No more excuses for USD athletics

Since leaving the comfortable confines of Division II, the University of South Dakota has managed to find excuses (many of them legitimate) to explain the Coyotes’ relative lack of success in football and basketball.

The Division I transition was grueling. They didn’t have a true conference. The DakotaDome is no good for basketball. Their athletic director left. Joe Glenn needs time. Dave Boots left them high and dry. They haven’t yet “figured out” the Summit League tournament yet. The Jackrabbits and Bison had a head start. And so on.

Some of these obstacles were overcome by time, as the Coyotes reached the end of their transition and joined the Summit League and Missouri Valley Football Conference to find the same competitive footing as SDSU and NDSU.

Other milestones were achieved by perseverance, as athletic director David Herbster continued the work of the departed David Sayler to get fundraising to a point where groundbreaking could occur on a new basketball arena, which will upgrade the entire athletic complex and usher in a new era.

Now that the promise of better facilities can be used in recruiting and boosterism and the Coyotes are well-entrenched in their respective conferences, the time for excuses is over. The only currency to be accepted moving forward is victories.

Herbster and president Jim Abbott are well aware of this, which make the past few weeks even more meaningful when it comes to positive milestones for the school down south.

The triumph of the USD women’s basketball team at the Summit League tournament was a landmark leap, ending the Jackrabbits’ stranglehold on the event and all the fawning publicity that goes along with it.

The fact that Amy Williams’ team then went on to present a respectable challenge to second-seeded Stanford in the NCAA tournament bodes well for the program as it tries to cut into the Jacks’ supremacy and stir future excitement in Vermillion.

Publicity does wonders for recruiting, especially within the state, so Williams has to be pinching herself when she considers what that March surge meant for her mission.

On the men’s side, recent events are even more momentous, though the Coyotes once again struggled through a difficult regular season and a quick Summit tournament exit.

The interim period after Boots’ bizarre exit last September was predictably unpredictable under rookie head coach Joey James, who was put in a tough situation. But USD made the right choice to start fresh and undertake a national search for a new leader.

This was a new process not only for the Coyotes but the state as a whole when it comes to men’s basketball, opening up a Division I job and seeing what kind of talent shows up. By most accounts, USD scored big by landing Craig Smith.

The Nebraska assistant has been the right-hand man for Tim Miles, helping to rebuild programs and find success during earlier stops at NDSU and Colorado State. He also had a head coaching stint at Mayville State and was a graduate assistant at Northern State, so he has regional ties as well.

Also in the running was Tom Billeter, who has D-I experience as an assistant and has steadied the Augustana program, and Ryan Miller, the Mitchell native whose recruiting connections made him a tempting choice to bring in top-tier talent immediately.

But when it comes to forging a program philosophy and providing energetic leadership as USD prepares to move into its new arena in 2016, the 41-year-old Smith was the right choice.

His salary of $185,000 is less than SDSU’s Scott Nagy ($200,000) but nearly 35 percent more than that of USD football coach Joe Glenn, further evidence that Herbster and Abbott realized the gravity of this hire and were ready to pull out all the stops.

Smith didn’t sing the fight song like Glenn did at his triumphant press conference, but he sounded like a coach who is convinced of his ability to seize the moment and restore pride among Coyote Nation.

“I firmly believe we’re going to make a major, major splash in Division I basketball, and certainly the Summit League, in the very, very near future,” the Minnesota native told media and fans Monday.

It will be good for the league and for the in-state rivalry if Smith can deliver on that promise. He needs to mix current players and fresh talent to find a level of consistent quality and mental toughness that hasn’t existed since the D-I move.

This is big boy basketball, whether we like it or not, and the new coach is realistic enough to know that nothing short of program-changing success will be tolerated. In Vermillion, at last, the era of excuses has come to a close.

Malchow makes his move

Nate Malchow has made it official, accepting the job of Washington High School activities director and resigning as girls basketball coach.

The move comes just days after the coach guided the Warriors to a 58-51 victory over Mitchell in the Class AA state finals, giving Washington its third title in the last seven years.

“I met with the players this morning, and it was not an easy conversation,” Malchow said Wednesday. “But it’s always been a long-term goal of mine to be an activities director, and right now it’s the right time.”

