In the News: Augie's Billeter Has Winning Formula
Monday, December 23, 2013
The following story appears in the Sunday, Dec. 22, edition of the Argus Leader:
Well-traveled coach restores basketball pride for Vikings
By Matt Zimmer, Argus Leader
After making the NCAA Division II playoffs four times in a five-year span, last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Augustana’s men’s basketball team.
Yes, Cameron McCaffrey returned as a senior, but most of the team’s top contributors were going to be freshmen and sophomores, going up against an ultra-tough NSIC South Division.
Instead of starting over, however, the Vikings won 22 games and made their way back to the NCAA Division II tournament.
Hometown: Byron, Ill.
Record at Augustana: 173-129 (11th season)
Career record: 270-179 (97-50 at NDSU)
NCAA D-II playoff appearances: Nine
Division I assistant jobs: Arizona, Rice, St. John’s, Texas A&M
Family: Wife Paula, sons Michael, Kyle, Brett and daughter Kelsey
It was arguably the best work of Tom Billeter’s career as a college basketball coach, and he was recognized for it after the season, receiving the Clarence “Big House” Gaines award, a Division II national coach of the year honor conceived in 2011 by CollegeInsider.com.
The award isn’t necessarily a single-season honor, though, or it would just go to the coach of the team that wins the national championship. The Gaines award sheds light on a coach doing consistently great work, and that put Billeter in the mix.
A former assistant at Arizona, Rice, St. Johns and Texas A&M who also had a successful five-year run as head coach at North Dakota State, Billeter took over an Augustana program that was going through the motions in 2003. After climbing a steep hill to respectability, the Vikings sit today as one of the more respected programs in Division II.
Billeter has become the all-time winningest men’s coach in school history, with a 172-129 record at the school. In the last six years (prior to this season) his teams went 124-55, with five Division II tournament appearances and four 20-win seasons.
Prior to his arrival, the Vikings hadn’t won 20 games or been to the Division II tournament since 1989. In fact, they hadn’t even finished higher than sixth in their conference since that year.
Now Augustana enters every season expected to be a contender, and where once the Elmen Center was a gym where fans came for the second half of the women’s game and left at halftime of the men’s contest, it’s now a place where large and lively crowds gather on cold winter nights to make an event out of supporting the Vikings.
It was a lengthy process, but Billeter provided the boost.
“He changed the culture here,” says outgoing athletic director Bill Gross. “If you look back to when he took over, we were in rough shape. We had lost our student support. We had trouble getting a pep band to come to the games. We had developed a culture of mediocrity and losing. We wanted to get people back to believing in Augustana men’s basketball, and Tom made that happen.”
Learning the ropes
If you pay even casual attention to Augustana basketball, you know something of Billeter’s background. He’s not bashful about dropping names of the coaches he’s worked with and the places he’s been, and the list is impressive.
But few know that Billeter actually aspired to be a baseball player, a catcher who enrolled at the University of Illinois with the intent of walking on for the Fighting Illini.
It didn’t take long for the Byron, Ill., native to realize his diamond dreams were probably too far-fetched, however, and his plan to be a doctor was also abandoned after getting the results of his first chemistry exam.
But after switching to a physical education major, Billeter was soon involved in recreational activities –running basketball camps, restoring and rebuilding little league fields and helping to run city parks.
At age 20, as a sophomore in college, he was hired as the junior varsity basketball coach at University High in Urbana, a prep school for students so advanced academically they were fast-tracked through high school.
That meant most of the varsity athletes were around the ages of 13-15, and the JV players even younger. The varsity endured a 96-game losing streak, and Billeter lost his first-ever game as a head coach 83-13. He says parents were complimentary after the loss.
From there came a job coaching the sophomore ‘B’ team at Hinsdale Central High, where Billeter also student-taught.
Hoping to get out of teaching and having received his bachelor’s degree from Illinois, Billeter sent letters to as many basketball programs as he could hoping for a coaching gig, and came up empty. But he got accepted to the University of Arizona on a research grant, and he and his wife, Paula, transplanted to Tucson.
After a full year there as a student, Paula became pregnant, and suddenly the young couple needed money.
