style and his family, he is at least open to reevaluating his notions of fate. "You do start to wonder," he admits. "Maybe this is where I was meant to be."
Where Monson apparently was meant to be very much resembles the place where he started. The blueprint he has followed in building the 49ers mirrors that of his Gonzaga tenure. Most of the 1999 Zags hailed from the Pacific Northwest, and the team's core had arrived as freshmen and developed as a unit. The fulcrum was a tiny point guard, 5'8" Quentin Hall.
Long Beach State has nine Southern Californians on its roster, and Monson's first recruiting class included four high school players who would become the heart of this year's team, including the 5'10" Ware, the two-time Big West Player of the Year and the team leader in scoring (16.9) and assists (3.0). Coming out of Gahr High in Cerritos, Ware was too short to draw interest from the then Pac-10, but "Casper reminds me of Quentin [Hall]," Monson says. "Height is the most overrated quality in a point guard."
Joining Ware in that freshman class was 6'7" forward Eugene Phelps, from Woodland Hills, Calif., who was lightly recruited because, Monson says, "I don't think a lot of coaches knew where they could play him." Then there was Larry Anderson from Long Beach, a shooting guard "who couldn't really shoot in high school," the coach says. Finally there was T.J. Robinson, the only non-Californian (West Haven, Conn.) in the starting five, a power forward who, in Monson's words, "is just unorthodox. He's lefthanded, and he's only got two moves: left and more left."
That group won 15 games as freshmen, 17 as sophomores and 22 last year, when they won the Big West regular-season title. "It helped coming in together because when you are losing, you don't think about transferring," says Ware. "You think about sticking together and turning it around."
The 49ers play up-tempo, using their defense, which relies heavily on a version of the 1-3-1 trap, to create turnovers and get Ware out in transition, where he excels.
Though Ware might be unknown across much of the country, many big names in the sport are aware of his talents. Last summer he played in the Los Angeles--based Drew League for a team coached by his father, Casper Sr. The younger Ware shone against teams that frequently included NBA players, and he was named the Drew League MVP. After Ware scored 28 points in the 49ers' upset of then No. 9 Pittsburgh on Nov. 16, Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings, a Southern Californian who played in the Drew League, tweeted: Casper Ware is the Best College PG from Los Angeles.... I'm a Believer!!!
Reacting to the same performance, LeBron James tweeted, Casper Ware a problem out there!! And he got players around him to help as well!
Indeed, Long Beach State isn't a one-man show. All four senior starters have scored more than 1,000 points, and Robinson is one of only three active players with 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Anderson was also Big West Defensive Player of the Year.
As he orchestrated the program's turnaround, Monson made sure to appreciate the milestones, such as senior night a few weeks ago, when he teared up while talking about the graduating class. "I took [the success] for granted before," he says. "It happened too fast, too easily. Now I'm able to recognize something special."
Monson has been removed from the Gonzaga program for so long that it's largely forgotten that he was once considered the brightest young coach in the country, going 52--17 in his first two seasons in the head job. The Zags, with their 13 straight NCAA appearances since his departure, have become so identified with his successor—Mark Few, a former assistant of Monson's—that Monson's role in their rise has drifted into the ether. "Honestly, I didn't know anything about him and Gonzaga," says Ware.
Monson's greatest contribution to Gonzaga's success may have been his decision to leave, which prompted school officials to evaluate their commitment to basketball. The school chose to go all in, upgrading the Bulldogs' facilities and increasing salaries for the coaching staff. Today Gonzaga is such an attractive spot that Few—who by 2003, only four seasons after Monson's departure, was pulling in approximately $500,000 a year—has spurned overtures from bigger programs, including Arizona and Oregon. "It is a great job now," Monson says, "but the year we made the Elite Eight, I earned $80,000."
It's no wonder, then, that Monson listened when Minnesota called in the spring of 1999. He was planning a summer wedding, and he and his future wife, Darci, had talked of the big family they would raise in the Pacific Northwest. Money, which Monson had never thought much about, was suddenly important. "Minnesota was telling me they would pay in two years what it would take me 10 years to earn at Gonzaga," he says. "I started thinking that it was a good move for my family, which was just me talking myself into it. I did it for the money, which is the wrong reason."
Internal and NCAA investigations into Minnesota's academic fraud scandal, which stretched over four years and involved at least 18 players, had resulted in Clem Haskins's exit as coach, but Monson was assured that Mark Dienhart, the athletic director who hired him, would stay on and that any NCAA sanctions would be light. In November 1999, Dienhart's contract was not renewed, and the NCAA penalties—including scholarship reductions and recruiting restrictions—severely limited the program. "One thing I have learned about myself is that I am a better coach than an evaluator of jobs," Monson says.