The former Aberdeen Central standout took over the Warriors in 2005 after serving as an assistant at Roosevelt under Fred Tibbetts. He takes over the AD post from Kevin Kennedy, who is retiring.

The move is contingent upon school board approval Monday and will take effect July 1.

The girls basketball job at Washington is expected to draw a strong pool of candidates when the job officially becomes open next week.

“We’ll have a lot of applicants, and I’ll be a big part of that search,” Malchow said. “Washington was built on tradition, and I told our kids that the winning tradition will continue.”


Krabbenhoft, Dykhouse on Sports Web Live

Join us for Sports Web Live this Wednesday (Feb. 26) at 4 p.m. for a special look at recent facility upgrades on the Sioux Falls athletic scene.

I’ll be joined by Sanford CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft and First Premier CEO Dana Dykhouse to discuss the role of corporate sponsors in the city’s recent sports building boom and how that has helped lure more events to town.

Viewers can go to at 4 p.m. to ask questions or share comments.

To tide you over, here’s my column from October about Krabbenhoft and how his vision for the Sanford Pentagon came to life:

As Kelby Krabbenhoft drove toward the outskirts of Sioux Falls in his pickup Thursday evening, he had plenty on his mind.

The Sanford Health chief executive officer was headed for the Pentagon, a five-sided, $19 million basketball wonderland featuring an old-fashioned Heritage Court that seats 3,250 and harkens back to “Hoosiers” with its throwback décor.

Long before the facility became reality and drew national attention by hosting an NBA preseason game — as it did Thursday night — it was a vision that struck Krabbenhoft while he watched his son, Joe, play summer basketball.

"It was a ‘Field of Dreams’ kind of thing," said the 55-year-old health care CEO, sitting in his luxury suite above the court as the Minnesota Timberwolves went through warmups.

"When Joe was playing AAU ball, you’d go into these stale gymnasiums and get the feeling that if you ever had a chance to do something special, you would do it right. How great would it be to go back in time and try to capture the history of the game?"

As head of an aggressive and growing health care system, Krabbenhoft is never afraid to think big. That has made him a lightning rod in a region where cynics see the word “Sanford” and see construction and excess rather than healing and affordable care.

He understands the perspective of those who question the need for a 160,000-square-foot basketball facility when the medical industry faces major challenges.

But there was no denying that Thursday was a major event, with former South Dakota State guard Nate Wolters making a triumphant return as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, who fell 98-89 to the Timberwolves in a crowd-pleasing exhibition.

There was no question that the spectacle meant something to Sioux Falls, which has hosted NBA preseason games before but never quite like this.

And there certainly was no arguing that Krabbenhoft — just like his health system’s namesake, T. Denny Sanford — knows how to make a vision viable and make a lasting impression.

"I’m a big believer that you get up to bat for the first time once, and you better make it count," said Krabbenhoft, who was joined by wife Heidi, son Joe (an assistant coach at South Dakota State) and grandson Joe Jr.

"I talked to a lot of people who got goosebumps when they came into this place, and that’s what we were going for with the retro environment. You don’t have to be the smartest man in the world to figure this out, but to do it maybe takes a little bit of guts."

Health battle

Thursday was meaningful in many ways for Krabbenhoft, who saw his vision realized at a time when he appreciates every moment.

In January he found a lesion on his back that turned out to be melanoma that was starting to metastasize, meaning he was fighting cancer after seeing so many undertake that battle at Sanford.

"Luckily, I’m friends with a few doctors, and they took the first scoop of it out of my back at my kitchen table at home," Krabbenhoft said. "Then they went in and did the surgery about a week later."

It got him thinking that nothing lasts forever, and as grandiose plans continued around him, one of the most powerful men in South Dakota felt scared and alone, if only for a moment.

"I’m a position so often where someone has gotten that (diagnosis), and one of the things I can do is get close to somebody and say, ‘It’s going to be OK,’ " Krabbenhoft said. "Well, I found myself looking in the mirror asking, ‘Is it going to be OK?’ Because I didn’t have anybody telling me that."

On this night he is wearing cowboy boots and a suede beige jacket, and he explains that his closely shaved hairstyle has nothing to do with cancer.

"I was on a bear hunt in Alaska," he said, now walking through the concourse and soaking in the scene. "It’s a tradition to shave our heads a bit on hunter’s eve, and it prepares me for whatever comes."

