The ball bounced off the rim and Will Ryan did what he was trained to do. Step in, wide base, extend your elbow, pivot into your man. Grab the rebound and pull it to your chin. Feel a pair of arms around your waist, feel your body hit the floor.
Wait. That wasn’t supposed to happen.
See, the shooter, Dan Weisse, didn’t miss free throws often and didn’t particularly like to. Weisse and Ryan, being the competitors that they were, got into their share of rough-and-tumble practice battles, with Weisse a sophomore starter for the Wisconsin-Milwaukee basketball team and Ryan playing on the scout team. This reaction, however, was new.
“I'd try to get under his skin, he'd do the same to me,” Ryan said. “ … I'll never forget that, because I have the ball in my hands and I'm ticked off that he just, out of frustration, tackled me. So I threw the ball at him.”
But afterwards, Weisse and Ryan met in the locker room, started laughing about the incident and essentially forgot it had happened by the time they got dinner that night. Teammates going at each other’s throats, but not letting that stop them from cracking jokes and having fun. This, at the strange intersection of aggression and ease, is where Dan Weisse has always been at home.
In his playing days, all it took for Weisse to go from personable to pitbull was putting on a uniform. And when his coaching career began, those two sides coalesced into a determined, energetic self-confidence, with the humility to put in the work to back it up.
In April 2014, the University of Minnesota Crookston hired Weisse to be its head men’s basketball coach. With no history of success at the Division II level, the program needed just something. Anything, really. But above all, someone in it for the long haul. Someone who could harness some of the most nebulous terms in the basketball glossary: Process. Energy. Culture. Someone with the tools to plant the seeds and the patience to watch them grow.
Five years later, it seems clear enough that Weisse was, and is, that guy. UMC is coming off a season in which it set a program record in wins with 17. It was picked seventh in the 16-team NSIC preseason poll, by far its highest ranking ever. It has perhaps the conference’s best player in Harrison Cleary. It’s off to a 5-2 start in 2019 and nearly beat defending national champion Northwest Missouri State three weeks ago.
You’d be totally forgiven if you didn’t see this coming. But the evidence has always been there.
Need to see for yourself? Take a trip 20 years into the past. Milwaukee, 1999. Another barren program trying to build a foundation of its own.
Where before Dan Weisse was the perfect coach for Crookston, he was the perfect player for Bo Ryan.
“Feisty, tough, really a tough competitor”
The Bo Ryan you’re familiar with — the Bo Ryan who built Wisconsin into the nation’s most brutally efficient powerhouse — is the same Bo Ryan who got to Milwaukee in the spring of 1999, looked at what he was inheriting and knew he had some work to do.
The Panthers, Division I members for nine seasons, had won 31 games in the last five years. Their roster had just three returning players. Attendance generally sat in the low hundreds. UW-Milwaukee needed a great many things it didn’t have. History, for one. Tradition. Fan support. Sustained success. Competitiveness. A winning culture.
But Ryan and his staff started at the bottom. They needed guys.
They needed Weisse, one of Wisconsin’s top high school players at Oshkosh West.
“I had seen him at our camp and I knew he was just feisty, tough, really a tough competitor,” Ryan told the Times. “I made a living with players like that.”
Added Greg Gard, the current head coach at Wisconsin and an assistant under Ryan at Milwaukee: “Having an in-state player of his caliber was important to us right off the bat.”
When Ryan took the job at Milwaukee, Weisse was the recipient of his first scholarship offer. He committed in what he called a no-brainer of a decision, soon followed by five others: Jon Brown, Jason Frederick, Ronnie Jones, Kalombo Kadima and Justin Lettenberger. Clay Tucker, a high-scoring guard from Ohio who had redshirted the year before, was also in the mix. These were the guys tasked with pushing the Panthers to relevance.
