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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Big Mons and Little Mons: Basketball was front and center, but bond between Don and Dan Monson goes way beyond the court

By Dave Boling The Spokesman-Review

Maybe it goes back even further, but this legacy of Monson fathers passing basketballs down to their sons at least traces back to Oscar “Swede” Monson, who coached at Menahga (Minn.) High School before World War II.

According to his 1998 obituary, “Swede” gave up teaching and coaching to move to Coeur d’Alene in 1942. Young son, Don, would become National Coach of the Year at the University of Idaho 40 years later.

In the late 1990s, Don’s son, Dan, would help shape the surprise powerhouse that is Gonzaga basketball, and has recently returned to take over the Eastern Washington program.

At different levels and various schools, a Monson has been coaching basketball for nearly 70 years. Perhaps, with Dan’s son, MicGuire, on his staff at EWU, that string might stretch to a century or beyond.

Last week, from a couch in Don and Deanna Monson’s condo overlooking the Spokane River, Don and Dan graciously examined this extraordinary family legacy.

Don is 91 and uses a walker to help get around. But his mind is sharp, his wit still wry and his voice sounds, as ever, like he’s been lunching on a gravel sandwich.

Dan is 62 and starting over at EWU after somehow enjoying one of the greatest weeks of his career while being fired at Long Beach State.

Yes, coaching can be a paradox.

A critical nuance in this generational story becomes apparent when Dan Monson identifies the most valuable lesson taken from his father. It was not HOW to coach, the strategies and techniques, but how to BE a coach, a more complicated challenge.

It involves the human interactions, the relationships and finding ways to influence the players, as people, in meaningful and life-long ways.

That distinction is important to how the Monsons have set themselves apart.

• • •

It is a Monson family truism that it’s unwise to mess with Big Mons when he’s deep into his mashed potatoes and gravy at Sunday dinner.

Don had long been honest with his son about the downsides of being a coach. Like anybody else, young Dan could see these guys on the sidelines, pained as if from severe gastric disorders. Sometimes raging, sometimes pouting, almost none seemed happy. And Don, particularly, came out of games disheveled and dyspeptic.

Dan was assured by his father that he was too smart to live that life.

But, heading into his junior year at the University of Idaho as a business student, Dan realized he faced a future of doing people’s taxes or penciling in balance sheets. He couldn’t envision that life.

But how to tell his father?

“I was nervous,” Dan said. “He had been adamant that coaches go through a lot of negative things that people don’t see. He said I had too much going for me to be a coach.”

Dan regularly returned home for Sunday dinners, bringing his week’s laundry as a present for his mother.

“In typical Monson fashion, dad was just piling in his mashed potatoes, and I said, ‘Dad, I think I’m going to change my major. I want to be a coach’.”

As Dan recalls, his father didn’t look up, for long moments focused only on shoveling spuds.

Dan waited while Don chewed on an important question: “Do you want to do it because I do it, or because it’s what YOU want?”

“I said, ‘It’s absolutely what I want to do.’ Well, he goes back to eating, doesn’t say another word, and I’m worried. Finally, he stands up and comes around the table and gives me a big hug and says, ‘I’m proud of you, son.’ ”

At that point of the story, both Monsons, sitting on the couch, broke into identical grins.

Dan Monson, left, former basketball coach at Gonzaga, Minnesota and Long Beach State, celebrates his new head coaching job at Eastern Washington with his father, Don Monson, during April’s press conference.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Dan Monson, left, former basketball coach at Gonzaga, Minnesota and Long Beach State, celebrates his new head coaching job at Eastern Washington with his father, Don Monson, during April’s press conference. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

• • •

Don Monson wasn’t lying about the vicissitudes of coaching.

Both Monsons, in their first college head coaching positions, led their schools to unprecedented levels of success – much to the astonishment of the basketball community.