Small-town spectacle

As Krabbenhoft surveyed the scene, there were signs everywhere that this was not your average NBA preseason game — or sporting event, for that matter.

The Pentagon had hosted only a high school volleyball tournament and an NAIA basketball scrimmage before Thursday. As recently as last week, the main locker rooms still were being built and there was debris in the hallways.

But when former Skyforce coach Flip Saunders, now president of basketball operations for the Timberwolves, walked into the place Wednesday and saw old-fashioned rafters, retro scoreboards and photos of George Mikan, the gym rat in him swallowed hard.

"It’s a unique situation for an NBA game, but the atmosphere is great," said Saunders, who coached the Skyforce in the CBA for one season. "A lot of times with preseason games at our place, those fans come to 41 games, and in the preseason they don’t have the same juice in the game. Tonight you saw that type of juice, and that helps us evaluate players and see how they respond to a packed house with a lot of enthusiasm."

Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman was slightly less enthused with the small-town scene, scoffing at a TV reporter for asking him to hold a microphone during an interview and nearly boiling over when another reporter pinned a microphone clip to his shirt.

"Really, guys?" said the veteran coach, later indicating that he was pleasantly surprised to have his own office in the locker room.

Over on the Milwaukee side, Wolters marveled at a picture of the old Barn gymnasium at SDSU that graced the wall of the locker room, showing no stone left unturned in the bid for nostalgic flair.

Long before he received a standing ovation when announced as a starter for the Bucks — a hometown gesture made by coach Larry Drew — Wolters appreciated the opportunity to play his second-ever NBA game in the new/old Pentagon.

"I was checking out the old-school atmosphere during warmups," said the former Jackrabbit, who was part of a ceremonial opening tipoff with Wolves standout Kevin Love and Krabbenhoft.

"I’m thinking about coming back here during the offseason to work out, and it seems like there won’t be a problem finding an open court."

Hoop dreams

When Krabbenhoft’s vision quest began, the land around the Pentagon — near where Interstate 29 meets Benson Road — was undeveloped property owned by Augustana College.

He purchased it for Sanford in 2008 to provide an opportunity for new junior football fields, and it grew into the 162-acre Sanford Sports Complex, with the Pentagon joined by a multi-purpose fieldhouse, football fields, hotel, restaurant and plans for hockey and tennis facilities.

"You may remember that 2008 was a crummy year economically, but it was a good year for a health system to buy some land," Krabbenhoft said.

To those who decry lavish spending on sports facilities by what used to be Sioux Valley Hospital, he has a reasoned response.

"When we recruit high-end physicians, they always ask if they can see the children’s hospital and the sports complex," he said. "It benefits us and everybody when we can boost the community like that.

"At Sanford, it’s the law of big numbers, and it’s hard for people to wrap their minds around that. But we spend one-third of 1 percent of our budget on community dividends, which means that 99.7 percent is spent on health care."

Those numbers weren’t on Krabbenhoft’s mind as he steered his pickup toward the Pentagon on Thursday. He was thinking about legacies, about leases on life, and the light that would shine on his deeply personal basketball project.

The Pentagon is his baby, and it will test its legs again when it hosts a regular-season Division I game between Wisconsin and St. John’s on Nov. 8.

Soon the Denny Sanford Premier Center will arrive with its 12,000 seats and make a splash of its own, but Krabbenhoft will always know that his high-minded hoop dream came true, just like he knew that it would.

"It’s been a tough year in a lot of ways, but I just had my first grandchild," he said. "There’s so much to be thankful for, and this is part of that. When a dream like this comes true, you feel like you’re making a difference."

Olympics can still work their magic

I didn’t have to wait around for the Miracle on Ice.

Team USA’s fabled hockey upset of the Soviet Union in 1980 was an afternoon affair, taped for evening viewing and prime-time Olympic ratings. But my dad and two brothers were hockey nuts who had no patience for such nonsense.

Living in Detroit, just across the river from Windsor, we picked up a fuzzy live telecast from Canada and soaked in the splendor of one of America’s most enduring sports moments, shouting our lungs out most of the way.

