Can Danny Kaspar save Bobcat men’s basketball?
Bill Peterson | On 28, Jun 2013
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by BILL PETERSON
The days of Texas State trying to play racehorse basketball with a program that’s not prestigious enough to recruit thoroughbreds are done. Danny Kaspar will see to it.
In the process, he might see to something else. Winning.
That’s the hope for Texas State basketball fans, who have witnessed but one winning men’s basketball team in the 21st century, and that was more than 10 years ago. One of the reasons is, of course, Danny Kaspar, who bedeviled them for years as the head coach at Stephen F. Austin (SFA) before accepting Texas State’s offer in April to bring some of that to San Marcos, rather than against it. At SFA, Kaspar was 19-3 against Texas State.
“I get so sick of watching him beat us all the time,” Texas State athletic director Larry Teis said.
“I didn’t like him when he was at SFA, but I love him now that he is at Texas State,” said a Texas State basketball coaching legend, Vernon McDonald. “The guy can flat out coach.”
And anyone who watched that first-round National Invitational Tournament (NIT) game between SFA and Stanford this year heard all about Kaspar from color commentator Bill Walton, who went so far as to say Kasper is “saving the game of basketball.”
More Walton on SFA from that game: “You look at their defensive footwork. They close out. They don’t gamble. They work together. This isn’t a physically dominating team. But they play with heart. They play with their brain. They have passion. They have a tremendous vision and plan. They got a brilliant leader over there. This is a most interesting team here.”
Very interesting, because Kaspar doesn’t play a game of basketball that’s designed to pack houses. But it is designed to win. Maybe that will pack Strahan Coliseum, which seats 7,200 — about 5,500 of which are empty at an average home game for the Bobcats, who represent a university with more than 30,000 students.
Kaspar has been a head basketball coach at the collegiate level for 22 years. His record is 465-193. This year, SFA finished 27-5 and went to the NIT. That might start filling a few of those seats.
In the last six years at SFA, Kaspar won 138 games, more than any other college basketball coach in Texas. In his last 12 years at SFA, Kaspar’s teams won 237 games, more than any other program in the state, except for the University of Texas. Lots of references to Texas here. That’s another thing about Kaspar. He’s a Texas guy, through and through. All of the Texas basketball people know him.
During the university’s hiring process, Teis received a call from Gregg Popovich, the championship San Antonio Spurs coach. He recommended Kaspar. Case closed right, there, perhaps, but there was more. High school coaches from around the state sang his praises. Another good sign, because Kaspar really likes the local kid. And he likes him a certain way, which isn’t a way that excites most NCAA Division I coaches.
“I’ve told my assistant coaches, ‘Find me high-character, low-maintenance people with reasonably good skill level and reasonably good athletic level with high basketball IQ who are coachable,’” Kaspar said. “I want a well rounded player. I want a player who respects his coaches and respects his parents. If a kid doesn’t respect his parents, he’s not going to respect me.”
Nothing there about running up and down the floor, jump shooting prowess or mad basketball skills. Nothing about making connections at the shoe camps. Everything there about kids who can be taught the game.
“If I was at Kentucky and I got four McDonald’s All-Americans, I might change my philosophy,” Kaspar said.
And that’s kind of the point. Two points, really. Texas State is no place for thoroughbreds, because it isn’t Kentucky. And he doesn’t need to change his philosophy, because it works. One more point, an important point. In the basketball world, Texas State not only isn’t Kentucky, but it isn’t even Texas. That’s just reality apprehension. In the tough world of college basketball, reality apprehension counts.
And here’s reality. Great athletes merely should win. Hard workers will. And Kasper knows where to find those. He’s been around them all of his life. Take out a map and look at Texas. Then look over to Louisiana on the right, then up to a bit of Arkansas, then back over to the left you see Oklahoma, then drop back down into Texas. That’s where Kaspar said he expects to find them. They can be found, for example, in San Antonio, which is where the Bobcats found Jeff Foster once upon a time. Foster went on to a 13-year career in the NBA after leading the Bobcats to two Southland Conference regular season titles, one league tournament championship and an NCAA Tournament bid during a collegiate career that ended in 1999.
