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March Madness: Dan Monson finds reward in getting fired

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Dan Monson swears that the day that he got fired was among the most rewarding of his professional life.

It was only then that the Long Beach State men’s basketball coach discovered how deeply his players care about him.

As Long Beach State suffered loss after loss to end the 2023-24 regular season and plummeted to a distant fifth in the Big West standings, Monson began to question if he could still get through to his players. He wondered if they would be better off with a change in leadership, if they were starting to tune him out.

When Monson learned the Monday before the start of the Big West tournament that Long Beach State did not plan to renew his contract, he called a team meeting to inform his players he would no longer be their coach after this season. The heartfelt, teary-eyed conversations that followed reassured Monson that his players had his back.

“The emotions in that room that day told me everything I needed to know,” Monson told Yahoo Sports. “I realized that the kids that I love so much loved me back. It was so gratifying to know where they stood with me and where my relationship stood with them.”

Out of that tear-stained team meeting has sprung this year’s most improbable story of March Madness. Most coaches get fired if they fail to reach the NCAA tournament. Monson will coach his team in the NCAA tournament the week after he lost his job.

Rallying around Monson, Long Beach State reeled off three wins in three nights last week to claim the Big West tournament title and the automatic NCAA tournament bid that comes with it. The Beach will try to keep their season alive and their coach employed on Thursday when they face second-seeded Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Salt Lake City.

“When our coach got fired, we felt like failures,” Long Beach State guard Jadon Jones said. “We felt like we let him down.”

Now Jones and his teammates are playing with newfound purpose, passion and connectivity.

As forward Aboubacar Traore put it, “Our mindset is they didn’t believe in our coach. They didn’t believe in us. Let’s just prove them wrong.”

Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson participates in a net cutting ceremony after his team played an NCAA college basketball game against UC Davis in the championship of the Big West Conference men's tournament Saturday, March 16, 2024, in Henderson, Nev. Long Beach State won 74-70. (AP Photo/Ronda Churchill)
Dan Monson cuts down the net after Long Beach State won the the Big West Conference men's championship to advance to the NCAA tournament. (AP Photo/Ronda Churchill) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

'Fight to the end'

Dan Monson’s journey to Long Beach State began inside the bathroom of a Minneapolis hotel room 25 years ago. He stared at his reflection in the mirror and splashed cold water on his face while agonizing between a job that made him happy and another that would pay seven or eight times as much.

Monson was the head coach at Gonzaga before the school boasted charter flights, state-of-the-art facilities and budget for anything more than basic necessities. In 1999, he took the tiny Jesuit school on an out-of-nowhere Elite Eight run that laid the foundation for its evolution from charming underdog to deep-pocketed powerhouse.

Had Monson remained at Gonzaga to see the seeds he planted blossom, he might still preside over that Pacific Northwest dynasty with a 25-year NCAA tournament streak. He instead took over a Minnesota program mired in an academic fraud scandal, lured by the siren call of a bigger job with better resources.

“It was going to take me 15 years to make the same amount of money at Gonzaga that I would make in two at Minnesota,” Monson told Yahoo Sports in March 2017. “I asked myself in the mirror, ‘Does it really make sense to turn down the chance to set your family up for life just because you’re comfortable where you are?'”

Monson shined and polished Minnesota’s tarnished image during his tenure, but the Gophers made only one NCAA tournament appearance in his seven-plus years. He resigned after a 2-5 start to his eighth season and tried to embrace early retirement, only to realize that he couldn’t be happy just making school lunches and walking his kids to and from the bus stop.

Hunting for coaching jobs, Monson discovered that his achievements at Gonzaga had been overshadowed by his mediocrity at Minnesota. The lone offer he received came from Long Beach State, another program ensnared in NCAA troubles that would ultimately lead to probation, recruiting penalties and scholarship reductions.

When Monson, his wife Darci and their four young kids came to Long Beach in April 2007, they didn’t expect their stay to stretch 17 years. That changed as Monson guided the Beach to three straight Big West titles from 2011-13 and realized that the job afforded him the ability to be the kind of husband and father that few Division I coaches can be.

Because he and his wife lived only a 10-minute drive from campus, Monson was often able to walk his kids to school, go to practice and return home in time to spend the afternoon and evening with his family. Recruiting seldom required Monson to leave the Los Angeles area, which meant less time on the road away from his kids.

It was a good enough lifestyle that Monson was eager to extend his contract with Long Beach State after winning the Big West in 2022. Former athletic director Andy Fee left for a position at the University of Washington in August 2022 without getting that done. Then current athletic director Bobby Smitheran arrived in August 2023 as Monson’s contract already had less than a year left before it expired.

While Smitheran says he told Monson that he’d be given “every chance in the world to earn the position moving forward,” Monson entered the season assuming he needed to have “a really good year” to save his job. That appeared to be a strong possibility during non-league play as Long Beach State won at Michigan, at DePaul and at USC to solidify itself as a Big West title contender.

As recently as Feb. 22, Long Beach State was 18-9 overall and 10-5 in the Big West, just two games back of first-place UC Irvine. The Beach then lost their last five regular-season games, ill-timed injuries, defensive breakdowns and too much hero ball contributing to the late-season swoon.

