If you want to know how the Big West is won, follow the lead of Long Beach State University head coach Dan Monson. Monson, who recently turned 52, is beginning his 17th season as a head coach, and his seventh at LBSU (he had previous stops at Gonzaga and Minnesota). He boasts a 266-208 career record (a .561 winning percentage), with only five non-winning seasons. When Monson arrived at Long Beach State, he was required to straighten a ship that had gone awry and had to vacate NCAA Tournament success. The 49ers went 6-25 his inaugural season of 2007-’08, playing with a scholarship-shortened team. There hasn’t been a losing season since, and three years later LBSU won 22 games and the first of its current stretch of back-to-back-to-back conference championships. Monson, who has a 103-89 record at LBSU (64-34 in Big West play), also was rewarded, winning three straight Big West Conference Coach of the Year awards. Crucial to his ascension has been success in several early-season tournaments, including beating UCLA for the first time in school history in the 2009 76 Classic. They head to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off this season. Monson took time to talk with ESPN Events about building the LBSU program, surviving as a head coach these days and why early season tournaments are so vital to mid-majors.
Q: How does your team look heading into 2013-’14?
MONSON: We’re new, but I’m hoping we have our program to the level that every year we expect to win our league and get to the NCAA Tournament. We have that goal in mind, but we really only have two guys back that have been through the rigors of winning a league championship. We’re going to rely heavily on Mike Caffey and Dan Jennings to start the season. Then we’ve got a lot of new pieces that hopefully will fill in. The preseason will definitely be a preseason for us. We have a very difficult schedule. Not just the Puerto Rico Tip-Off; we’re going to play in Kansas State on the way there, we’ve got Arizona before that, then we come back and we’ve got USC and Creighton at home, and we’ve got Missouri, North Carolina State and Washington. We’re going to get exposed, and hopefully we can work on those things to get ourselves ready. Then Tyler Lamb, the transfer from UCLA, will become eligible around Christmas time. So hopefully those two things will get us to where this program needs to be, but we are a long ways away right now.
Q: You had six wins your first season at Long Beach State but haven’t had a losing season since. What’s been the key to building the program?
MONSON: We built a culture first, then we built on the court. That was one thing that slipped last year; even though we won the league and had some success, we kind of lost the culture—what we stand for and what a privilege it is to represent a university like this. Everybody is as committed to making this program the best it can be. That has been a building block for our success.
Q: Were there any light moments from that first season—something you can tell your current teams, “Yeah, it’s bad, but it’s not like this”?
MONSON: (laughs) I’ll never forget my first game at Long Beach State. Everybody’s hyped up, your first time you walk out onto the court, and we’ve got BYU in here. There’s excitement to a new era and all that, and I think we had eight points at halftime. It was something like 42-8. You couldn’t help but go back in and look at your assistants and just laugh and say, ‘You know, you can be as excited as you want, but if you’re not good enough, it’s only going to last so long.’ I’ve said my best coaching job with a team was that season; the other teams probably had more physical ability yet we were able to win.
Q: Your teams have participated in several ESPN Events early-season tournaments. How important has success in those events been?
MONSON: They’re huge. My first year in Gonzaga, we played up in Alaska and were able to beat Tulsa in the first game with Bill Self. The next game we beat Mississippi State, which was coming off a Final Four, and then we were able to beat Clemson, which was fifth in the country. That put Gonzaga, for the first time, on a national map, and that Clemson game was one of the first two or three national-tier games for Gonzaga. So I always felt like you’re trying to duplicate that success. We’ve tried to do that here. We’ve got Michigan in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. The only time you ever get to play schools like that is on the road, unless you can get into these types of tournaments. ESPN has been really good to us to allow us to have the opportunity to play teams of BCS caliber on neutral courts. We were able to play UCLA a few years ago in the 76 Classic. It was the first time we ever played UCLA, and it wasn’t in Pauley Pavilion. It was the first time we’ve ever beaten UCLA. So that is huge in this area to be able to do that. We were able to play Xavier and Kansas State and Auburn two years ago in Hawaii at the Diamond Head Classic and won two of those three. College basketball is won two-thirds of the time by the home team, and to be able to get on neutral courts against these teams is invaluable for a program like ours. That’s why the NCAA Tournament has so many upsets, because finally it’s an even playing field, where neither team has a home-court advantage.
Q: How cool is it for the kids to experience the culture of places like Hawaii and Puerto Rico?
MONSON: That’s what the collegiate basketball experience should be—the experience culturally of seeing different places, of playing different schools from different conferences. There’s so much value to scheduling like we do. Sure, there are some down sides, and people say, ‘Your team is going to get beat up and lose confidence.’ I don’t think many of them have been around a lot of 18- to 21-year-olds. Confidence is not what they’re lacking. These games give them a dose of reality of what we need to work on and where we need to go. So I love these types of environments and so do the kids, and it’s really impacted our recruiting. When kids look at those schedules, if UCLA’s not recruiting them, the next best thing is to play against them. With a lot of those kinds of guys, you end up getting into recruiting battles because of that.
Q: There is a great tradition of coaches at LBSU, like Jerry Tarkanian, Tex Winter, Lute Olson and others. What do you feel is your place among them?
MONSON: It is very humbling to look back at the success this program has had. [But] times have changed a little bit. There’s a little bit more of a discrepancy now than there was then between mid-majors and the BCS. Getting to that next level is a little bit more difficult. The coaching profession is just kind of in a survival mode. I’m starting my seventh year, and I might be the second- or third-longest tenured coach at Long Beach State. That says something about how vulnerable this profession is. You’re a lot like on a bucking bronco, on for a ride just trying to hang on and get some continuity in your program. I just feel really fortunate, coming from Minnesota, that I was given a second chance here and that I can hopefully put a product on the floor that everybody here is proud of.