Long Beach State's Dan Monson is much more than the coach who left Gonzaga basketball 23 years ago

Dan Monson's 15th team at Long Beach State just might be his best. Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Walk into Dan Monson's office and you will immediately be pulled back and forth through time. The five-walled room inside the Walter Pyramid at Long Beach State is a museum that is still adding pieces.

In one corner, there's a West Coast Conference Coach of the Year award from his time as a head coach at Gonzaga. In another, a basketball commemorating his 100th career win in 2005 while at Minnesota near another signaling his 250th career win while at Long Beach State. And behind the seat at Monson's desk, perched proudly on the window, there's a recent addition of an old memory: a framed diagram of the play Monson used to beat Florida in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in 1999, complete with the words of the iconic Gus Johnson call: "The slipper still fits!"

There's seemingly no rhyme or reason to how all the memorabilia is arranged. And perhaps that's fitting for a coach whose career has been anything but linear. Two dazzling years at Gonzaga. Eight hard years at Minnesota. Fifteen fascinating years at Long Beach State.

"One of my best years came so early in the career, you know, I didn't appreciate it as much as I wish I would have," Monson says. "But how lucky am I that I had it? So many coaches never have that kind of experience in their whole career."

Monson knows: Do this long enough and you'll realize that a basketball life cannot be neatly crafted or even summed up. No matter what decisions you made or didn't make, or what trophies and pictures get placed on pedestals, the journey is anything but simple. Whatever storybook parallels may occur along the way are the exception, not the rule.

This is what allows Monson to look back and see his Elite Eight run with then-small-time Gonzaga, not with a painful pang of nostalgia but rather with a glimmer in his eye. Beaming with pride, Monson points out the framed vintage tickets from that famous 1999 tournament session his kids recently bought him off of eBay. There's not just a story to every piece around the room but a willing storyteller, too.

"I never regretted leaving Gonzaga," Monson says, recalling how back then he had to correct people on how to pronounce it. "Because if I would have stayed there, it would have never become the program it is now."

As Gonzaga has become a blue blood under his former assistant Mark Few, Monson has improbably found a home in Long Beach where he just won his 400th career game. He's now been there long enough to have gone through multiple cycles of rebuilding, and his latest is paying dividends faster than expected. The Beach started the season 4-9, only to rattle off an 11-game winning streak that has vaulted them to first in the Big West Conference. A return to the tournament for Monson and the program -- who last made the Dance in 2012 -- is well within their grasp.

"ARE YOU ASKING me out on a date?"

It's game day and Monson has a film session in a few minutes, but his wife, Darci, just showed up on campus, and Dan has been roped into an impromptu conversation about what they're going to do with a free Saturday the following weekend. Darci suggests going out to dinner.

"We're so boring," Darci says with a laugh. "We spend a ton of time at home, watching games, or inside gyms watching games. But I love Long Beach, I love being able to go out and see the water. It's been a great place to raise a family."

The Monsons' marriage, their whole relationship, has spanned Dan's coaching career. The two were set up on a blind date back in Spokane -- "She was blind and I needed a date," Dan says, a joke Darci notes he's been telling for a while now. And they were months away from getting married (by Few's dad Norm, a Presbyterian minister, no less) when Darci, a school counselor at the time, had to keep telling her principal that she would be taking days off without pay while Dan's Gonzaga squad kept winning in March of 1999.

"There are so many parts that feel like it was just yesterday, it was electrifying," Darci said. "[Dan] couldn't go anywhere without being recognized."

Even at the height of the hoopla, Monson -- whose father, Don, was a longtime high school coach before making the leap to college and taking Idaho to the Sweet 16 in 1982 -- was self-aware about how fickle success in the sport could be. On the flight back from the Elite Eight, he told his fiancee that this could be the furthest he'd ever go in his coaching career. It was that perspective, the limited resources at then-small school Gonzaga, and the amount of money Minnesota offered to have Monson come clean up a program coming off an academic scandal, that made taking the job after Gonzaga's Cinderella run impossible to refuse.

"I turned them down three times," Monson said. "They just kept upping the money."

But the leap from the West Coast Conference to the Big Ten wasn't easy. Monson was able to get the program back on track academically, but the sanctions that riddled the program and the challenge that was recruiting in a big-time conference with better programs was overwhelming. Not to mention the pressure that the Monsons -- recently married and with a newborn in their first year -- felt to fit in and win.

"[Dan] knew how hard it was going to be, that's why he kept saying he wanted a 10-year contract. He didn't want to just be the rebound," Darci said. "It was really hard, there was a lot of pressure, a lot of eyes."

Between the cold winters, the isolation Darci felt, and the struggles on the court, the Minnesota job that was, in the words of Darci, "too good to be true" from a financial standpoint eventually left her feeling like Dan was a "dead man walking."

"I still believe it was the best thing for our marriage, though," Darci said. "We needed to become a team and moving to Minnesota away from our homes and families helped us do that."

Monson has only one regret in his coaching career. It's not leaving Gonzaga or taking the role at Minnesota. It's staying at Minnesota after being offered the job at Washington in 2002. He had all but accepted it before deciding he couldn't leave the work at Minnesota unfinished after players had committed to him and his rebuild. Monson rode out nearly all of his contract, totaling a 118-106 record and only making one NCAA tournament appearance with the Gophers. But in 2006, after starting 2-5, Monson was fired.