The Gophers improved from 10th in the Big Ten in Monson's first season to sixth in 2001--02, but "we never really got that momentum going," Monson says. A crushing loss to Illinois in the final regular-season game of the '01--02 season—the Gophers led by nine with 3:15 left—cost the team an NCAA tournament bid, and that, Monson says, "was probably the turning point."
After Monson turned down the Washington job in 2002—"I regret that," he says. "I also underestimated how much Darci wanted to move back West"—the Gophers went 68--58 over the next four seasons, with one NCAA tournament appearance but also two 10th-place finishes in the Big Ten. "The reality is that while Minnesota is a good job," Monson says, "there are six programs in the Big Ten that are great jobs: Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, with their superior facilities. So every year Minnesota is battling with Purdue and Iowa for seventh. If you win that battle, you are O.K. If you don't, you get fired."
On Nov. 30, 2006, after a 2--5 start, Monson was given the choice of resigning or being fired. He chose the former and took Darci on the honeymoon they had skipped to move to the Twin Cities. He traveled with his two sons (he also has two daughters) to spring training in Arizona. "I always thought that if I had enough money, I could just retire and be with my family," Monson says. "For four months I played Mr. Mom, did some soul-searching, and I realized I missed it. I had to coach again."
When he began his job hunt in the winter of 2007, Monson looked for a school where, he says, he could "do a Gonzaga." The University of Denver and the University of San Diego had openings and, like Gonzaga, were small private schools, but Monson's achievements from his two years of leading the Zags had been overshadowed by his seven-plus seasons of mediocrity at Minnesota. Losing out on the San Diego job was particularly distressing, as it went to Bill Grier, a Gonzaga assistant with no head coaching experience who is also one of Monson's closest friends. "No matter how good you think you are, other people don't see you that way anymore," Monson says.
In March 2007, Monson flew to Los Angeles to meet with David and Dana Pump, the AAU power brokers who ran a head-hunting firm for college coaches. "They told me to come out and have dinner with them, and we'd go to the Pac-10 tournament, and they would help me get a job back out West where I belong," Monson says. "I printed up a résumé like a little 16-year-old. It was so degrading. I walked into the restaurant, and there were, like, 12 people there, a lot of other assistant coaches, and it hit me that this wasn't going to be Help Dan Monson Night. I sit down, and I am trying to stuff this résumé under the back of my shirt, just so embarrassed and feeling stupid."
The next month Long Beach State offered a lifeline that, at first, looked more like a millstone. The school was mired in NCAA troubles, having committed numerous violations related to the admission of six junior college transfers who were ineligible to compete. That ultimately led to sanctions that included probation, limits on recruiting and a reduction in scholarships.
"I remember [UCLA coach] Ben Howland told me that in coaching they will give you three chances, but you won't get a fourth," Monson says. "I didn't think Long Beach State was where I wanted to take my last shot." But athletic director Vic Cegles, who had been hired a year earlier, was looking to take the program in a new direction. When Monson said he wanted to bring in high school recruits and redshirt them rather than rely on juco players, that he wouldn't compromise on academics, that he was looking to create a family atmosphere, Cegles agreed.
Monson lives in Rossmoor, less than a 10-minute drive from campus, and his children walk to school. He schedules practices early in the morning so he can be with his family in the afternoon. On a recent weekday he pulled his oldest son, MicGuire, out of school and took him to a golf tournament. Because most of the 49ers come from Southern California, Monson spends less time on the road recruiting, and his children sometimes accompany him to local high school games. "It's the happiest we've been since Spokane," he says.
He left Gonzaga for Minnesota for the money," says Cegles. "Does he leave again for the money?"
That will be the question of the off-season for Long Beach State, particularly if Monson leads the 49ers on a run in the NCAAs. "I wouldn't be surprised if some schools come knocking," the AD says. "But I think Dan knows what he gave up before, and he knows what he has here. It will be hard for him to leave."
It will be hard, Monson acknowledges. He is older and wiser, but he is also competitive, and his failure at Minnesota gnaws at him. If a job opened up in the Pac-12, would Monson be enticed to again leave a good situation for the big time?
"I would never say never," Monson says. He adds that it would be tough to move again and that he likes the talent on next year's 49ers team, including high-profile transfers Keala King (Arizona State), Dan Jennings (West Virginia) and Tony Freeland (DePaul).
"The goal of every coach is to compete for national championships," Monson says. "Maybe that is not probable or realistic at Long Beach State. I don't know. But maybe that is fine. I make my kids' lunches in the morning. I walk them to school. I see them whenever I want. Here I can be the kind of father that few Division I coaches can be. There would have to be a very good reason for me to give that up."
OPEN HERE FOR SI'S 5 MINUTE GUIDE