Many of them were bigger and more gifted than Weisse, but sooner or later, everyone else saw what Ryan saw in him. A smart, scrappy floor general and defensive pest who took charges, read angles and just understood where to be. A fire hydrant of a point guard who treated the ball like a piece of gold, knocked down 3-pointers, didn’t take plays off and didn’t back down from much larger men.
And everyone was a freshman, anyway. Nothing was promised to anyone who wasn’t willing to work — with a capital ‘W’ — no matter how talented. So Weisse grabbed everything he could take.
As a sophomore, Weisse started all 28 games, averaging 8.1 points and 2.5 assists as the Panthers went 15-13. The program was on the upswing, and not just in the win column. Off the court, the team slowly but surely established a culture of hard work, focus and hustle.
Ryan saw his role as coach as not just to teach discipline, but to create leaders, and he demanded high-character players who would go at each other and hold each other accountable. And Weisse didn’t usually have to tackle his teammates to be that person. Warm and friendly, but never overly gregarious or desperate for attention, he fit in simply by being himself. Those who knew him at Milwaukee describe him as nothing less than the salt of the earth.
“He cares about people,” said Saul Phillips, another Milwaukee assistant and the former head coach at North Dakota State. “He just treats people the right way. He's a genuine nice guy.”
But more than anything else, Weisse was a Bo Ryan guy. Suddenly, Ryan was gone.
“We just decided to stick it out”
In 2001, Ryan was hired by Wisconsin and took Gard and Phillips with him to Madison. The foundation that he had created teetered on the edge.
“I'm sure there were some guys that (considered transferring),” Lettenberger said. “ … But we all just leaned on each other and used that as motivation, especially seeing what we had built thus far as a team. So at that point, we just decided to stick it out.”
That decision ensured new coach Bruce Pearl would simply be taking the baton. But every coaching change begets turbulence, and Weisse felt this one more than most. Oh, his work ethic meant he’d find a home anywhere, but his game was full of fighting spirit and low on freewheeling, fast-break escapades. The latter, however, was exactly what Pearl was about. “It’s like going from slow music to heavy metal,” Lettenberger said.
If you didn’t do your job, in practice or in games, you weren’t going to play for Bo Ryan. That’s why Weisse, the type to keep his head down and play, found his niche. Pearl, however? He could handle a few mistakes, as long as his players ran and shot and ran and shot until they got tired. Pearl’s was a playing style designed for raw talent and skill above all. It wasn’t what Weisse was made for. He was a guy. Pearl’s system demanded athletes.
As Milwaukee improved to 16-13, and 24-8 the year after that, Weisse’s playing time dwindled to 13.5 minutes a game. He started just four games as a senior. He was living his college career in reverse.
“I probably did not handle it well,” Weisse admitted. “But I was always a great teammate because my best friends and family were those players on our team. … Was it easy? No. Did I learn a heck of a lot from that experience? Absolutely.”
The culmination of that experience was a Horizon League championship and the NCAA Tournament in 2003, Milwaukee’s first-ever appearance in Weisse’s senior year. Ryan’s discipline and toughness was the castle, Pearl’s up-tempo attack the cannons on the top. By then, the Panthers were the most popular they’d ever been. They sold out their new, downtown, 10,000 seat arena and walked through a campus painted in black and gold surrounded by their blood, sweat, tears and dreams.
But after the debutantes went blow-for-blow with fifth-seeded Notre Dame in the first round, Tucker’s last-second shot agonizingly rimmed out. The Panthers’ Cinderella story that year will forever remain unwritten.
Weisse played 27.2 seconds in the loss. It’s small enough that he memorizes it right down to the decimal. But there’s no doubt that he made the most of his college career. Weisse, Tucker, Frederick, Jones and Lettenberger all stuck around to finish what they started, and the result was Milwaukee on the national stage.
After the five graduated, the Panthers made two more NCAA Tournament appearances over the next three years, making the Sweet Sixteen in 2005. They were just getting started.
And so was Weisse.