Idaho had never been to a national tournament when Don took over in 1978, with only two 20-win seasons in the 20th century. Using overlooked and mostly undersized players from the region, and employing his trademark 2-3 matchup zone defense, Don’s Vandals won 100 games in five seasons.

His back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances were highlighted by the Vandals’ 1982 run to the Sweet 16, a 27-3 record and a No. 8 ranking in the final AP poll. Along the way, the Vandals mounted an unheard-of 43-game home win streak.

Later, Dan Monson apprenticed under Gonzaga head coach Dan Fitzgerald for 11 seasons. He credits “Fitz” for most of his practical lessons on coaching.

The Zag team Dan inherited was far ahead of the Vandal unit his father took over a generation earlier. Fitzgerald had them in the NCAAs, their first time in 1995.

But with Dan and assistants Mark Few and Billy Grier in control, the Zags shocked the nation in 1999 by scoring three tournament upsets and coming within a few points, in a loss to eventual-champ Connecticut, from reaching the Final Four.

Both Monsons decamped for life-changing contracts and mixed results.

Don Monson moved on to Oregon a year after the ’82 tournament run. In nine seasons at Oregon, Don went 116-145 before being fired in 1992.

Dan took over a Minnesota program under sanctions after the ’ 99 Zags’ season.

In eight seasons in Minnesota, Dan went 118-106 before being fired. His Gophers reached the NCAAs in 2005.

For the subsequent 17 seasons, he led Long Beach State to four regular-season Big West Conference titles, and the NCAAs in 2012 and ’ 24. His 272 wins were the most by any LBS head coach.

His firing before the Big West tournament this spring drew wide attention when his Beach team responded to his dismissal by winning three straight games to earn the bid to the NCAAs.

His father had warned him.

• • •

The Monsons received a book from some fans with pictures in it of the Pasco High 1970 team, which was the first of two that Don Monson led to state Class AAA title games.

One picture, after the Bulldogs lost the title in overtime to Snohomish, shows Don consoling a tearful Dan, sitting in his lap.

Losses are hard on families, too. But inevitable.

Don showed his son other elements of the job that are never publicly seen but often are more important.

Dan told the story of tagging along with his father at times, when he was 7 or 8, “going over to sick kids’ homes, with (families) that didn’t have money for breakfast. He brought them orange juice and some other things.”

Being young, Dan hadn’t realized that the players had lives away from school, and often in varied circumstances.

“Some kids don’t have things that a lot of other kids had,” Don said. “Dan got to see that.”

“I could see it was so much more than teaching basketball,” Dan said. “He was a father figure to so many of his players. I learned, because of who you were as a coach, you could impact their lives outside of basketball.”

Don said he still gets calls from former players, some nearly half a century after their playing days.

Dan does, too, from as recently as last season. Dan and his wife Darci, he said, recently got a video call from a Long Beach player who left through the portal. The player was in a grocery store half a country away, showing them the bread options he was considering, and he wanted to know what bread Darci used to serve. It was his favorite.

• • •

When Don Monson assisted his long-time friend Jud Heathcote at Michigan State in the late 1970s, Dan, a ninth-grader, was sometimes plugged into offseason pickup games to fill out the rotating units of college players.

It meant scrimmaging with and against some MSU players. Dan refused to back down, and one time his team was winning some of the short games and earning the right to stay on the court.

One player came in during a run of success, very much dressed the part, and was tall and obviously athletic. The new guy talked to Heathcote and approached Dan to tell him “Coach Heathcote says I’m in for you.”

Dan was ticked at getting benched, even in a pickup game.

“Jud comes over and says, ‘Dan, I know you’re not happy, but that kid I put in for you is the best high school player in the country. It’s your dad’s job to get him to come to Michigan State, and some day you’ll be able to tell people he came into a pickup game for you.”

Dan Monson actually does tell that story to his teams. The player was Magic Johnson.

• • •

Other fathers have asked Don how he and Dan became so closely bonded. Don cites a fishing boat as the key to communication.