Those were pre-Internet days, of course, so we felt like purveyors of privileged information, until a veteran Detroit news anchor spoiled the surprise (and angered thousands of viewers) by revealing the historic result during a tease of the evening news, with the game still in progress.

We’ve come a long way since then, with the major networks losing their hold on the national consciousness as our method of receiving and relaying real-time information evolves almost daily.

But have things really changed that much, or can the Olympics still work their magic?

It’s an interesting question in the aftermath of Saturday’s U.S. men’s hockey victory over Russia, in which former Stampede player T.J. Oshie became a household name almost instantly by scoring four goals during a dramatic shootout that defeated the Russians.

Forget for a moment that the game didn’t actually mean much, since both the Americans and Russians were destined to reach the quarterfinal round (where the host country fell to Finland, sending president Vladimir Putin into spasms of despair).

Also conveniently ignore the fact that Oshie has played in the NHL for six seasons with the St. Louis Blues and is well-known to most ardent followers of the sport.

In the feel-good fervor that followed that wild shootout, in which we learned the international rules as we went along, the kid from Warroad, Minnesota was a fresh hero for millions of Americans (and thousands here in Sioux Falls, who were finally interested in his brief tour of duty with the Stampede).

Everyone I ran into Saturday night wanted to talk about Oshie, including people who had never watched a full hockey game in their life. That, in a nutshell, is the wonder of the Olympics, and explains why NBC was willing to pay $775 million for the right to ship seemingly its entire network to Sochi to cover the action.

In an increasingly cynical world that views events through a prism of 140 characters on Twitter, the Olympics provide proof that we still have a wide-eyed notion of nationalism, even with sports we barely understand.

These Winter Games started as a snarkfest of Sochi problems, with jingoistic jokes about how Russians don’t know how to build proper housing with door handles or working showers.

In time, Americans turned their attention from Russian bashing to the action at hand, and much of the drama involved the agony of defeat, from snowboarder Shaun White to skier Bode Miller and the spectacular flameout of the Russian hockey team.

Long before “The Bachelor” or “Jersey Shore” or “Real Housewives” hit the scene, the Olympics were our reality television, and people are still watching.

The spectacle brings non-sports fans to the table, mostly women, turning prime-time NBC telecasts into a bonanza of advertising revenue when the chips fall right, such as Americans faring well in figure skating.

Several times over the last two weeks, I have watched the Olympics with my family, which marks a very rare occasion when my wife has deigned to absorb a sporting event other than the Super Bowl.

The prime time experience filters out the truly obscure winter sports (such as biathlon and skeleton) to give mainstream viewers a dramatized, mostly Americanized version of events. Again, NBC pays a lot of money for the right to produce that show.

Does it seem strange at times to be watching events that we would never otherwise care about, such as Ted Ligety’s recent skiing triumph in the giant slalom?

Sure. But the most defining moments make it all worth it, and they don’t need to come in prime time.

When Team USA faces Canada in the men’s hockey semifinals Friday at 11 a.m. Central time, it will be a live sports experience as NHL stars from both sides battle for national glory.

It won’t be a miracle if the United States knocks off the reigning gold medalists to reach the Olympic finals, but it will be a stirring sports moment full of authentic emotion and patriotic pride.

And if Oshie helps the Americans outduel Sidney Crosby and company with another one of his shootout marathons?

He’ll be a bigger deal than Mary Lou Retton.

Kurtiss Riggs, Chris Dixon on Sports Web Live

Join us for Sports Web Live this Wednesday (Feb. 19) at 4 p.m. as we preview the 2014 Indoor Football League season.

Matt Zimmer and I are joined by Storm head coach Kurtiss Riggs and former MVP quarterback Chris Dixon to discuss the team’s prospects for the season as they chase another IFL championship.

The season opener for Sioux Falls is Friday night at the Arena against the Nebraska Danger.

Viewers can go to at 4 p.m. to ask questions or share comments.

See you there!

Oshie found momentum during stint with Stampede

Long before T.J. Oshie became a household name with Saturday’s shootout heroics in the Winter Olympics against Russia, he made an impact with the Stampede in the United States Hockey League.

A sudden impact, in fact.

The Minnesota prep standout from Warroad made his USHL debut Sept. 25, 2004 at the Arena and scored just 39 seconds into the game (a 4-2 loss to Waterloo), showing a goal-scoring touch that would serve him well down the road in NCAA, NHL and international action.