“We were dirt poor,” Billeter says. “And one day I’m walking through campus and I see a sign that says ‘University of Arizona summer basketball camps.’ The sign was for kids, not coaches, but I thought, I’ve been running camps for a few years, I wonder if they need help. So I go down there and I meet a guy named Scott Thompson, an assistant coach who’s sitting in his office watching film and eating a peanut butter sandwich. I told him my story and he said, ‘Yep, we can use you.’ ”
Billeter started out more or less placing cones at the three-week camp, but his willingness to take any task had him soon coaching on the floor, organizing schedules and planning the rest of the events.
On the last day of the camp, Billeter walked around a corner carrying a bag of balls when Lute Olson, in his second year coaching the Wildcats after a successful nine-year stint at Iowa, crossed paths with the 25-year-old volunteer.
Unbeknownst to Billeter, the Wildcats were looking to add another graduate assistant for the 1985-86 season. They had over 300 applicants, but Olson had yet to pick one.
“He stops me and says, ‘Would you have any interest in joining our staff?’ ”Billeter recalls. “I was like, uh, yeah. I would. I went home and told my wife I was out of the research business.”
As Billeter tells the story, he seems to suggest Olson made the decision somewhat spur-of-the-moment. But that wasn’t the case.
Legend helps out
“It was not a quick decision; we had been observing him at our camp,” says Olson, who retired after the 2007 season with 781 career wins, four Final Four appearances and the 1997 national title. “We don’t take anyone into our program without seeing how they work with young people and other coaches, and Tom was always willing to do whatever we asked of him.”
The Wildcats would win the Pac-10 in Billeter’s first year on staff, clinching the conference crown with a dramatic win over UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. They finished second the next year, and Billeter wasn’t just an innocent bystander.
“In the two years he was with us, he wasn’t just punching a clock,” Olson says. “He was heavily involved. Our practices run on a minute-to-minute schedule, and Tom would be on the floor working with his position group every day. He put in a lot of long hours.”
It was here that Billeter, who played basketball in high school but never at the college level, learned how to be a coach. He was not just working under Olson, but also alongside Thompson, who would go on to be head coach at Rice and Wichita State; Kevin O’Neill, who would later serve as head coach for Marquette, Northwestern, the Toronto Raptors and USC, and the late Ricky Byrdsong, who would coach Northwestern in the mid-1990s.
Steve Kerr, Sean Elliott, Tom Tolbert, Jud Buechler and Kenny Lofton were among the players Billeter coached at Arizona.
“I made a bunch of mistakes, but God what an opportunity,” Billeter says of his two years in Tucson. “I learned so much, got to work with so many great players and coaches and get feedback. It was really special, and I was very fortunate.”
Billeter got lucky again, as just when he’d exhausted his two years as a graduate assistant at Arizona, Thompson was hired as head coach at Rice, bringing Billeter with him. He was there for five years, helping Thompson build the Owls to respectability in the Southwest Conference.
By that time, Randy Brown, who had been a GA with Billeter at Arizona, was an assistant at North Dakota, and encouraged his friend to apply for the North Dakota State opening.
Billeter had no connections to or familiarity with the Bison or the NCC, but he landed the job at age 31, and quickly proved himself ready to lead a team himself.
In five years at NDSU, Billeter went 97-50, won an NCC crown and took the Bison to four Division II NCAA tournaments.
From there he interviewed for Division I head coaching jobs at Stephen F. Austin and Texas-San Antonio, but didn’t get offers. That was when he got a call from St. John’s coach Fran Fraschilla, whom Billeter had befriended on the road, offering his top assistant position.
“I was happy at NDSU, and had a good team coming back, but I felt like it was a good opportunity,” Billeter said. “I’d get to learn a new recruiting base. I’d never been to the East Coast. It was a great chance to broaden my spectrum.”
Led by Ron Artest, St. John’s went to the NCAA tournament, but Billeter left to be the assistant at Texas A&M, a job that was set up in part by legendary coach Lou Carnesecca, whom Billeter had met at St. John’s.
Two days after Billeter took that job, Fraschilla was fired, somewhat mysteriously. Published reports suggest Fraschilla mistreated Billeter and some players, but Billeter wouldn’t confirm that, saying only: “We’re not close. We’ve moved on.”
