MADISON, S.D. — Saturday morning came earlier than normal for Mike Larsen.
The newly-hired head coach of the men’s basketball program at Montana Western left his home around 4 a.m. on Saturday, starting the drive to Dillon to spend the weekend with new colleagues and his players. The early rise would call for extra caffeine for most, whether coffee or an energy drink. Trouble is, Larsen doesn’t drink either.
“To be honest with you, I’m not really (an energy drink or coffee) person. I’ll have the occasional energy drink if I need it, but I’m just wired this way. I don’t drink coffee, I think coffee smells terrible, I don’t even enjoy the smell of it, which doesn’t make my wife very happy because she loves coffee,” laughed Larsen, who insists he has never put coffee to his lips. “I just am wired to go. I love the game, I love the recruiting, I love the driving and windshield time, which is crazy. Just the excitement is going to get me to southwest Montana. I might be tired when I get there, but as long as I’m sitting at a desk and working on the game plan for the future, I’ll make it I promise.”
Poor opinions of coffee aside, Larsen’s energy and enthusiasm appear a perfect fit for Western, which was shocked when longtime coach Steve Keller accepted the head coaching position at the University of Providence in Great Falls. Larsen, who was an all-state high school athlete in Utah, played four years of college basketball between Northwest Missouri State and Dakota State.
After spending seven seasons under hall of fame coach Gary Garner, including the past four seasons as Garner’s top assistant with the Trojans, Larsen now reaches a lifelong dream of becoming a college basketball head coach.
“I don’t even know if words can describe the emotion of me and my wife. We actually got the phone call at 3 p.m. (Thursday), right when we pulled in our driveway from the drive home from the meet and greet in Dillon (on Wednesday). We really didn’t even have time to settle down from the drive, (Bill Wilson) came out and offered the job,” Larsen said. “When you get that offer, and it’s something I’ve thought about doing since I was 10 years old, I wrote a letter to myself when I was 10 that said I wanted to be a college basketball coach by the time I was 30, to be a young coach and officially say I’m the head coach at Montana Western, it’s an overwhelming feeling to say the least.”
Larsen joked about struggling to keep the news quiet from the time he accepted the position on Thursday to Western’s official announcement on Friday morning. Once the press release became public, Larsen’s phone erupted with messages of mixed emotion, mostly congratulatory, many sad to see him leave.
“I’ll be honest with you, it’s 11:50 a.m. here and my battery is down to 10 percent already,” he said. “I’ve had an overwhelming support. Being in Madison for the last eight years, you don’t just become a basketball coach, you become part of the family at Dakota State University. There have been a lot of text messages and well wishes, there are obviously some sad times and tears shed between close friends and relatives, but it’s going to be an interesting, quick transition, but definitely an exciting transition.”
Despite never meeting a Frontier Conference opponent during his time at Dakota State, Larsen says he is familiar with his new league. The top scouter for the Trojans, he often watched game film of rival Dickinson State in match-ups against MSU-Northern, Montana Tech and this past year, Montana Western.
He watched from afar as the Bulldogs advanced to eight of the last nine NAIA Division I national tournaments, impressed by the consistent success of the program.
“I think that’s the biggest draw for me, you have a program that is completely opposite of Dakota State. As mentioned earlier, we hadn’t been to the national tournament in a long time and hadn’t had a winning record in 20 years,” said Larsen, who led the Trojans’ to their first winning season in two decades during his senior campaign. “Going to a school that’s made it eight of the last nine years to the national tournament, coming off an Elite 8, there are expectations right out of the chute. But when you return a good group of quality players, and I have my eye on a couple recruits already, it’s one of those positions you hope you can hit the ground running and not have any drop off. That’s my job. My job now is to start preparing like I am (Saturday), getting to Dillon and starting to prepare for next year. My goal is to not have any letdown, hopefully get back to the national tournament and continue that tradition and streak.”
Western graduates all-American point guard and team leader Dom Robinson, with fellow seniors Warren Helligar and Marcus Payne also gone from this year’s quarterfinal team. Riley King, who spent three years in the Kansas City Royals organization, also saw his eligibility expire after this season.
The cupboard isn’t bare for Larsen, however, if players like Zaccheus Darko-Kelly, Brandon Jones and Kooper Kidgell remain in Dillon for the remainder of their careers.
“The No. 1 thing, and it’s kind of what I’m waiting for right now, I’m trying to get the contact numbers for the players on the team. My first and foremost goal is to retain everybody on the team that’s here. I told them when I met with them originally, the foundation is already built. There’s no use to go out and reinvent the wheel, it’s already been built,” Larsen said. “We just go in, make sure all those guys return, then you go out and add pieces like every coach does and put the best five guys on the floor and go to battle.”
Yes, daydreaming of those upcoming games was all the energy Larsen needed to begin his official tenure as head coach of the Bulldogs. Not even the 4 a.m. departure time could ruin that.