Over 2,230 miles separate the campuses of Long Beach State, home of the 49ers, and Michigan State. In the beautiful city of Long Beach, California, Dan Monson is in the midst of his 11th season coaching the 49ers. He is tasked with trying to bring his program back to the level of power mid-major schools like Gonzaga, Wichita State, and Saint Mary’s.
He’s done it before. At Gonzaga.
In 1999 he took the 10th seeded Bulldogs to the Elite Eight before eventually losing to national champions UCONN.
He brought Minnesota back too.
There his job was to clean up the mess left by Clem Haskins and bring the Gophers back to respectability. Again he succeeded.
Thursday, Monson makes his first trip back as a head coach to the Breslin Center since 2007 to take on the No 2. ranked Spartans.
It didn’t take long to find a connection between the schools to make the trip a little more meaningful. Coach Monson is no stranger to East Lansing. His visits date back to the early 2000s when he was head coach at Minnesota. Go back even further to 1976-78 when Monson was a teenager. You would have found him playing pickup games with Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Jud Heathcote’s team when his father, Don Monson, was an assistant for Heathcote. The Monson connection is so strong in East Lansing that Johnson may not have been a Spartan without the roll in recruiting Don Monson had.
Here is my conversation with coach Monson ahead of Thursday’s contest.
Frommer: About how old were you during the time that your father was an assistant at Michigan State?
Monson: I was in the ninth and tenth grade so about 15 and 16
Q: How often were you around coach Heathcote and the Michigan State program?
A: I was around the program a lot. They would have pickup games and I was in the ninth grade and coach Heathcote’s son Jerry was in the tenth grade and we were fill-ins. There were 15 guys and Jerry would be the 16th guy. If there were 14 then I would get to play. My favorite story to tell about that is one night some guy who was not a Michigan State player came in to play, he comes over to me and says, “coach says I’m in for you”. I go over to the bench and I am mad because I didn’t get to play even though I won. Coach Heathcote comes over to me and says, “Dan you see that guy I just put you in for. His name is Earvin Johnson and he is the number one player in the country right now and me and your father need to get him here.”
Q: What do you remember most about coach Heathcote as a person and as a coach?
A: At that age, he was my Dad’s boss so I thought so much of him. I was scared of him. You wanted to be a part of his circle of people who pleased him. I was always looking for his approval. I remember my first Big Ten game (while at Minnesota) was against Michigan and we won. Everyone remembers how much he (Jud) hated Michigan so getting that call after the game meant the world because I pleased him by beating Michigan in my first Big Ten game.
Q: What was your father’s role in bringing Magic Johnson to Michigan State and were you around the recruiting process?
A: I got to be a part of that and back then there were no rules on how many times you could go watch a player play so my father was trying to make me go to all his high school games. I probably went to half of them with him and probably saw Magic play 15 times in high school during his senior year. I remember the night before Magic had his legendary press conference to announce and it was such a top-secret thing. Coach Heathcote had both families (ours and his) come into his living room, sat us down, and told us. It was such an honor that he told us the night before, I was at East Lansing High School when Magic announced, and confided in us and we couldn’t tell anybody.
Q: You and your Dad each spent over 20 years as head coaches in basketball, are there any strategies that either of you took from Coach Heathcote?
A: I tell everyone that I learned to be a coach from Coach Heathcote and my father, but I learned how to coach from Dan Fitzgerald when I was an assistant at Gonzaga. I think that there is a big difference but the hardest is understanding what is to be a coach and the X’s and O’s. The X’s and O’s change and those are really insignificant. It’s the core values of how you get across to your players and how you interact with people. That is what I learned from Jud and my Dad is how to coach and what it means to be a basketball coach. I learned there is so much more than just drawing up plays and screaming on the sideline.
Q: In your coaching past you brought Gonzaga back to national prominence (from 1988-1997). What are the challenges of bringing a mid-major program to that level and the challenges you are having with Long Beach State?
A: That was magical time for me and my career to get Gonzaga up and going. Any chance you can, you try to replicate that and I am still trying to do that here at Long Beach State. It is something that I am very proud of and now times are changing and you have to change and that is what I learned from Coach Heathcote is to change with the times. People think that he is just this “old school” guy but he changed with the times. He was a different coach for Scott Skiles than he was for Magic and he was different for Steve Smith when he came along. I am a different coach now than I was at Gonzaga but I still have those same core values and still try to do things the right way because if Jud were still alive he would have my butt if I didn’t.
Q: What do you remember most about games at The Breslin Center and going against Tom Izzo from your time at Minnesota?
A: First of all I think The Breslin is one of the best places to play and I’m upset for my players because I wish the students were in session because I think that student section is not only a great student section but its done with class. The “Izzone” is something that I know Tom (Izzo) is very proud of. It is great for me to bring my team back into that environment. I consider Coach Izzo a friend of mine and I consider myself part of the Michigan State family, still. That is how Coach Heathcote had it and I still feel like I’m a part of it.