Billeter spent five years at Texas A&M, where head coach Melvin Watkins was unable to make the Aggies competitive in the Big 12. A new president and athletic director were named prior to the 2003-04 season, and Billeter decided it was time to go.
“New president and new AD usually means new coach,” Billeter says.
He was right. The Aggies went 0-16 the next year in the Big 12, and Watkins was fired. But Billeter wasn’t there for that. He had made his return to head coaching, and the NCC.
“We had really fallen off,” Bill Gross says.
The former Augie basketball standout, head coach and now outgoing AD is talking about his school’s men’s program, and as he reminisces, a basketball commemorating the Vikings’ 1988-89 NCC title sits over his shoulder. It was immediately following that season that the troubles began. By 2003, the Vikings had finished with a losing record in NCC play for 14 consecutive seasons — three under Gross, five under Gary Thomas and six under Perry Ford.
It was time for Augustana to get serious about giving the program a chance to be successful, and Gross knew it. Thomas and Ford hadn’t had much support.
Billeter, USF coach Shane Murphy and Jamestown coach Brad Huse (now at Montana State) were finalists for the job. Billeter had some reservations, but a strong recruiting pitch that was aided by Augie president Bruce Halverson and boosters Kelby Krabbenhoft, Don Jacobs and Bob Preloger (who had been in admissions at NDSU when Billeter was there), closed the deal.
“We weren’t set up well enough financially or facilities-wise to compete,” Gross says. “There was work to do. But there wasn’t any doubt in our minds that the potential was there. We sat down with Tom and we all agreed there was no reason we couldn’t be one of the best programs in the country. We had a great school, great fan support, a great city and media attention. We just needed the players.”
That’s where Billeter came in.
In Billeter’s first season, the Vikings went 6-21. Gross admits it was a “lost year,” as the new coach familiarized himself with his surroundings.
“I think he had to sort of come to grips with the process and the school you’re dealing with,” said Augie women’s coach Dave Krauth, alluding to the differences between Augustana and North Dakota State. “You have to sort of figure out the formula to win here.”
After that first year, Billeter brought in a recruiting class of 10 new freshmen, and they played the majority of the minutes for a team that went 8-20 and won only a single conference game in 2004-05. Among the freshmen taking lumps on that team were Mike Klepatz, Tom VerDouw and Ian Thomas.
A year later, led by juniors Nick Olson and Joey Ryan, the Vikings started stiffening up against NCC competition. But their inability to win close games left them frustrated, and the Vikings went 12-16 and 5-7 in NCC games.
The following season, with Olson and Ryan seniors, Augie finally got back on the right side of .500 at 16-12, and were 3-9 in NCC play. In Billeter’s four years, the Vikings had quietly gone from six wins, to eight, to 12 to 16. But working their way to the top half of the NCC was another story, as the streak of consecutive losing seasons in conference play was now at 18. Many wondered if they’d ever get over the hump. Something was missing.
That something arrived in 2007, when Corey McIntosh, a point guard who had been a starter at Iowa State, decided he was no longer a fit for the Cyclones. As a senior, his only option for a transfer was to go Division II. He came to the Vikings and immediately became the shot in the arm the Vikings needed.
McIntosh had 37 points and nine assists to lead Augie to a thrilling 95-90 overtime win over undefeated USD in front of a crowd of 5,500 at the Arena, a win that validated the Vikings as contenders and gave them rivalry bragging rights they hadn’t had in years.
Two weeks later, McIntosh scored 17 points in the final four minutes to lead the Vikings to a dramatic 89-86 win over Nerbaska-Omaha at the Elmen Center.
Suddenly, the men’s basketball team was appointment viewing for Augie students and alums. There was palpable momentum within the program, and a buzz around the campus similar to the way a city embraces a baseball team in a pennant race.
At the time, the Vikings were recruiting a hotshot prepster out of Ellsworth, Minn., named Cody Schilling. He was in attendance for the wild win over UNO.
“That game was just nuts,” Schilling said. “They were down like 8-10 points, and all the sudden Corey just goes off. The crowd’s going crazy, it went right down the wire — the building was just on fire. Seeing all of that, I really wanted to be a part of it.”
The Vikings would finish 22-9 that year, and 8-4 in the NCC. McIntosh was the leader, but Klepatz, Thomas, VerDouw and others who had taken a chance on Billeter were key players, too.
