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COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Dan Monson to the rescue ... this time at Long Beach State

The coach, who took over program facing problems, led the 49ers to the Big West regular-season title this season. Now comes a conference tournament game against UC Irvine.

March 09, 2011|By Chris Foster
  • Long Beach State Coach Dan Monson has made a career out of turning troubled programs into winners.
Long Beach State Coach Dan Monson has made a career out of turning troubled… (Kirby Lee / U.S. Presswire )

Dan Monson was stalking. Something was coming.

He circled his Long Beach State basketball players at practice the day after the 49ers clinched the Big West Conference regular-season championship.

A basketball bounced away and he jumped in — "You threw a rodeo pass to him and he threw a rodeo pass back." Afterward, Monson had trouble explaining a "rodeo pass," saying, "It's something wild. … Everybody is running around. … It's crazy … I guess."

This was college basketball's best probation officer at work — and play.

Long Beach is the third program on NCAA probation handed to Monson, and it could become the third he takes to the NCAA tournament.

Monson guided Gonzaga from NCAA probation to the Elite Eight in 1999, becoming the hottest coaching commodity in the process. He sifted through the rubble of Minnesota's academic scandal and took the Gophers to the NIT four times and, in 2005, to the NCAA tournament. Then, seven games into the 2006-07 season, he was fired for the effort.

Now Monson has brought Long Beach State back from the NCAA woodshed. The 49ers (20-10) won the Big West Conference regular-season championship and play UC Irvine on Thursday at Honda Center in the conference tournament quarterfinals.

Monson knows what is on the table, whetting players' appetites after practice, saying, "I know you guys are feeling good about [winning the title] last night. But there are better feelings out there."

In seemingly everything Monson does, emotion is involved.

"He'll jump into a defensive stance, going back and forth, saying, 'See, I can do this when I'm 50,' " guard Casper Ware said. "We're thinking, 'Coach, you're not really guarding anyone.' "

But, Ware said, "He makes his point."

49ers officials knew Monson belonged in Long Beach before he did. Cut free with a hefty buyout package, he said, "The next job had to work" but Long Beach didn't seem the right fit.

It wasn't that the 49ers were facing NCAA sanctions. It was the leap into the unknown.

Monson had limited history in Southern California and, when Long Beach officials began to woo him, "My wife sort of started crying. She thought we would be stuck in traffic during an earthquake and the kids would have to choose what gang to join on the first day of school. Back in Minnesota, that's all you see about Long Beach on CNN."

The reality was far different.

Monson said, "I can't say I'll never leave, because you've got to do what's best for you family."

When the Wyoming job came up, his response was "Who would tell my 10-year-old son MicGuire that his baseball season has gone from 10 months to 10 days? I'm in the best place for my family."

Long Beach officials, not taking a chance, gave Monson a three-year extension after the 49ers were 17-16 last season.

"If I did ever leave, it won't be for another rebuilding job," Monson said.

Long Beach fired Coach Larry Reynolds as NCAA clouds gathered in 2007. The 49ers were given three years' probation, including a ban on recruiting community college players for two years.

Monson had navigated these waters.

What he accomplished wasn't enough for those in Minnesota, but it looked good to Long Beach State Athletic Director Vic Cegles.

"We had limited success for a decade," Cegles said. "Larry Reynolds' last team had six junior college transfers. There was no continuity."

Monson's history at Gonzaga, where he spent a decade as an assistant and two years as head coach, was appealing too. "He understood things a mid-major needs to do," Cegles said. "We don't have charter planes."

The 49ers started 5-8 this season, while playing sixth-ranked North Carolina, seventh-ranked San Diego State and 23rd-ranked Utah State, then went 14-2 in the Big West.

The ride up has been fun.

"The first time I met him, he said, 'Wow, I have never recruited a 30-year-old player before," said Edis Dervisevic, a forward from Western TexasCollege.

An added bonus: Monson's personality "was the same as mine," Cegles said proudly.

That was tested this season when Monson, angry about a Utah State player's taunting his bench, was ejected from a game. After learning the details, Cegles joked with Monson via a text message. Long Beach President F. King Alexander called the next day to tell Monson that he had been kicked out of two games — as a player.

"I went, 'OK, I'm working in the right place,' " Monson said.

That edgy, often sarcastic, humor was puzzling to the Garrison Keillor palates in Minnesota. Monson said Minnesota officials even hired a sports psychologist to smooth his edges. He tried, and "I got fired. They wasted their money. You have to be who you are. I tell recruits, 'You'll always know where you stand with me.' "

Long Beach players know, and even find Monson's soundtrack amusing during video sessions.

"Coach will be serious, but you'll look around and guys are smiling," Ware said. "You don't want to be the first to laugh. I have had to bury my head and bite my hand."

But it is a shtick that has stuck.

Said Ware: "He believed in us when we didn't believe in ourselves."

chris.foster@latimes.com

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