Going fishing on Priest Lake in the morning when Dan was a kid meant talking for hours without distraction or diversion. He had no option but to sit and listen and contribute.

“Even to this day, I look at that and think it was some of the first times we really understood each other,” Don said.

“I think that’s why we’ve been successful,” Dan said. “He’s a really good communicator and he taught me that. I always tell recruits: You may not like what I’m thinking, but you’re going to know what I’m thinking.”

Dan passed the importance of this on to his kids, sons MicGuire and Maddox, and daughters Mollie and McKenna.

“I told my boys and daughters, if you want to get into coaching, you need to either major in psychology or communications,” Dan said. “(Those things) are way more important than what you’re running on the floor, understanding their minds and their thinking.”

• • •

Fathers and sons. In the case of the Monsons, you could tell either would gladly surrender a kidney if the other was in need. But their communication often carries the kind of barbs and sarcasm that brothers shoot at each other.

Dan enters a room and greets his father with a “How you doin’, old man?” Don grumbles in return.

Dan soon recalled competing in a father-son golf tournament at the Eugene Country Club when Don was coaching Oregon.

“We were in the lead going into Sunday,” he said. The format was alternating shots. “We were on the second or third hole and I tee it up. I’m 20-something years old and I’m swinging it as hard as I can. I was going to kill my drive to give him a good (second) shot. But I whiffed. The ball was still sitting there on the tee.”

Love and respect, sure, they have all of that, but this was a competition, and when one party fails, it demands a wicked burn.

“I look back at him, and Big Don, being the smart ass that he is, says, “At least you left me a good lie.’ ”

• • •

Don Monson has nothing good to say about the condition of college basketball these days, with unrestricted transfers and players sometimes being paid millions.

“I’m just glad I’m not coaching,” Don said. “With my background with high schools, I can’t comprehend giving as much money as kids are getting. I understand that things have changed and they felt they had to give money to the players because there’s so much involved. I’m not too dumb to realize that’s the way it is and you have to adapt to it.”

The day Dan was hired by EWU, his father wrote him a check for $5,000 to support the program.

“Dad asked me who should he make it out to,” Dan said. “I told him I had no idea, but I’d let him know once I figured it out. I still have the check in my wallet.”

Dan said he’d recently talked to a player who told him he only has one year of eligibility remaining. “I said, ‘hey, everybody only has one year left.’ Coaches only have one year left, no matter what their contract says. Players only have one year, regardless what year of school they’re in.”

Dan said he knew he was on the final year of his Long Beach contract last season, and it probably wasn’t going to be renewed. “So I concentrated on cherishing being a Division I head coach with one son playing for me and one son coaching for me, and not worrying about next year.”

The brief time without a job this spring provided perspective in an evolving landscape.

“You’re not going to ever hear me complain about how it is,” Dan said. “I was out for a couple weeks and I can tell you I’m thrilled to be back in. Whatever it is, I’m going to adjust to whatever it takes.”

• • •

Don Monson made one entreaty to his son: “I never, ever, want to hear of an NCAA violation of any kind.”

“That stuck with me,” Dan said.

At Minnesota and Long Beach, Dan Monson had to clean up programs that had been sanctioned for violations by his predecessors. He left them healthier than he found them.

Dan was asked: What do you think your father would be most proud of? “I hope he’s most proud that I did it the right way, with the honesty and integrity that he and mom instilled in me. That’s what he taught me, that being a good coach is doing it the right way, being a good person and not breaking rules or cutting corners.”

The father nodded as the son said this, and added a bonus citation for his recent trek on the high road following his firing by Long Beach, never lashing out or bemoaning his dismissal, responding only with humor and gratitude.

“I’m most proud of the way he handles himself in different situations,” Don said. “It was really on exhibit after the NCAA fiasco with him winning the (conference tournament). The way he responded to all the news during that part of it …”

They smiled at each other again.

“Of course,” Don said. “He’s my son … I’ve always been proud of him.”