That was 1999, a long time ago. Texas State hasn’t seen his like, or teams anything like that, anytime since. Where have you gone, Jeff Foster? Turns out, Kaspar said, that they’re still around.
“I don’t think we can beat Texas or Baylor for a kid,” Kaspar said. “We have to be like a good stock picker. We have to find kids early and get good value. I really believe the Austin and San Antonio areas, in many ways, are overlooked. You look at that (Texas State) team with Jeff Foster. They had three players from San Antonio who helped them win. We should not have to travel far to find those recruits. We have too many people on our team from all over the country, and I don’t understand that.”
Instead of trying to imitate Kentucky, recruiting nationally, trying to bring in players who would go to Kentucky if they really could horse race up and down the court, Texas State under Kaspar stands to be what it is. A program that can win with solid teams built through time, rather than one-and-done NBA wannabes.
Kaspar’s SFA team led the nation in scoring defense — not scoring — at 51.2 points per game this past season. In 2010-11, SFA led the nation in scoring defense at 56.7 points per game. The season in between, SFA ranked third at 54.4 points per game. That’s not racehorse players. That’s grinders who sit down and guard people.
By the way, SFA and Kentucky went the same distance this year. First round of the NIT.
“You have to get a well-rounded person now in order to build a great program,” Kaspar said. “You have to get a great young man who is a hard worker who will let himself get coached and challenged. Many times, high school kids are pampered and spoiled at the high school level. I don’t want that kid.”
Danny Kaspar wasn’t a pampered high school kid in Corpus Christi back in the early 1970s, but he was a different kind of player. That is, his expression of the game wasn’t the same as it is now that he’s 58 years old and he’s been coaching for a long while.
He liked to put it up.
“The sport came naturally to me, for some reason, and I was quickly able to pick up the skill of shooting,” Kaspar said. “If you can score and shoot, you become someone who is considered a vital part of the team.”
Playing at Corpus Christi Carroll under Mike Kunstadt, Kaspar was twice named all-district, and he earned some all-state recognitions for his senior season. That year, Carroll won the region before falling in the 1973 state semifinals to Houston Wheatley, maybe the best team from that Wheatley dynasty. The coach of that Wheatley team, Jackie Carr, was said to have remarked, without exaggeration, that his 1973 team could have won the Southwest Conference.
The University of Houston wasn’t cooking up Phi Slamma Jamma in those days, but it was winning 20 games every year under Guy Lewis and it recruited Kaspar. But no offer came, so Kaspar took his game to Texas A&I, which has since become Texas A&M-Kingsville. Kaspar lasted there for a year, until the emphasis on football made him seek another venue. He played for a year at McClellan Community College in Waco, then moved on to North Texas (known as North Texas State at the time), a basketball independent with a wild streak.
During his junior year, North Texas finished 21-6 under Bill Blakley, averaging 91.4 points per game. Kaspar played about 15 minutes per game and averaged seven points. He was second on the team in shooting percentage, 48.3 percent (69 for 143). The next year, 1977-78, the Mean Green was 22-6, averaging 84.8 points per game. Kaspar played about 13 minutes per game, but he didn’t shoot as much or quite as well, just 40 for 91 (44.0 percent). He began to see the game a little differently.
“I played for a run-and-gun coach in junior college and senior college,” Kaspar said. “We (North Texas) scored 95 one night against Houston. Problem was, Houston scored 142. My high school coach was defensive oriented. As a shooting guard, there were nights when I couldn’t miss, and nights when I couldn’t make anything. Because there were times when I wasn’t productive, I knew how frustrating that could be. I just decided, through my own experience, that if I was going to influence wins and losses as a coach, it was going to be on the defensive end.”
