KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s only fitting that history be made at historic Municipal Auditorium Arena on Monday evening.
For the first time in Frontier Conference history, two teams from the league will suit up in the national basketball semifinals when Carroll College and Lewis-Clark State College tip off in the late game of the Division I Fab Four.
Ten years ago, Rocky Mountain College cut down the nets in Kansas City, and Monday evening one team from the conference is guaranteed a trip to the 2019 national title game.
Frontier Conference commissioner Kent Paulson has been in the crowd at Municipal Auditorium since Wednesday’s opening round, watching three programs represent the league, with two set to tip off later Monday evening.
MTN Sports sat down with Paulson on Monday to discuss the positive exposure this year’s national tournaments have given the league.
MTN Sports: It’s kind of cool that they broke things up into two weeks this year — the women’s tournament first in Billings, then the men’s tournament here — obviously we know how the women’s tournament played out, but now that we’ve had this run at the men’s tournament with two Frontier Conference teams, history, it’s exciting for the league.
Kent Paulson: “It really is. I think both teams, probably, in retrospect if they look at this, the two-week layoff has probably been helpful. Carroll College, of course, nursing some injuries and getting some kids healthy, and I think both teams could say they were mentally rested coming in. Both (Lewis-Clark State head coach Austin Johnson) and (Carroll College head coach Kurt Paulson) would tell you that it’s been a great run, and just unique this year because the Big 12 Tournament was in town last week. I think it’s about every nine years this rotation happens, but it’s certainly been helpful. Like you said, history is being made, the first time ever in either the men’s or women’s national tournament that we have two teams out of the final four. Look at the big picture, they started with 32 teams last Wednesday and here we are.”
MTN Sports: Two first-year head coaches, as well. We’ve got Bill Dreikosen (Rocky Mountain College), Steve Keller (University of Providence), we’ve got Shawn Huse at MSU-Northern as tenured guys, but it’s the two first-year guys that have their programs in the Fab Four. That’s a fun storyline in itself.
Paulson: “It really is. I talked to both Kurt and Austin prior to the conference tournament championship in Helena and how proud they were to represent the league in the championship game. Of course, never in their wildest did they think they would meet up again in the national tournament. I spoke (Monday) morning with the head coach at William Carey (Steve Knight), just to put this in perspective, he’s been at William Carey for 37 years and this is his first final four. When you talk about blessings, I know Austin and Kurt are beyond grateful for this opportunity, because you just can’t take these types of things for granted, we all know that. For them to lead their teams into the final four is nothing short of, and this is at any level, there are so many coaches at the NCAA or NAIA level that have coached their whole career and never got to coach in a final four, so I know they’re very thankful, very appreciative and they’re two great young coaches.”
MTN Sports: What about the fact that it was 10 years ago exactly, not to the day, but Rocky Mountain College was out here and wins one for the Frontier Conference? Now, here we are a decade later and you’re guaranteed a spot, if you’re a Frontier fan, you’re guaranteed one of your teams is going to be there for a chance.
Paulson: “You bring up a great point, if the year ends in ‘9’ — 2009 and now 2019 — the Frontier Conference surfaces. Along with what we just talked about, Richie, there’s 10 coaches back home in the Frontier Conference that are cut out of the same cloth. We have fabulous coaches. Every year in our meetings, it’s not fluff, it’s the honest truth. I’m so thankful for who we have heading our programs in our league on both the men’s and women’s side of the ledger. The student-athletes they go out and recruit, but we also have to remember that exposure like this, that various programs have given, both the men’s and the women’s at the national tournaments in recent years, all of a sudden kids are recruiting us. Kids are contacting and saying, ‘Hey, I really like the style of play, I really like the programs. Here’s my highlight tape.’”
MTN Sports: Carroll College was last here in 2005, the big storyline, that’s probably getting beaten to death, but it’s still really cool, their head coach was a guard on that team. That was a loaded starting roster, all those guys still coaching or playing even, some of them still in Montana. Were you in this position then in 2005? I know you were here in Kansas City at least watching.
Paulson: “I actually at the time was the principal at Whitefish High School and I had to re-introduce myself to my staff when I got home because I spent 10 days in Kansas City then, too. We were there and I told (former Carroll College men’s coach Gary Turcott) at the time, ‘You load up a bus and you drive around Montana and you handpick four kids, then oh-by-the-way swing through Turkey and get Sinan Gular, and you got yourself quite a program.’ This team reminds me a lot of that (2005 Carroll team) and Austin’s team reminds me a lot of that. They’re kids that just have that look in their eye, they truly love the game of basketball and represent our conference oh-so-well.”
MTN Sports: You’ve been busy with wardrobes throughout the week. Let the people back home know how that’s gone so far. They’ll notice the Frontier Conference logo on your shirt right now, but that’s not how it’s gone this week.
Paulson: “My wife, Joan, reminded me when we got on the plane that I had more clothes along than she did, for good reason. I had the green on for Rocky Mountain College, I certainly have had the red and the blue on two different times for Lewis-Clark State, and I still have my purple gear from days gone by when Kurt was playing as you mentioned. (Monday) I get to wear the neutral color. I’m certainly so proud. I’m going to be the only guy in the arena (Monday), Richie, that truly is cheering for both teams, and I mean that. You have people there from Kansas City that are just there to watch great basketball, you have the great fans from Lewis-Clark State College, you have the great fans from Carroll College, obviously they’re supporting their teams, but (Monday) I get to be neutral, I get to be the commissioner, but I’m also a proud father. I think that’s really important that we are representing the Mountain West and Pacific Northwest so well. I know both (Lewis-Clark State College president Cynthia Pemberton) and (Carroll College president Dr. John Cech), along with (Carroll College director of athletics Charlie Gross) and (Lewis-Clark State College director of athletics Brooke Henze) are here, and we’re one big happy family that (Monday) we get to play the rubber match. I get to sit back and enjoy because I’m representing a great league and obviously love my job.”