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Eastern Washington University Basketball

‘Completely proud of him.’ Don Monson remains loyal fan, valuable resource as son Dan takes over at EWU

Dan Monson, left, celebrates his new head coaching job at EWU with his father, Don Monson, 91, also a longtime basketball coach.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Three decades into his coaching career, Dan Monson still leans on one of his closest basketball confidants whenever he’s in a bind.

Last season, with his Long Beach State team in an offensive slump, Monson’s father Don sent over a few thoughts on how to shake things up. Monson mulled over the ideas, added a couple to the playbook and even ran one in real time.

“We scored on it the first time, but didn’t score on it the second time,” Dan said. “50/50 is not good enough, so I yanked it out of the book.”

Even at 91 years of age, Don Monson still has a good eye for the game and a desire to stay involved, particularly when it comes to his son’s coaching career. That just became a whole lot easier with Dan accepting a position at Eastern Washington, sending his family back to the Pacific Northwest after eight years in the Midwest at Minnesota and 17 more in Southern California at Long Beach State.

As he enters the next and possibly final phase of his coaching career, Monson knows his father will remain a loyal supporter and valuable resource – whether the advice is solicited or not.

“Have you ever met him? He’s got opinions and some of them are even good,” Dan joked Monday after being formally announced as the Eagles’ 20th basketball coach. “(It’s) because he loves me. He sent me a couple plays when we were struggling this year and he’s been a great father and a great role model and mentor for me in this profession.”

After mostly following Dan’s tenure at Long Beach State from afar the past 17 years, Don, who’s resided in the Spokane area since his coaching career ended, won’t have to watch as many games on television next year and will be able to diagram his play-calling ideas on napkins during family dinners, rather than over long-distance phone calls.

During opening remarks on EWU’s campus Monday, Dan quipped, “I saw my dad kind of waddling up here with the walker as he was introduced, and I thought I was going to get switched at the end here and dad was going to be the head coach when he came out.”

Sitting behind a row of television cameras, Don, who celebrated his 91st birthday the day before Dan accepted the coaching position at EWU, swelled with pride as his son discussed his plans for the Big Sky program and reflected on the series of unique events that led to him standing behind a podium in his hometown of Cheney on Monday afternoon.

“The emotions started – you’ve got a son that has a job and is pretty successful at it, then all the sudden you don’t have (a job),” Don said, referring Dan’s dismissal at Long Beach State, approximately one week before the longtime coach led the school to a Big West championship and NCAA Tournament berth. “The emotions are, he’s got another job and I’m proud of whatever job he’s been in. I’ve always been completely proud of him. Those are the emotions running now and I can see him ready to go to work and try to build up – you don’t have to build this program up because it’s been up.

“You’ve got to try and sustain it and try to get to that (NCAA) tournament here.”

Don’s part of a small group of Inland Northwest coaches that knows what that takes. After starting his career at Cheney High School, Don moved on to Pasco High School before accepting an assistant coaching position at Michigan State – where he was credited for the recruitment of Magic Johnson while working under friend Jud Heathcote – and eventually becoming the head coach at Idaho.

During five years at his alma mater, Don led the Vandals to a pair of NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 1981-82, and assured his allegiance to Idaho hasn’t wavered. How will that be tested when Dan’s Eagles meet up with the Vandals for biannual rivalry meetings in the Big Sky?

“Blood gets pretty thick,” Don said. “My son’s down there coaching, I’ll be wanting him to win. … Otherwise, I’m a pretty true Vandal.”

The older Monson said he couldn’t have conceived a scenario in which his son’s coaching career would end a few miles from where his own started. Don, who was born in Minnesota before moving to Coeur d’Alene in the second grade, wasn’t sold on coaching full time until he spent one year as a grade school principal.

“I tried that one year,” Don said, “and said, ‘I’ve got to get another job.’ ”

Don still has season tickets at Gonzaga, but isn’t able to attend games as frequently as he used to. Despite travel limitations, he still made it to the Las Vegas area to watch his son’s LBSU team beat UC Davis to win the Big West Tournament and clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Knowing he wouldn’t be employed in Long Beach the following season, and uncertain if he’d be employed at all, Dan took his team to the NCAA Tournament and watched LBSU put up an admirable fight against second-seeded Arizona, trailing by six points at halftime before bowing out with an 85-65 loss to longtime friend and former Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd.

Watching everything unfold back home in Spokane, Don was proud but also not surprised with how his son handled the unprecedented circumstances that came with the last few months.

“Well, Dan’s always been pretty good at that situation,” Don said. “He analyzes, looks at things and goes from there. He’s got a good head on him as far as seeing what the situation is and not making a big deal out of it that he’ll later regret.

“That’s what I’m proud of and of course whatever avenue he takes, I’m with him.”

Few avenues would’ve been sweeter than one that led him right back to Cheney and the Inland Northwest.

“He was proud, he just said the best thing is you’re doing it the right way and win or lose, he loves this area,” Dan said. “He’s lived here his whole life and he’s just proud we’ve done this full circle and to come back and be a part, I think it matters.”