The night after his team’s final loss, Monson texted his athletic director to set up a meeting to discuss his future. The Long Beach State coach said he told Smitheran that it “might be time for a new voice” and that he intended to resign if he couldn’t “turn things around in the [Big West] tournament.”

By that time, Smitheran had been evaluating Monson for months — how he coached, how he recruited and how he fundraised. The first-year athletic director told Monson he had already decided that a change in leadership was necessary and that he wanted Monson to announce his resignation later that day.

“How we finished, tied for fifth place in the Big West Conference and finishing the season on a five-game losing streak, didn’t equate to the talent that I saw on the roster,” Smitheran said. “We were underachieving, and I think Dan would agree with that,”

It wasn’t Smitheran’s decision to make a change that bothered Monson. He disagreed only with the timing.

“The No. 1 lesson we teach these guys is you fight to the end,” Monson said he told Smitheran. “I need to finish the season.”

When the school announced on March 11 that Monson and Long Beach State had “mutually agreed to separate,” the press release noted that Monson would remain coach through the end of the postseason. Monson magnanimously wished “nothing but the best for a special university and a tremendous group of student-athletes.”

“I am also personally excited for what lies ahead for the Monson family and myself,” he added.

Little did he know that what lay ahead was more exciting than he could have imagined.

Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson watches his team play against UC Davis in the championship of the Big West Conference tournament in Henderson, Nev.. (AP Photo/Ronda Churchill)
Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson watches his team play against UC Davis in the championship of the Big West Conference tournament in Henderson, Nev.. (AP Photo/Ronda Churchill) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

‘We got you, Coach’

Long Beach State didn’t just go to bed one night the team that suffered five straight losses and wake up the next morning a Big West championship contender. The Beach also had to relearn how to play for each other rather than with each other.

It started during a film session the same day everyone learned Monson would not be back the following season. Monson showed his players a video clip of a recent defensive breakdown and then broke the ice by poking fun at himself.

“This is the kind of thing that will get a coach fired,” he quipped, drawing a laugh.

The Tuesday before the Big West tournament, Long Beach State had a lethargic practice on a slippery high school floor in Henderson, Nevada. Afterward, Monson called out his players for not following through on how hard they promised to work during that emotional team meeting the previous day.

“I don’t really see any difference in you guys,” Monson said. “We’re going to use this week to love on each other and care about each other and laugh together. But if we get on the floor, if there’s not any difference, then nothing is going to change.”

The next day, when the Beach went back to the same gym to practice, Monson reminded every player as they got off the bus to “be different today.” Players responded by listening with rapt attention to every coach and by putting maximum effort into every drill.

The improved attitude carried over to Long Beach State’s first two games. In front of crowds that included Monson’s elderly parents, the Beach throttled fifth-seeded UC Riverside to reach the Big West semifinals and then torpedoed regular-season champion UC Irvine to advance to the title game.

Concerned that his team could be emotionally spent for the title game after such a taxing week, Monson tried to reinvigorate his players during film by painting a picture of how much fun the next 24 hours could be. He spoke of celebrating in Las Vegas, busing back to campus overnight and then convening again at his house to watch the Selection Show.

That was as far as Monson could get before the emotion he had bottled up for nearly a full week finally started spilling out. With a teary-eyed Monson unable to continue talking, his pumped-up players mobbed him and shouted, “We got you, Coach!”

When it was time for Long Beach State’s captains to speak, guard Jadon Jones drew on his experience from losing the 2022 Big West title game by a single point. He encouraged his teammates to “stay in the moment because the moment is never too big for you if you do that.”

That suggestion inspired Monson enough that he actually apologized to his players for having them look ahead to what the postgame celebration could be like. “Stay in the moment” was the last thing Monson wrote on the locker room whiteboard before his team took the floor to face second-seeded UC Davis.

Since Long Beach State’s 74-70 Big West title game victory on Saturday night, Monson says he has received so many calls and texts that his phone is malfunctioning. Among his favorites is a video from Mark Few’s wife that shows the Gonzaga coach, Monson’s nephew and several others huddled around the TV on Saturday night.

“They’re agonizing and screaming at the TV and coaching the last 30 seconds of our game,” Monson said with a laugh.

Long Beach State’s unlikely last-gasp surge begs the question: What happens if the Beach keeps winning? Could university administrators change their mind? Would Monson consider returning for another year?

“Never say never,” Monson says with a laugh. “But I think they’ve made the decision that they need a new voice around here and I totally respect that.”

Smitheran is even more quick to douse that idea.

“That ship has sailed,” he said. “We’ve made our decision. I’m comfortable with that decision.”

While it almost certainly won’t be at Long Beach State, Monson does intend to coach again. This experience, he says, has rejuvenated him. Whenever this run ends, he hopes not to be out of work for long.

For now, Monson is trying to take Jones’ advice and stay in the moment. That means soaking up the time he has left with his players and staff and cherishing how much closer the past nine days have made them all.

“We’re not the best group,” Jones said with a sheepish smile. “We have some stubborn guys, some knuckleheads. But we all love Coach.”

Now, thanks to the craziest week of his career, Monson knows that too.

Says the man who lost his job last week: “I’m a lucky guy.”