Open letter to next coach of damaged hoops team

David La Vaque

Dear prospective coach:

Somewhere high on your list of goals to accomplish as the University’s new women’s basketball coach is sure to be winning.

Former coach Cheryl Littlejohn, your predecessor, left a dismal four-year ledger of 29-81, including a 7-57 record in the Big Ten.

Closing the recruiting borders will be high on your list, too. After all, Minnesota is known around the country as a women’s hoops hotbed. As the lone Division I school in the state, the University needs to register more often on prep stars’ radar.

Finally, you will need to consider one more thing – the image of the program. Ah, there’s the rub.

Littlejohn is the second coach to leave a tainted program behind. Former men’s coach Clem Haskins reached new highs (or lows) in how to run a filthy program. The academic scandal which sent Haskins packing ranks as one of the all-time worst.

While Littlejohn’s dozen infractions were comparably minor, they served as Minnesota’s second technical foul, sending the Gophers image shamefully to the locker room.

Nationally, Minnesota basketball is the guy downtown running a shell game. Things appear to be on the level, but no one wants to lay down their money.

There is a light however, a fresh 35 seconds with which you can call for a regroup. And men’s coach Dan Monson proves it. Monson succeeded Haskins in 1999, and after two shaky seasons, seems to have turned the image corner.

“In my situation, there was almost a hyphen of ‘scandal ridden’ attached to the basketball program,” Monson said. “Getting rid of that hyphen takes some time and some accountability on the part of your players and staff.”

This `accountability’ of which Monson speaks does not come easy. It includes, but is not limited to, suspending your star center, a hometown hero who decided to shrug off a few classes.

It includes releasing your “sixth starter”, a point guard ticketed for his second DUI, from scholarship.

Finally, it includes signing a nationally-ranked recruiting class to build on.

Now your challenges are different, of course, but Monson is willing to assist you. He’ll be supportive because he doesn’t wish your fate on anyone; he knows to what depths the men’s scandal sent morale on campus. And he wants to do for you, personally, what volleyball coach Mike Hebert did for him.

“Mike was very instrumental in helping me get situated and comfortable,” Monson said. “Over the first couple months I was here, he was in my office two or three times telling me to hang in there and reassuring me that I’d made the right decision. It’s funny, I don’t think I’ve seen him since things started going better. But I’ll always remember that and always respect what he did for me.”

So while you’re recruiting across the state and across the country, while you’re implementing your systems and getting to know your inherited players, while you’re trying to win games and get people to `Show Up!’ at the Sports Pavilion, do so with the best image of the program in mind. Do it clean.

Because that’s where your predecessor failed.

“It’s not easy,” Monson said. “It’s like everything else in athletics, you have to compete to overcome odds. Hopefully the women’s program will be able to compete through this.”