They ended their NCAA tournament drought at 19 years, then upset Minnesota State-Mankato in the first round of the regional. They were eliminated by Northern State a game later, but for a program that had been so desperate for success, what they’d done was fairly historic. Billeter, Gross and others point to that year as the turning point for Viking hoops.
“Augie had had a proud history of basketball going back to the 60s and 70s and our teams in the late 80s,” Gross said. “And after such a long drought, people were just really hungry for Augustana men’s basketball to win again. To be something they could be proud of, rally around, and feel good about. That year it all came together. That season was a really big boost for our whole athletic department.”
The Vikings have never looked back. Moving into the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, they went to the tournament again the next two seasons, coming one win short of a berth in the Elite Eight both times.
After getting left out of the playoffs in 2011 (despite going 18-9 and finishing third in the NSIC), the Vikings made it back in 2012 and again last year.
Billeter didn’t do it with Xs and Os. He did it through recruiting and fundraising. Securing funds for a practice gym became Billeter’s top priority soon after his arrival. He admits when he first mentioned it to Gross and Halverson, they were supportive, but not terribly optimistic it would get done.
But the 28,000 square foot Sanford Practice gym was built in 2007, with a big gift from its namesake and several other donations, most of which were secured by the coach. It quickly became a boon to both the men’s and women’s teams, who had previously only had their game gym to practice on, which they had to share with the rest of campus.
“We needed it for recruiting, but we needed it to get better, too,” Billeter said, recalling the struggles for practice time in the old days. “I remember one time we got kicked off our own floor for a kid’s birthday party. This lady comes walking out in high heels and a dress an hour into practice and we got bumped. I tell you, that night I was ready to quit. But it was the best thing to happen, because after that I was so fired up that there was no way I wasn’t going to get (the practice gym) done.”
Not surprisingly, the Vikings made their first playoff appearance the first year after it was built. Armed with a new facility and coming off a berth in the tournament, Billeter was suddenly emboldened in what was already his strength as a coach — recruiting.
Billeter found several quality players over the years, but his ability to land high-profile recruits that were weighing Division I offers has been possibly his biggest success. Schilling, Dan Jansen, Eric Krogman, Zach Huisken and others have turned down Division I offers to come to Augie.
And of course, Milwaukee Bucks guard Nate Wolters very nearly became a Viking before choosing South Dakota State and becoming the greatest college player in the history of the state.
“You have to be able to land those D-I caliber guys to win in our league,” Gross said. “All of the top teams in Division II have a couple of them. If you only recruit Division II players, you’re going to be at the bottom of our league.”
Billeter’s been able to do that, thanks to his success in making his program more attractive, and through persistence and personality.
“Our staff works hard getting out on the trails and identifying talent, but Tom’s the closer,” says assistant Jeff Trumbauer. “Out of all the guys I’ve worked for, if it comes down to an hour over dinner with Mom and Dad, there’s nobody else I’d want sitting there than Coach B.”
Legacy of pride
The Vikings are in the midst of another rebuilding year. Sort of. McCaffrey graduated after becoming the all-time scoring leader last year, and injuries to Al Richter and Brennan Olson thinned an already young squad.
Casey Schilling (Cody’s brother) and Jansen are already among the best players in Division II, and they’re both just sophomores. The Vikings’ future is bright.
But after last year, there’s a sense that neither youth nor adversity should be used as an excuse to lower expectations in the present.
Even when there are legit reasons to think Augie will struggle, no one expects them to. That’s the respect Billeter has earned.
“His record speaks for itself,” said USF coach Chris Johnson. “They weren’t winning many games before he got there, and now they’re perennially in the Top 25. They always have talent, they always play hard and they play smart basketball. Teams don’t do that consistently if they don’t have a coach they like and trust and believe in.”
That is reinforced by the dozens of former players who are a regular staple at the Elmen Center these days. Walk through the halls at halftime and you’ll bump into someone who played a big part in building the Vikings under Billeter’s watch. Pride is a prominent theme.
“It’s amazing to see where that program was when he got there and where it is now,” said Cody Schilling. “They’re expected to win 20-25 games every year. He’s put the program in a place where they’ll be strong even after he’s gone. I think now when you think of Augustana you think of basketball, and that will be his legacy.”