“You could tell by how he was as a player”
A simple observation often becomes destiny with the benefit of hindsight. Will Ryan says that Weisse talked about his desire to go into coaching while they were teammates. But even when Weisse didn’t say it explicitly, those around him knew: This guy’s got what it takes.
“You could tell by how he was as a player,” Gard said. “Just very intuitive. He asked the right questions, he had a high basketball IQ, and he communicates well.”
In 2007, Phillips took over at North Dakota State. Needing a director of basketball operations, he gave Weisse a call. In Fargo, Weisse got a crash course in how to run a college basketball program. This meant taking care of travel, helping players through academic issues, and even sitting in on recruiting conversations.
“You learn probably as much about head coaching at that position as any position possible,” Phillips said.
Just as he had at Milwaukee, Weisse helped start something. In 2009, the Bison made the NCAA Tournament in their first season eligible after transitioning from Division II. They were just the second team to ever do it.
Weisse climbed another rung on the coaching ladder in 2011, taking an assistant job under Chad Walthall at Minnesota State-Moorhead. Another building job awaited — the Dragons hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in 46 years. They ended that drought in Weisse’s first year, and won the NSIC North two years later thanks to many of Weisse’s recruits.
Walthall didn’t want to lose Weisse, but he wasn’t about to hold back a rising star. In the spring of 2014, Weisse got to Crookston for his first head-coaching job, looked at what he was inheriting and knew he had some work to do.
“He believed we could be something”
Gable Smith, a lightly-recruited big man from Wisconsin, was quite happy that Minnesota Christian started showing interest in him during his senior year. Then he looked it up and saw there was no school by that name.
It took Smith until the second or third time talking to then-Minnesota Crookston coach Jeff Oseth that he realized his mistake.
Generally speaking, unless you were affiliated with another NSIC team, you had to be within about an hour of Minnesota Crookston to even know it existed. And if you did? Darin Viken, from nearby Fosston, who played for the Golden Eagles from 2015-19, summed up the local perception thusly:
“Honestly? A joke.”
UMC was in an odd position entering 2014. The roster had seven seniors who knew that their final season would be dedicated towards laying the groundwork for the future. They saw a program heavy on turnover from year to year and lacking in direction. Weisse promised something different.
“You need people that wanna have pride,” said Tim Lubke, who played for UMC from 2011-15. “With Coach, you could just feel that energy. He had pride. He believed we could be something. … We weren’t just gonna come in and keep getting our butts kicked.”
Those in the Bo Ryan tree speak of the profession as something akin to an art form; a new job being a blank canvas. “Instead of carrying the paintbrush, you get to paint,” Ryan said. “So paint on. Put your mark on the program.”
And in Crookston, Weisse could go to town. Lettenberger remembers looking up the Golden Eagles’ win totals and seeing a lot of twos, three and fours and thinking to himself: “Kidding me?” But after a while, it started to make sense.
“Knowing Dan and the type of person he is, what better position to put yourself in to take a program that hasn't had success in so many years and build it back up? All you have to do is build it up.”
“He's stubborn, he's bullheaded at times,” Will Ryan said. “He feels strongly that he can get it done. He doesn't sit around and say, ‘woe is me, this school, that school has bigger and better stuff.’ He doesn't cry over spilled milk, he fights on.”
Weisse knew how Bo Ryan had run his program at Milwaukee, and from him he took his understanding of a coach’s role. A leader, but a servant at the same time. There’s a familiar dichotomy of coaches as either disciplinarians or player’s coaches. Weisse had to be both.
“You get the players to understand that you’re coaching for them,” Ryan said. “ … We're gonna straighten up your locker room, we're gonna give you guys better nutrition, we're gonna get things that can help you to get through the rough winters. … You get them in shape, and then you let them know that you’re not gonna accept anything below the standard it takes to be successful.”
Before Weisse took over, Lubke doesn’t remember UMC really being involved in the community. He doesn’t remember the team holding basketball camps. He doesn’t remember alumni weekends. He doesn’t remember road games in far-off locations against quality opponents. But from day one, Weisse did all those things. He ran the program like one that believed it could compete.
