Monson makes return to mid-majors
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During the initial conversation with Long Beach State coach Dan Monson, he had to end the phone call abruptly to take a call from the local cable company. He called back later, apologizing for the interruption. Apparently, not even newly hired head coaches are immune to basic move-in issues.
Monson, the former head coach at Minnesota who resigned under pressure last November after seven-plus seasons in charge of the Gophers, chuckled about the situation. It turns out he actually is installing a satellite, but the installation guy couldn't find where the cable company had stashed some wires.
"I'm fighting with the cable company, and I don't even have cable," he joked.
It's unclear whether Monson recognized the irony of his statement, but it fits his career move. Life in the Big Ten was like big cable, with tradition, scale and market presence that dwarf next-generation competitors, even though more and more consumers are realizing the product itself isn't necessarily better in some areas. The Big West and Long Beach (which went to the NCAA Tournament last season while the Gophers finished ninth in the Big Ten under interim coach Jim Molinari) are analogous to satellite TV -- in a constant battle with cable to get noticed but lacking comparable resources and not as accessible for much of the overall market.
Monson's new gig doesn't even come with a free DVD recorder. So why did he take a quick plunge back into the shallower coaching waters?
"It took a month [after I left the Minnesota job] to realize that there was 80 to 90 percent of coaching that I didn't miss, but there was 10 to 20 percent that I couldn't live without," he said. "Having a team to compete, influencing young people's lives ... I can't live without."
Even more than the competition, the chance to win again is what coaches such as Monson find enticing about the mid-major level. Monson went just 118-106 with the Gophers and made the NCAA Tournament only once after a two-year run at Gonzaga, during which the Bulldogs went 52-17 and made the 1999 Elite Eight.
"I think a lot of people at the mid-major level aspire to get to the next level," Monson said. "I've been there and tried that. The competition and money at the highest level -- all those things you dream about -- don't make you happy. What makes you happy is winning. Whatever the level is. That's what I want to get back to."
Combine that renewed chance to win with the opportunity to learn from their high-major experience and settle into a next job that's a better fit, and it's easier to understand why coaches like Monson make this kind of move, even after minimal time off.
Many coaches have moved from the big six conferences, Mountain West, WAC and C-USA to join the mid-majors.
Murry Bartow (UAB to East Tennessee St.)
Ritchie McKay (New Mexico to Liberty)
Cliff Ellis (Auburn to Coastal Carolina)
Dan Monson (Minnesota to Long Beach State)
Jim Woolridge (Kansas State to UC Riverside)
Pat Kennedy (Florida State to Towson)
Gary Waters (Rutgers to Cleveland State)
Tommy Amaker (Michigan to Harvard)
Ralph Willard (Pitt to Holy Cross)
Louis Orr (Seton Hall to Bowling Green)
Ricardo Patton (Colorado to Northern Illinois)
Roger Reid (BYU to Southern Utah)
Joe Scott (Air Force to Princeton to Denver)
Todd Bozeman (Cal to Morgan State)
Mike Deane (Marquette to Lamar to Wagner)
Jeff Jones (Virginia to American)
Bobby Cremins (Georgia Tech to Charleston)
Mike Dement (SMU to UNC Greensboro)
Perry Clark (Tulane to TAMU-CC)
Kermit Davis (Texas A&M/Idaho to Middle Tennessee State)
A good proxy for Monson's career arc is Gary Waters, now the second-year head coach at Cleveland State, who went to the Horizon League immediately after a modest 79-75 run in five seasons at Rutgers. Like Monson, Waters had a very successful mid-major stint (at Kent State) prior to landing a high-major job at a program that was not one of its league's elite.
"I directly chose to come down here," Waters, an Ohio native, said of the Horizon League and the mid-major level. "I chose it not because I was feeling like I couldn't complete a path at that level, but I learned some lessons there the first time and I made a decision which I think is the most important decision: You have to make the decision solely on people."
It all sounds nice: drop down a level, feel more comfortable and win more games. The reality, though, can be harsh for coaches who spent a significant amount of time at a major-conference program. Waters admitted that he had to readjust in his return to a mid-major school.
"Meals are different, academic resources are different," Waters said. "You have more people around to help [at the high-major level]. Even recruiting is different. At Rutgers, it felt like you were dealing with almost an unlimited budget. Here, you may have to offset [some of those expenses] in some kind of way and work to improve to compete at a higher level. If you haven't been [at this level] before, you feel overwhelmed."
Fortunately for Monson, he has, and that should help him ease back into this relative hoops underworld, one in which the specter of one-bid leagues makes the conference tournament the ultimate barometer of seasonal success. Winning regular-season games is one thing, but making the Big Dance remains the ultimate goal. That's part of what made Long Beach a good fit, according to Monson.
"If you are going to be in a one-bid league, you have to be in the top two or three jobs in that league," he said.
That's not to say that Monson knew immediately that Long Beach was the right move for him.
"I really didn't have an interest in Long Beach at the beginning, to be honest," he said. "I was looking at other opportunities that looked like they fit me better. Long Beach called me out of blue. I was [thinking], 'I don't have a job, I'd be willing to talk to anybody.
"[Once we talked,] I got a good feeling ... but then didn't hear from them for 12 days. I know they were talking to Rick Majerus and Kerry Keating and some others. I don't think I was their first choice, but I was brought back a second time, met with the president and the AD. I told them that if they were looking for someone with more SoCal experience, that's not me, but if you want me to build here, I can do that. I think that was part of the hesitancy. [Now] after a month, I feel very comfortable here, but until you get into a situation, you don't know about that."
Since Monson is not from the area, it will take some time to get up to speed on the local recruiting scene. To ease the transition, he hired two assistants with L.A. ties. Rod Palmer was the head coach at Compton's Centennial High School for the past nine years (and won a Division III state championship in 2004 with a team led by Arron Afflalo). Eric Brown worked for four seasons under Henry Bibby at USC and also spent three years at Cal State Northridge under Bobby Braswell.
Beyond the advantages of being in a region ripe with talent and having enviable weather and proximity to the beach, Brown believes having a coach with major-conference credentials like Monson will help the 49ers quickly reload a roster that lost its top seven scorers from last season and has no returning player who averaged even 10 minutes a game.
"Coach Monson is a national name," Brown said. "He has done so much with Gonzaga, Minnesota, USA Basketball. That's what we're pushing. We're selling coach."
What could be a larger hindrance than Monson's lack of familiarity with the area is that Long Beach State is the third straight program Monson has taken over while it was on probation (the 49ers had recruiting issues under former coach Larry Reynolds' staff). Did any of this -- the step down in exposure, the new location, the sanctions -- make Monson reconsider jumping right back in?
"I didn't want to take a bottom job in a mid-major league just to be a head coach," he said. "I would have sat out if I didn't land at a job where I could have success. I had been talking to friends at high-major programs and, if winning was my No. 1 priority, then I could go to a program that is a top-10 or -20 program and be on the bench [as an assistant] and take a step back from the media and be out of the spotlight, and dealing with the parents, and all the decisions that come with being a head coach. That did kind of cross my mind, but this is a good situation and I'm excited about it.
Now if he can just get his TV set up, he'll be fully ready to get started.
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast.
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