Mollie Monson, age 8 and aglow in a bright yellow dress, stood in front of the bench minutes before tipoff, prepared to fulfill the game-time duty she shares with her brother MicGuire – which is to wrangle the stools upon which the Long Beach State 49ers camp during timeouts.
There is some nepotism at work here: her father is the head coach. And when Dan Monson strode to his seat – his mind preoccupied with scouting reports and a nervous effort by his team the night before and the NCAA tournament goblin that bedevils every waking thought this time of year – he stopped suddenly, bent over and planted a kiss on Mollie’s forehead.
March Mushiness, in the midst of the madness.
“I don’t really notice them out there, but two things about that,” Monson explained later. “I got to do that as a kid and that’s pretty cool. I have the pictures to prove it – one when my dad is holding me crying after a loss. And they’ll be like that if we don’t win.
“But the second thing is, when I do notice them, it gives you a great perspective. Winning the next game isn’t going to make me a better father – though as my wife says, it really makes Sunday dinners a lot better.”
So there have been better Sunday dinners than the one the Monsons had this week.
On Saturday night, the 49ers – winners of 11 in a row and Big West Conference champions by a whopping four games – lost the title game of the league tournament, and the NCAA bid that went with it, to a fifth-place UC Santa Barbara team that timed its crest perfectly.
There are no at-large life buoys for second-best in the Big West. While the Virginia Techs and Alabamas wailed about being done wrong by the committee, Dan Monson accepts the reality of the only effective remedy available:
Win another game.
There is the consolation of the National Invitation Tournament, and so now Monson brings the 49ers to Pullman on Wednesday night for a meeting with another of the unfulfilled, Washington State.
For both, the quest for inclusion in next year’s NCAA bracket starts here.
“Programs in college basketball are measured by NCAA tournament appearances,” Monson said, “and it validates your program – even though winning the league is so much harder. You have 16 games you have to perform in, but the bottom line is it’s not the grand prize.”
He knows of the grand prize, of course. He watched his father, Don, claim it at Idaho. In just his second season as head coach at Gonzaga in 1999, the Bulldogs made the preposterous breakthrough to the Elite Eight that launched the unlikeliest neighborhood dynasty in college basketball. Then came a grand opportunity to be the head coach at Minnesota, a not-so-grand mid-season resignation eight years later and the chance to resurrect his career at Long Beach.
Not just resurrect it, but probably define it.
The Gonzaga ride was an almost out-of-body experience. The Minnesota slog was skewed by crippling sanctions and the expectations of a delusional constituency. At Long Beach, too, he inherited a team on probation with no significant returning players, but the rebuild has been a ground-up enterprise. The first team went 6-25. The second, with four freshmen starters, came up short of the league title on the last weekend. Last year, the 49ers fell in the tournament final. And this season, they led wire to wire.
“Eleven years between championships,” Monson said, “and it’s sad, because I appreciated this one a lot more. At Gonzaga, I was a second-year head coach. I wish I would have known during that run how special that was, but you’re always in the moment, trying to coach and do a good job.”
At the moment, the job is convincing his disappointed team that its approach now can serve as a springboard for next year, when those four freshmen will be seniors. Not that Monson covets the prize any less than they do.
“If you have any pride at all in your profession, you need some validation, too,” he said, “especially after going through what I did in Minnesota and them basically telling me, ‘You’re not good at what you do.’ You have to analyze yourself and what you believe, and not what everybody’s telling you.”
So the postseason goes on with both flickering hope and the regret from a dispiriting Saturday night.
“As sad as it is – but as real as it is – that game will define our year,” he said.
“Every Bud Lite you have at Priest Lake will taste different because of it.”
On the other hand, it won’t change the feeling behind the next kiss to his daughter’s forehead.