This showed from the very first practice. Teammates were split up into two groups. The offense, which had to score 10 points every 10 possessions, and the defense, which had to stop the offense from doing so. For a team as small and relatively thin on talent as the Golden Eagles, every possession mattered that much more. It was basketball, broken down to its most fundamental. Hit your shots. Play good defense. Communicate with each other. And for God’s sake, don’t turn the ball over.
“You had to wake up”
UMC went 7-20 that first season, nearly as many wins as it had in the previous two years combined. On the recruiting trail, Weisse had something he could sell, but he had to find the right guys to sell it to first.
“You gotta be a very good talent evaluator, maybe get some guys that aren't highly recruited but have the right mindset,” Walthall said. “That's where Dan's genius is — just being able to bring in some players that maybe weren't as highly recruited, but he saw something in them where he could maximize their potential.”
Weisse, having lived that experience, could naturally sell what Crookston had to offer. In doing so, he attracted not only those who got overlooked, but some players that normally wouldn’t even blink twice when they heard the words “Minnesota Crookston.”
Viken remembers his visit with Weisse because he could tell right then that this wasn’t the Crookston he used to laugh at: “I'd seen (some of their recruits) on the AAU circuit, and they were good players and good guys. … He made that clear right away that the Crookston of old was something they were trying to eliminate.”
“I would tell recruits (that) when I took over, it wasn't really a program, they just fielded a team every year,” Weisse said. “A program has guys that been around, but a lot of times (UMC) would have a team and then the next year they'd have a brand-new team every year. We wanted to really build a culture.”
Borrowing again from Ryan, Weisse never thought of his duties as a coach as being a shaper of men. All he and his coaching staff needed to do was lay out the terms: “The same mentality as you're gonna take on the court and approach basketball, you should approach in life,” Viken described.
Hard work on the court was nothing without hard work off it. Show up late to practice? Get your ass in trouble. Show up late to class? Same deal.
So as long as Weisse found guys who were down to make a four-year commitment, improve every season and be the start of something, everything else would take care of itself.
Of course, Weisse and his recruits were under no presumptions that it would do so quickly. That didn’t make a 3-24 season in 2016, with an almost entirely new roster, any less challenging.
“It was kinda a slap in the face,” Smith said. “Made some people realize you had to wake up.”
As they piled up, the losses were joined by their frequent companion: tension. Viken remembers chemistry issues, spottily-enforced rules and anger that boiled over where it shouldn’t. The combination of young, growing team plus young, growing head coach had a predictable outcome.
And the analytical, big picture-oriented Weisse couldn’t always balance his long-term designs with what needed to be done right then and there. In later conversations, he would even admit he could have done a better job holding everyone accountable.
Towards the beginning of his Crookston tenure, Weisse read somewhere — he doesn’t remember quite where — that it took new coaches three or four years to really find themselves. At the time it rubbed him the wrong way, but going into his sixth season, he sees its truth.
“Holy sh-t, we could actually do some stuff”
Weisse’s aggressive recruiting paid off in 2016, when the Golden Eagles landed an undersized point guard from Wisconsin named Harrison Cleary. As a freshman, Cleary set the school’s single-season scoring record with 640 points. He broke it the year after that, too.
The Golden Eagles slowly started turning the ship forward. Eight wins in 2017, 10 wins the year after that — the first time the program had hit double-digit wins as a member of Division II. Weisse, seeing the seeds he planted start to blossom on and off the court, began letting his guard down.
“I definitely saw a difference,” Smith said. “He's built a relationship with certain players and everybody in a sense, where he was definitely approaching in a lighter manner or more personal manner.”
Weisse’s fifth UMC team started out 6-2 and entered the new year 8-6. They greeted two traditional NSIC powers — St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth — at home to start 2019, and won both convincingly. “I don't think that had happened ever,” Viken said. “It was like, holy sh-t, we could actually do some stuff.”
