Q&A with new Jacks men’s hoops coach



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.

T.J. Otzelberger
New South Dakota State head men’s basketball coach T.J. Otzelberger, right, talks with SDSU fan Dave Cornemann during a Yankton Jackrabbit Club social on Wednesday evening at Riverside Park. (Jeremy Hoeck/P&D)

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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Stiegelmeier at Yankton QB Club



John Stiegelmeier said he learned something rather important last fall.

The South Dakota State head football coach and his assistant coaches sent out a text message to their players last May with the following message: ‘top 8 seed.’

The message was to serve as a motivation for the Jackrabbits, who came into the 2015 season although ranked but maybe not expected to finish as one of the top eight seeds for the FCS playoffs – which would have meant a first-round bye and a second-round home game.

SDSU football coach John Stiegelmeier speaks to a Yankton resident on Wednesday at Yankton QB Club. (Jeremy Hoeck/P&D)

“We sent that in every text and every email after that; top 8 seed, to raise the bar with a team that you should be saying that to,” Stiegelmeier told the Yankton Quarterback Club crowd on Wednesday afternoon.

Ultimately, SDSU came up just short of a top-8 seed but still got a postseason invitation – the program’s fourth in a row. The Jacks lost on the road at Montana in the first round.

While SDSU was frustrated that it got out-bid by Montana for that playoff opener, Stiegelmeier said he still learned a valuable lesson throughout the season.

“Never doubt, never question a bunch of young men that have banded together and worked their tails off,” he said, referring to the ‘top 8 seed’ message.

Making his annual visit to Yankton QB Club the Wednesday after National Signing Day, Stiegelmeier touched on a number of other topics during his speech.

Yankton Players

One of the 29 recruits announced last week by the Jackrabbits was Yankton High School senior Bradey Sorenson, who is a nationally-ranked long snapper.

Sorenson will join five other Yankton graduates on the 2016 roster in Brookings, and that was understandably a popular topic Wednesday.

Stiegelmeier said Yankton fans should be especially proud of defensive lineman Kellen Soulek.

“Kellen came in with some pressure on him,” the coach said. “I’m more proud of this; he’s a better student in college than he was in high school.”

Soulek, who made 33 tackles (with 0.5 sacks and an interception) last season for the Jacks, could be an NFL prospect if he was on the offensive line, according to Stiegelmeier.

Another Yankton graduate, Brady Hale, was SDSU’s starting punter last season and his backup was another former Buck, Troy Hunhoff. Stiegelmeier said he looks forward to that battle in the spring.

The Jackrabbits have moved Yankton native Evan Greeneway from tight end to tackle, while Matt Fitzgerald is “working his tail off to get stronger,” Stiegelmeier said.

The coach also commended Yankton’s program, under head coach Arlin Likness, for the development of Division I-ready players.

“Credit to Arlin Likness, credit to your community, credit to these young men working their tails off,” Stiegelmeier said. “These young men are playing at a high level of football.”

Recruiting Class

Stiegelmeier also made very clear during his speech that SDSU does not use the term “walk-on” during the recruiting process, instead calling those players – like Sorenson – “non-scholarship athletes.”

“I don’t use the term the school down south in Nebraska uses; walk-on,” he said, “because I don’t think it’s fair to recruit 60 walk-ons and two play, and then boast that that’s an honor.”

One of the six South Dakota players the Jacks signed last week was Mitchell quarterback Kanin Nelson, who Stiegelmeier said is already enrolled in classes at SDSU and is working out with the team.

That is becoming a trend with Division I schools, Stiegelmeier said.

“Ohio State probably has 10 true freshmen at their school right now that are going to go through winter workouts,” he said. “Instead of having your 10th semester when your eligibility is done, they are literally coming early.”

Nelson will be a “seasoned guy” by the time fall camp rolls around in August, Stiegelmeier added.

“That’s a way of the world at our level of football,” he said.

Contract Situation

Stiegelmeier was asked Wednesday about the South Dakota Board of Regents situation with multi-year contracts versus the current policy of one-year contracts.

The issue came up two weeks ago when the Regents decided to pursue a permanent salutation rather than grant the University of South Dakota a one-time exception to hire new football coach Bob Nielson to a multi-year deal.

The current BOR policy prohibits multi-year contracts for “non-faculty exempt employees such as coaches,” as the Associated Press put it.

Stiegelmeier, who said SDSU has been working on such a policy push for three years “behind the scenes,” said there isn’t one Division I football coach in the country that does not have a multi-year contract.

He said it presents a problem when he tries to hire assistant coaches – which he is currently doing – who may be coming from other schools with a multi-year contract.

“If you’ve grown up in South Dakota, you don’t just snap your fingers and things change,” said Stiegelmeier, a native of Selby.

Preseason poll chatter


On first glance, there were no real surprises in the Sports Network preseason FCS top-25 poll that was released Friday. (Spoiler alert: I’m a voter).

Perennial title contender Eastern Washington was selected No. 1 (where I tabbed the Eagles), followed by three-time defending national champion North Dakota State. Southeastern Louisiana, New Hampshire and Montana rounded out the top 10.

The Missouri Valley Football Conference also had three other teams crack the top 25: Northern Iowa (9), South Dakota State (10) and Youngstown State (24). In all, the league had nine of its 10 teams receiving a vote in the preseason poll.

The lone exception?

The University of South Dakota.

Yes, the Coyotes — coming off a 4-8 campaign — did not an earn a vote from the national panel. USD was picked to finish eighth in the Missouri Valley preseason poll, ahead of Western Illinois and Indiana State.

Yet, in the Sports Network poll, Western Illinois garnered five votes, Missouri State five votes and Indiana State one vote (really curious who that was. The Sycamores were 1-11 a year ago).

It’s really hard to take issue with a preseason poll, because as a voter, trust me, you’re basing most of your selections on what happened last year. You know the teams in the league you cover, and likely a little about some of the other top-25 staples. But beyond that, any research done — and yes, I do occasional research! — is rudimentary at best.

At least, though, when you look at the two major preseason FCS polls (the coaches poll and Sports Network), there isn’t too much in the way of noticeable differences.

The top five teams in both polls are the same, with NDSU the No. 1 team in the eyes of coaches. South Dakota State, for example, is No. 10 in both, while Youngstown State was No. 21 in the coaches poll Northern Iowa was slated No. 15 in the coaches poll.

Here comes the part where you say preseason polls don’t matter. Teams left out, like USD, will understandably use these polls, though, as bulletin board material. Expect the Coyotes to keep this in mind.