BY JEREMY HOECK
T.J. Otzelberger was eventually going to be hired as a Division I men’s basketball head coach.
It was just a matter of where and when.
The 38-year-old Wisconsin native and assistant coach at Iowa State got that opportunity in April, when he was hired by South Dakota State.
He was handed the keys to a program that had reached the NCAA Tournament three times in the past five seasons, not to mention one that had been coached by Scott Nagy (the school’s career wins leader, with 410) for 21 seasons.
That could be a daunting task, but as Otzelberger would tell you, he was more than ready for the challenge.
He was in Yankton on Wednesday evening for a Yankton Jackrabbit Club social at Riverside Park, and took a few minutes to chat with the Press & Dakotan.
When you got the job, what it was like to come into a brand new place and take over for someone like Scott Nagy who had been there seemingly forever?
First of all, the opportunity was a dream come true. And from a lot of different standpoints. Professionally, for me, basketball and developing young men has been something I’ve been passionate about for a long time. To be able to have the opportunity to be a coach was something I was excited about and started to think a few years back was something I was prepared for. To come into a place where there’s such passion, such unbelievable tradition, where the fans are amazing, where Frost Arena is such an unbelievable home court, you get your dream come true. To do it in a place like Brookings is awesome for my family. When I got the job, Justin Sell (athletic director) had said, ‘Every day will get better. You’ll have to almost pinch yourself because every day will get better.’ And that’s held true for the five months I’ve been here. Every day’s been great.
That’s the kind of program you’d want to come into, right? Where they have those high expectations, rather than having to build from the bottom up?
Absolutely. You can tell with the guys, coach Nagy did a great job with the culture of the program and the character of the guys he recruited. With that foundation in place, we hope we can add and continue to build on that. When you’re coming in as a head coach, to come into a place that already has that tradition; that winning expectation, it’s a huge advantage. And we’re going to capitalize.
Have you gotten a sense from the guys coming back that they know what it takes to reach the NCAA Tournament?
They know it’s something you can’t take for granted. It takes a lot of hard work every day, and a commitment to each other and to the process. It starts with a guy like Mike Daum, who had opportunities to leave and go to some other places but chose to stay here and finish the job he started. Not only be in the NCAA Tournament, but be on the winning side of games in the NCAA Tournament. That’s extremely exciting for us.
How about the Summit League, have you gotten a sense for where this league is nationally?
You look at the RPI, getting to 11th last year, that’s pretty impressive. I think the league as a hwole, and the coaches, have done a great job in scheduling up the level of competition. A lot of the coaches in this league are guys I’ve gotten to know through the recruiting trails or even coached against, so it’s a league that I have a lot of respect for. I think if we can continue this vision and keep scheduling better teams, there’s no limit to where we can go.
I imagine when you were at Iowa State, you got a sense for where South Dakota State was at the mid-major level?
Absolutely. In 2008, South Dakota State came in right before Christmas and beat us at Hilton Coliseum. That certainly created a greater sense of awareness. And I remember coach (Lorenzo) Romar (head coach at Washington) talking about them coming in (in 2011) and winning with Nate Wolters, so I’ve always been aware of the program. It’s always been one of those schools when you’re at Iowa State or at Washington that we don’t want to schedule. It’s a no-win situation. Now, to be on the inside of it and find games and try to get people to come to Frost, it’s a pretty awesome vibe.
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