And it kept going from there.
“You walk around campus with your head a little bit higher and you go into practices feeling a little bit better,” Smith said. “Knowing that you're gonna be able to compete, if not beat all these teams that you're playing. I definitely got a different vibe.”
On the court, the Golden Eagles’ talent began to blossom. Weisse moved away from his favored swing offense as he got more accustomed to his own players. First, basic ball screens for Cleary. That evolved into a Villanova-esque offense with shooting at all positions, predestined reads and sets. Then, one day, Weisse walked into practice and said it loud and clear: “No more rules. You guys are just gonna play.”
If Weisse’s basketball journey has been an evolution, here was the newest species. The player who once couldn’t keep up with Bruce Pearl’s organized chaos had grown up to be a coach taking a page from Pearl’s book. He knew his guys were good enough now to score and pass and rebound and defend and hold onto the ball all on their own.
Cleary broke his scoring record for a third straight year, averaging 22.2 points per game. The Golden Eagles smashed their program record for victories — 10 — before February. A month later, the Golden Eagles began the conference tournament at Augustana, the perennial power and 2016 national champion. They ran the Vikings off their own court, leading by as much as 27 in the second half.
UMC fell in its next game, its first trip to the Pentagon in Sioux Falls for the NSIC quarterfinals, to Winona State, but it was still the season everyone had been waiting for.
“I remember being in the Pentagon and thinking ‘Wow, I really wish we were better a long time ago,’ ” Viken said. “Because this is awesome, you know?”
“It’s a program now, it’s a team”
Kevin Larson, a captain on Weisse’s first team, occasionally attends games when the Golden Eagles play close to his home in southwest Minnesota. As the years have progressed, he’s started to see UMC alumni cheering on the team from as far away as St. Paul and St. Cloud. In Crookston itself, Lubke notes the proliferation of gold eagle logos, new bleachers in Lysaker Gymnasium and the constantly-growing community presence.
The town is still in the process of waking up to its college basketball team. But talk to anyone around the NSIC — those far outside the usual Crookston familiarity zone — and no one is sleeping.
“If I was gonna be really frank with you, I think a lot of people thought you just couldn't really compete based on the location and the population and the lack of basketball talent in that area of the country,” said Walthall, who called UMC’s 17-win season equivalent to 30 wins at most other places. “For (Weisse) to accomplish that in a short period of time is really remarkable.”
When Walthall and Phillips, now the head coach at Northern State, go up against the Golden Eagles this season, they’ll be sure to drill their team on their unselfishness. Their ball movement. Their shooting. Their discipline. Weisse’s mentors-turned-rivals don’t see a team with a few lucky recruiting classes. They see a program built to last.
But the full, external impact of Minnesota Crookston’s rise hasn’t seemed to quite reach the Golden Eagles themselves.
“Those years where they had those little speed bumps or hiccups, I wasn't too worried about it,” Smith said. “I knew we had some guys that were committed and were gonna work hard every day. The success that we had was awesome.
“And I wish it could have been more.”
That sentiment says as much about what Weisse and his players have built as any victory. If you can come away from the best season in school history earnestly feeling, as Weisse does, that you “left some things on the table,” you’ve already taken the next step.
The Golden Eagles don’t see themselves as the little engine that could anymore. The speed with which they’ve flown past that point is apparent when talking to Weisse, and it’s as convincing as it’s stunning. You’ll never catch Weisse unprepared to talk about an area he thinks his team can improve at.
So where to next?
I ask Lubke what might sway a hypothetical 18-year-old kid to commit to four years in Crookston, Minnesota, and the words just roll off his tongue.
"I'm biased, because I love Coach, I loved playing for him," he admits. "(But) you watch them, they play free. ... You're competing and you're playing in one of the best Division II conferences in the nation.
"And if the program keeps going the way it's going, eventually I may have a chance to play for a national title."
Wait. That isn't supposed to happen.
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