“He was good for us when he was here,” says Gary Weckwerth, former Stampede CEO who still serves as managing partner for Sioux Falls Sports. “We knew all along he was going to be a good player, but it was tough to hang onto the kid.”

Oshie, a native of Everett, Wash., finished his senior year at Warroad High School and ended up playing just 11 games for Sioux Falls, tallying three goals and two assists for a Mark Kaufman-coached team that finished 27-28-5 and missed the playoffs.

The Herd was hoping to have Oshie for the 2005-06 season (Kevin Hartzell’s first as coach), but the University of North Dakota beckoned him earlier than expected and his time in the USHL ended.

“We won the Anderson Cup (for best record in the USHL) that year,” says Weckwerth. “It’s crazy to think about what he would have brought to that team.”

Oshie showed enough during his time in Sioux Falls to be taken in the first round (24th overall) by the St. Louis Blues. They held his rights while he played three seasons at UND, setting a school record with nine game-winning goals as a freshman.

The Blues knew they were getting a special player, which was confirmed when Oshie was selected to compete for Team USA in the 2006 World Junior Championships in Vancouver.

“An easy, easy pick,” said then-Blues director of scouting Jarmo Kekalainen on draft day. “T.J. is exactly the kind of player who can take advantage of the faster, more skilled game the NHL is looking for.”

The 27-year-old Oshie has scored 84 career goals with St. Louis, including 14 in 2013-14. Among NHL players with at least eight shootout attempts this season, he has the highest percentage at 7-for-10 (.700).

In Saturday’s stirring win over Russia, his ability to find the back net under pressure was on full display, giving Stampede fans reason to cheer.

Changes coming for Howard Wood Dakota Relays

There are several changes on the way for the Howard Wood Dakota Relays, a signature Sioux Falls track meet which will be held for the 89th time May 2-3 at Howard Wood Field.

One big change involves the high school special events, which have traditionally rotated between the 200, 400 and 800 meters for boys and girls each year.

Starting this year, there will only be special events for the 200 and 800 meters, which means the 400 will be an annual occurrence, with preliminaries on the Friday of the meet and a final on Saturday.

“We’ll take the top 32 qualifiers and run them in four heats (for prelims),” said meet director Mark Meile. “That allows us to showcase the 400 every year instead of once every three years.”

This year’s special events will be the 200 meters for girls and 800 for boys, both scheduled for May 2.

Another change involves the Saturday schedule, which traditionally has included an afternoon break of nearly two hours to serve lunch for coaches and volunteers and hand out awards.

That break has been eliminated, with the honors to be bestowed during the meet at the stadium. The Saturday schedule will now start at 9 a.m. and wrap up around 6 p.m., much earlier than the normal 10 p.m. completion time.

“That allows us a lot more flexibility if we have to move things around due to weather,” said Meile. Then he added with a smile: “Not that we would ever have weather issues at the Howard Wood Relays.”

Parkston’s Van Laecken nears end of the road

Parkston girls basketball coach Rob Van Laecken, the all-time wins leader in South Dakota girls hoop history, has announced that he will retire from teaching and coaching at the end of this season. He currently has 593 victories and has led the Trojans to 10 state tournaments, with the highest finish a runner-up effort in 2011. He is something I wrote when he was getting ready to pass Fred Tibbetts as the state’s winningest girls coach in December of 2011:

When Rob Van Laecken arrived at Parkston High School in 1976, he had recently graduated from Dakota State University and was focused on becoming a football coach.

Girls basketball had just started as a sanctioned sport in South Dakota a year earlier, but the new industrial arts teacher was barely aware of it.

"To tell you truth," says Van Laecken, "I didn’t give girls basketball much thought."

But when Parkston’s head coaching job became available in 1977-78, Van Laecken saw a chance to run his own team and decided to give the girls game a shot.

Thirty-five years later, he’s still coaching the Trojans and making his mark on history.

Parkston’s 55-52 home victory over Hanson on Monday gave the 59-year-old Letcher native his 551st career victory, tying him with the late Fred Tibbetts as winningest coach in state high school girls history.

"As you get older, you look back and say, ‘How could a program stay successful for this long?’" says Van Laecken, who is 551-196 (.737) and can take over the top spot when the third-ranked Trojans play Friday at Chamberlain.

