Dan Monson just wanted a home.
He’d left Gonzaga to take over Minnesota’s program in 1999, just months after leading the Bulldogs to the Elite Eight. His time with that program, however, ended with a sudden departure just a few games into the 2006-07 season.
But Monson received a second chance at Long Beach State, where he arrived before the 2007-08 season.
Saturday’s matchup between Long Beach State and Creighton in Omaha, Neb., exemplifies Long Beach State’s turnaround since Monson seized control of the program.
The 49ers are undefeated in Big West play. They have the nation’s toughest nonconference strength of schedule entering their BracketBusters outing against the Bluejays. And with a No. 45 RPI, they’re in the hunt for an at-large bid, something that has eluded Monson’s program throughout his tenure.
But a road win at Creighton (No. 30 RPI) would help the 49ers achieve that goal.
“For us, anyway, we felt like ESPN and the [BracketBusters selection officials] rewarded us with a crack at another high-RPI team,” he told ESPN.com.
Creighton, Saint Mary’s and Murray State enter BracketBusters weekend with the most hype among the participating mid-majors.
Long Beach State, however, has a chance to prove that it belongs in that group, too.
The 49ers have played road games against Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville and San Diego State. So a matchup in a hostile environment Saturday won’t intimidate his squad.
“They’ve been to pretty much every big venue there is,” Monson said.
There’s a determination about this 49ers squad that comes from starting three fifth-year seniors (T.J. Robinson, Casper Ware and Larry Anderson) who redshirted in 2007-08, the year the 49ers went 6-25. And it’s also the product of back-to-back losses in the Big West tourney title game.
This is the seniors’ last chance to reach the NCAA tournament.
They are guided by a coach who feels redeemed in Cali. Monson isn’t coaching in a major conference. His team doesn’t play on national TV every week. And he’s not making the money he earned in the Big Ten.
But he’s happier at Long Beach State.
He said his experience at Minnesota didn’t crush his desire to lead a program, but enhanced it.
“With what I went through at Minnesota, when everyone is telling you that you don’t know what you’re doing … you have to evaluate yourself,” he said. “I came out of that situation vehemently believing in myself.”
Long Beach State officials believed in him, too.
He said he enjoys a partnership with the school’s administration at LBSU. The school’s president, F. King Alexander, and athletic director, Vic Cegles, played college basketball.
Long Beach State’s nationally recognized baseball team, the Dirtbags, opens its season against Virginia Commonwealth on Friday. Cegles will have a chance to see his two sons, who both work in VCU’s athletic department. But he’ll fly to Omaha on Saturday for the Creighton-Long Beach State game.
Monson’s team has to wait on the sidelines during morning practices because Alexander plays pickup games every Tuesday and Thursday, and he joked that he never feels comfortable kicking the school’s president off the floor.
Monson said that commitment makes his job easier.
“That’s very important,” he said.
His administrators said they’ve supported Monson from beginning because they believed he could build at LBSU the way he built up Gonzaga’s program.
And now their decision to hire Monson is paying off for everyone and might include an NCAA tourney slot at the end of the year.
“He knows what it takes to build a mid-major program. There are no charters. You can’t pay assistants a lot,” Cegles said. “It’s been five years. I thought it would take five years.”
Added Monson: “We shared the same vision when I got here.”