The experience in the Twin Cities colored Monson's subsequent job-searching endeavors. Winning was always going to be important. But the right situation needed to be not just about winning or money, but rather family, comfort and the potential to build something from the ground up just as he had done at Gonzaga. It's how he's passed up on opportunities at Georgia State and SMU, among others, and how he's ended up in Long Beach for 15 years.

TIP-OFF AGAINST Cal State Fullerton is less than 15 minutes away, and Monson is sipping his second Coke of the night while watching the final minutes of Arkansas-Auburn with his oldest son MicGuire, a student manager at Boise State who flew in for the game that could put Long Beach in first place. As someone who never had a cup of coffee in his life and gave up drinking Diet Cokes like water a while ago, the pregame caffeine hit still has to come from somewhere.

"We're ready?" Monson asks his team when he gets in the locker room. Before they can respond in unison, Monson answers the question for them, his voice getting louder. "Hell yeah, we're ready."

Fifteen years at Long Beach State means Monson has gone through various ups and downs, slumps, streaks and even an athletic director change. But it is this place that has also pushed Monson to evolve his coaching style, especially in the last five years.

"He made a conscious effort when I got here to make a transition from the old school style of coach," associate head coach Myke Scholl, who has coached under Monson for eight seasons, said.

"He's a coach that'll let you go," fifth-year senior Jordan Roberts said. "He's a player coach. He's really going to let you have the freedom to develop, be yourself if you put the work in."

To watch Monson coach is to watch someone who knows what to say and when to say it. In practice, he walks around the halfcourt quietly with his whistle in hand, watching and waiting to give input on a particular action or play. During film, he gives a broad overview before handing it over to an assistant and adding supplementary thoughts.

"He gives me autonomy to do things on my own," Scholl said. "And that's how I have worked my way up."

Monson isn't hesitant to admit mistakes or shortcomings. When current athletic director Andy Fee came on board five years ago, Monson acknowledged he needed to change his coaching style, holding a stronger line on whether the players he recruited would fit the program's culture as opposed to recruiting them on talent alone. Following a few sub-.500 seasons, Monson has finally revamped the roster to his liking with a combination of longtime staples like the fifth-year senior Roberts, transfers like Joel Murray (West Texas A&M) and promising finds like freshman Aboubacar Traore from Cote d'Ivoire.

"These days coaches are getting fired after two seasons," Fee said. At the time of Fee's hiring, Monson had two years left on his contract. Fee extended him. "But sustained success takes time and Dan acknowledged there had been a shift and he needed to evolve and now we're starting to see success again."

Yet for as much as he has evolved, Monson still carries with him the roots of a basketball coaching career that began in Spokane. In the days following every game this season, he's rewarded players with plastic links for stats like deflections, charges and rebounds. The links connect and make a chain that players hang from their lockers -- something that Monson says he got from his Gonzaga days. One team motto is: "Don't break the chain."

Present connections are there, too. His daughter Mollie now attends Gonzaga and is a member of the women's crew team. Dan and Few are in constant contact, and when the Bulldogs made the 2017 Final Four in Arizona, Few called Monson and said the school wanted to bring him out, put him and his family in a hotel and have them join their traveling party. At a player film session ahead of the games, the Monsons walked into a standing ovation.

"Sometimes it's very bittersweet," Darci said, of going back to Spokane, where her parents still live. Seeing what the success of the basketball program has done for the campus and the city leaves her in awe. "What if we would have stayed? How would this have been different? Or would he have had the same success? At the same time, you kind of shake your head in amazement at what it's become."

SPOKANE AND MINNESOTA both feel distant in comparison to the home the Monsons have made in Long Beach where the recruiting is local, the community is warm and the weather is, too. In Minnesota, Monson lived 23 miles from Minnesota's campus and brought along a 5-year-old MicGuire on Big Ten road trips while he was on the hot seat in order to maintain perspective. In Long Beach, Monson lives three miles from campus and uses his youngest kids, son Maddox and daughter McKenna, to drive around Southern California in the carpool lane as he recruits the region.

"It's one of the few places where I can do my job and be a good husband," Monson said. After watching his dad bring the job home growing up -- Don Monson left Idaho and struggled in nine seasons at Oregon, the same way his son did with the Golden Gophers -- Dan didn't want to do the same. "Minnesota was, win at all costs, cutthroat. Here, this place embraced me and gave me the opportunity to have my priorities."

Back inside the pyramid, Monson's priority at this present moment is coming back from a 10-point deficit to Fullerton in order to extend the Beach's winning streak to nine games and take another step towards first place in the Big West. LBSU turns on the full-court press in the second half, and Fullerton has no answer. It's a 20-point turnaround victory, and as the clock winds down on Monson's 400th career win, Darci FaceTimes Mollie in Spokane and hugs MicGuire with tears streaming down her face.

"There have been a lot of struggles over the years, the losses are never easy and affect all six of us in one way or another," Darci said. "Long Beach has been really good to us. There haven't been nearly as many wins as we would hope for, but we still feel at home here."

In a small postgame press conference, Monson is prompted to say something about 400 wins. His players sitting next to him are learning about the milestone in real time.

"That's an old man award," the 60-year-old Monson says. As he steps back into his office at the end of the night, someone shouts "400 baby!"

For one night, Monson will embrace it, have another Coke or two and, since he says he coaches better on an empty stomach, maybe a nice dinner, too. He knows the wins that really matter are still to come. After 15 years, the comfort of being at a place like Long Beach doesn't mean that the hunger to win has faded. There's still space in his office for more trophies, still room in his story for more memories.