"A lot of it has to do with the school and the community, and the commitment of our kids. The tradition is there and it just sort of takes care of itself now."

If someone was going to catch the legendary Tibbetts, who died of colon cancer in 2008, it makes sense that Van Laecken pulled off the feat.

He was two years behind Tibbetts at Dakota State, and the two remained friends as Tibbetts built dynasties at Jefferson and Roosevelt, claiming 11 overall state titles while building a record of 551-101 (.845) over 29 seasons.

"Fred’s probably the greatest coach we’ve had," says Van Laecken, who also mentions Bob Winter and Ron Flynn as sideline leaders who inspired him. "He was very good to me, and he told me how he admired the program that we had, which meant a lot. It’s pretty humbling to even be in the same ballpark with Fred."

When Tibbetts was at Jefferson, he and Van Laecken went head-to-head quite often in regional play, with Parkston getting the upper hand just once. But the Trojans were always back for more the next year, ready to make another run.

Winter, the former Yankton coach whose girls teams won 319 games and eight state titles, said Van Laecken’s success is not just a product of longevity. The guy has done things the right way.

"One thing I’ve noticed is that he always treats people with respect, which is probably how he’s stayed in it this long," says Winter of Van Laecken, who frequently worked Winter’s basketball clinics in Yankton.

"He was big on stressing fundamentals, and he knew how to build a program. He works with kids in every grade, not just the older players. Those wins came from his hard work; nobody handed it to him."

The most notable omission on Van Laecken’s resume is the lack of a state title, though he has guided Class A Parkston to nine state tournaments. The Trojans’ highest finish was third in 1989.

"I used to think that was my whole driving force, but if we don’t get one it won’t be the end of the world," says Van Laecken. "We’ve had some pretty good teams that never got out of the region, but it would be nice for our kids to get (a state title). I want it for them more than myself."

This year’s Trojans are led by senior Marie Malloy, who was preceded by her sister, Maggie, now at the University of Sioux Falls. Maggie ranks No. 1 on the school’s all-time scoring list and Marie will likely finish right behind her, especially after scoring 40 points in Monday’s win.

That family progression is indicative of the stream of success Van Laecken’s teams have shown over the past 35 years. The Trojans have racked up 24 conference titles under their veteran coach while grooming 16 all-state players.

"That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of – that it was all done at one school," says Van Laecken. "We built this program, and it’s stayed a constant ever since."

Through it all, Van Laecken has done a pretty good job of staying under the radar, unlike the fiery and fast-talking Tibbetts. He’s hesitant to draw attention to the record (or himself) because he doesn’t want to interfere with this year’s team, but he knows it’s unavoidable.

"I’m just going to have to bite the bullet on this one," he says.

Still, he goes out of his way to praise the work of his assistants through the years, as well as the Parkston community and the school administration (Van Laecken serves as athletic director).

Most of all, he points to his players, who will try to give the coach the one thing his legacy lacks – that ever-elusive state championship.

If he gets it, many believe, he’ll call it a career. Of course, that moment is drawing near regardless of how far the Trojans advance.

"This could be the last year, but I’m not saying it is," says Van Laecken. "I think I’ll know when that time comes – and it’s getting closer, I’ll tell you that. But we still have a few more things to do."

Talking SDHSAA, state tournaments on Sports Web Live

Join us for Sports Web Live this Wednesday (Feb. 12) at 4 p.m. for an inside look at South Dakota high school sports.

I’ll be joined by Sioux Falls School District activities coordinator Mark Meile to talk about recent SDHSAA football and basketball proposals and the debate over how to select state tournament sites.

Viewers can go to at 4 p.m. to ask questions or share comments.

See you there!

Sports Web Live: National Signing Day special

This week’s Sports Web Live will take place Wednesday (Feb. 5) at 2 p.m. with a special National Signing Day edition looking at the area football recruiting scene.

I’ll be joined by beat writers Terry Vandrovec (SDSU), Mick Garry (USD) and Matt Zimmer (Augustana/USF) to break down the classes and share thoughts from the coaches and players from our new-look studio.

Viewers can go to at 2 p.m. to ask questions or share comments about the recruiting process or individual players.

See you there!

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