NELSON: New UND coach charged with making men's basketball a big deal again

GRAND FORKS — The distance between Aberdeen, S.D., and Fargo is roughly 200 miles. It’s the same distance between Aberdeen and Sioux Falls, S.D.

That geographical description underscores the fact that 23,388 residents of the Hub City have to drive a fair distance to take advantage of what bigger cities offer.

It also helps explain why Northern State basketball is a big deal in Aberdeen. Basketball at Wachs Arena is the big ticket in town. With that, however, comes the expectation of winning.

And no one knows that better than Paul Sather, the former Northern State coach who was introduced as the 19th coach in University of North Dakora men’s basketball history Monday, June 3, at The Betty.

“The pressure at Northern is to win,” said Sather, who was 188-75 in Aberdeen the past nine years — including a Division II national runner-up finish in 2018. “That’s what you do at Northern. You have to and that’s what makes that place special. There is an expectation there. You’re getting sometimes 5,000, 6,000 fans in the building and those fans love it.”

Now, the question is whether Sather can take UND basketball to the level of success he had at Northern State.

The fact that UND athletic director Bill Chaves tabbed a Division II coach to run a Division I program that is trying to become a player in the Summit League perhaps raised some eyebrows among the aging UND fan base.

But it shouldn’t.

Good coaches win wherever they go. Sather won at NAIA Black Hills State before taking control at Division II Northern. His programs have been successful on and off the court. And he’s largely pleased an engaging fan base — something that does not exist as much as it used to at UND.

“Good programs are good programs,” said Sather. “If you can run a high-level Division II program, there is a lot of carry over. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen and it’s going to be easy. You need some things to break and you need some momentum. But that’s the formula we’ve used. It’s been good and I don’t want to stray far from that.”

But Sather knows the success window closes a bit with each move up the coaching ladder.

“Every time you move up a level, the recruiting narrows a little bit,” he said. “There are not as many kids in that pool that you can recruit. When I went from NAIA to DII, the pool shrinks. When you go from DII to DI, the pool shrinks some more.

“It doesn’t change the fact that you have to find the right pieces. But I don’t think you have to change your system. You have to be ready to adapt and figure it out with the best personnel you can find.”

And that’s what Sather has done throughout his coaching career.

Sather’s introductory press conference perhaps had as much buzz as any at UND in the Division I era. The lobby of the Betty was nearly full, with UND backers, fans and media.

But what made the day special was the return of two UND basketball icons — former coaches Rich Glas and Dave Gunther.

If you look at it, Sather’s path to UND was much like that of Glas and Gunther. Granted, it was in a different era of basketball, but both Glas and Gunther came from smaller programs and both produced winning programs at UND — for years.

Gunther came to UND from Wayne (Neb.) State while Glas was the head coach at Minnesota-Morris and Willamette, Ore., before coming to UND.

Glas said he has followed Sather’s career and likes the hire.

“Like Paul said, the biggest thing is that you have to relate to your players,” said Glas. “In the end, it’s all about the relationships you’re able to develop with your players and the people in the community. You want to make sure those are strong.”

If Sather continues on the path he has carved since 2005, there is hope that UND basketball will someday perhaps have the intensity it did back in the Glas and Gunther eras.

To be fair, UND basketball — in the Division I era — has had moderate success under former coach Brian Jones.

The question now is whether Sather can build upon that success and re-energize the program’s fan base and make The Betty the hottest place in town on another dark, cold Grand Forks winter night.