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Former UMC men's basketball coach Gary Senske reflects on the past 40 years and the program he helped build

Jacob Shames
Gary Senske coached Minnesota Crookston men's basketball from 1981 to 2002, guiding them from the junior college ranks to the NAIA to the NCAA Division II.

In 1981, the University of Minnesota Technical College had just opened a new arena and hired a new men’s basketball coach to go with it.

Much has changed since then — the school is now known as the University of Minnesota Crookston, it’s grown from a junior college into a four-year institution, and its athletic teams are called the Golden Eagles instead of the Trojans.

Gary Senske might not have seen all these changes coming. But he certainly didn’t anticipate the news he got last fall.

Thirty-eight years after he coached in the first game at Lysaker Gymnasium, Senske choked up as he learned that the Lysaker court would be dedicated and named in his honor.

“I was just totally amazed,” Senske, now 75, said. “It was something that was very dear to me, and it took me back quite a bit.”

It took him back to his 21 years as Minnesota Crookston men’s basketball coach. It took him back to the 217 games he won between 1981 and 2002, which included a stretch of 12 straight winning seasons. It took him back to winning the Minnesota Community College Conference title in 1986. It took him back to two major transitions: moving to the NAIA in 1995, and the NCAA Division II in 1999.

It took him back to 1981, when Senske arrived in the Red River Valley fresh off of a nine-year stint as boys’ basketball coach at Eveleth High School. At the time, Senske had a full course load, teaching first aid, wellness, archery and bowling. As with all two-year colleges, resources and scope were both limited: Senske almost exclusively recruited players from the Crookston area. The Trojans’ rivals — Fergus Falls, Northland, Rainy River — were relatively local too.

Over the years, Senske’s basketball responsibilities grew. The NAIA, and later the NCAA, brought new considerations. Senske tried to expand UMC’s recruiting footprint in order to compete. He thought more about how to pitch his school and facilities to recruits. He implemented more individual player workouts, which essentially weren’t a thing when UMC was at the JUCO level. He spent more time preparing for opponents by breaking down game tape. His teaching responsibilities diminished and ultimately disappeared. Coaching was a full-time job for him in a way it hadn’t been before.

“We had to revamp, we had to give thoughts to, what is it that our program needs now that we’re moving into a different phase of competition?” Senske said. “ … You don’t take time off in the summer to reevaluate, you just move from one phase to another phase.

“You had to readjust your schedule. You had to readjust your thinking. You had to focus completely on the program.”

Seemingly the only thing that didn’t change was Senske’s philosophy of coaching itself.

One year, Senske put together a tremendous haul on the recruiting trail, and came into the season with high expectations. But a loss in the season opener was all it took for things to change. Senske remembers players calling each other out, players threatening to quit over one defeat.

His 1985-86 state champion team, though, was the exact opposite. They were talented, yes, but when they lost games, “they just hung together.” They didn’t throw blame at one another. They simply went back to work and tried to win the next game.

“Talent is one thing,” Senske said. “You’d always like to have a good-quality kid with some talent, but it doesn’t always go hand-in-hand. It’s the character of the individual more than the talent. You gotta blend that together.”

That, in particular, is what Senske believes he excelled at. He’d hardly call himself a tactical mastermind — he never went into the season with a set offense, instead evolving his scheme over the season’s course to fit his roster. He looked not just for the best players but the five players that played the best together, and figured out how to maximize their strengths, on and off the court.

“You build into the program what the kids can do well and execute that, rather than taking a program and trying to pound a kid into it,” he said. “You develop a program from the kids that you got. I was good at that.”

***

It was supposed to be a routine visit to the doctor’s office.

During the 2001-02 season, Senske was in good physical condition. He had been working out “vigorously,” and figured that would show in his checkup.

Turns out, his blood sugars were rising — he had diabetes. Most pressingly, though, prostate cancer.Senske was caught completely off-guard, but promptly underwent treatment.

“That is not an easy surgery to go through,” he said. “They open up the whole lower portion of your body. And it’s tough to recover from.”

But Senske tried. He was back at work by the summer, hitting the recruiting trail and feeling “okay.” By July, though, he found himself totally devoid of energy. So he decided to pay a visit to then-chancellor, Don Sargeant.

“I said, ‘Don, I just don’t think I’m able to give what I’ve been giving,’ “ Senske said. “He looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’ve been paying into this insurance policy ever since you’ve been here.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Maybe you should take advantage of that.’ ”

The policy allowed Senske to take a leave of absence from Minnesota Crookston. He wanted the option to come back if he chose, if his energy returned. But he didn’t plan on retiring right away.

Ultimately, Senske didn’t have much of a choice. He estimates it took him about three years to really start recovering, and another two to find some semblance of normal. By then, he felt solid, but “you never get back to where you were.”

Instead, Senske’s made peace with his post-basketball life. Embraced it, really. He’s first and foremost a family man: his granddaughter, Sierra, played at Bemidji State from 2013-2018, and his grandson Steele is a redshirt sophomore there now. Another grandson, Sam, is a sophomore at Park Christian H.S. in Moorhead. He has a number of grandchildren who play hockey, too — all in all, there was a point in his life where he spent five days a week attending his family’s games.

Senske remains the bridge between three distinct eras of Minnesota Crookston men’s basketball, a program-builder in every sense, and he still pays plenty of attention to the program he built. In the years following his surgery, he took a break, but now watches games all the time.

He’ll be back in Crookston sometime this fall, when Gary Senske Court will be officially dedicated. Senske describes himself as an emotional person, and the emotions will really flow on that day. He’ll think back to the good times, even the bad times, and the relationships he forged in Crookston. But he’ll do so with perspective.

“I recognize that I’m only a small part of this, that involves a whole lot of people,” Senske said. “ … You feel rather humbled in that regard.”

He’ll probably think about how far the program has come, too. The Golden Eagles compete in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, which Senske calls the most competitive conference in the United States, and are consistently winning double-digit games for the first time at this level. They have more scholarships to offer than when Senske coached, and more money to operate with in general. And their facilities, in Senske’s opinion, are first-class.

Including the court that now bears his name.

The Times welcomes your feedback. You can send any comments or questions to our office at (218) 281-2730, Jacob Shames (405) 496-0168 or by email at jshames@crookstontimes.com.

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