But there was one more experience, maybe, that sealed it. In 1979-80, Kaspar began his full-time coaching apprenticeship at Lamar under Billy Tubbs, who won fame later in the eighties for his explosive teams at Oklahoma. It was a magic year for Lamar, which won the Southland Conference and went to NCAA Sweet 16 before falling to a Clemson team led by Larry Nance.
During his Oklahoma years, Tubbs routinely scored 100. But good opponents could ding him up for 100, and he frequently clashed with commentators and sportswriters who said he didn’t play defense. Notice, no one says that about Kaspar.
“They press a lot,” Kaspar said of the Tubbs teams. “It’s a different kind of defense. You press, you turn people over. You shoot a high percentage, but you also turn the ball over. I, personally, didn’t think Billy’s teams played defense very good. We beat a lot of people, but we had a talented team. We outshot teams.”
After that, Tubbs was off to Oklahoma, and Kaspar went to Midwestern State in Wichita Falls to assist Gerald Stockton, who won 493 games in his career without top-tier athletic talent. Next stop for Kaspar, 1983, Stephen F. Austin, to assist Harry Miller. The Lumberjacks won 56 games in those three years, including two 20-win seasons. In 1986, Kaspar moved on to Baylor to assist Gene Iba, the nephew of the great Henry Iba. Kaspar’s five years at Baylor saw the Bears go to one NCAA Tournament.
And then, Kaspar was ready to be a head coach. In 1990, as Kaspar related in an interview on collegehoops.net, SFA representatives invited him to apply for the head coaching position there after Miller had been gone for a couple of years. But the job went to Ned Fowler, who had formerly coached at Tulane. SFA apparently wanted someone who had been to something like the big time.
So, Kaspar went to the small time. Incarnate Word is a private school in San Antonio with about 9,000 undergraduates now. Kaspar turned it into a power in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics ,which is for schools that don’t quite want to go NCAA Division III. But it’s still X’s and O’s, and it’s still teaching kids the game, and Kaspar was good at it. His teams won 20 games or more in each of nine years there, starting with 1991-92. He went to the NAIA Tournament six times in eight years at that level.
The experience taught him about San Antonio, and that he could find Division I players there who no one noticed, but who had the ability to score at the small college level. And it also taught him that he could win as a head coach. During the 1990s, his Incarnate Word teams won 219 games, more than any other four-year school in Texas during the 1990s. In 1998-99, Incarnate Word was the top-ranked NAIA team nationally, 28-1 before losing in the second round of the NAIA Tournament in Tulsa. In 1999-2000, Kaspar’s final season there, Incarnate Word moved up to NCAA Division II and finished 21-5.
Kaspar had moved that program up. But he wanted to move up further. SFA came open again. Kaspar was 46 and he dreamed of taking a team to the Big Dance in Division I. He loved San Antonio, but he remembered SFA well, and his wife had been a student there, and Nacogdoches was a college town, and he took it. But it took a couple years before he could post his first 20-game winner, a 21-8 team in 2002-03. A couple clunkers came later, and then, in 2007-2008, Kaspar really found his footing with a 26-6 team. The next season, SFA went 24-8 and finally reached the NCAA Tournament, though it lost in the first round to Syracuse.
The earmarks for which Kaspar’s teams now are known began to appear. The 2007-08 team was second nationally in scoring defense at 56.4 points per game. The next year, second at 56.1. The next year, tenth at 59.8.
And now, that’s what he is. A coach who wins by keeping other teams out of the basket.
“Man-to-man pressure,” Kaspar said. “Pick them up at half court. If we find teams that can’t handle pressure, we might pressure in their backcourt. We don’t play a lot of half court zone. Make them catch it out of their comfort zone. We don’t want them catching the basketball at the same spots that they do it in practice … Limit them to one shot per possession. Put pressure on the ball. Pressure on the passing lanes.”
Offensively, Kaspar said, he’s not looking for shots. He’s looking for good shots. Fewer, better shots.
“We’ll take an opportunity fast break, but I’m not a quick shot guy,” he said. “How many shots a guy makes is going to determine how many shots he gets. We’ll go inside-out, going inside with passing or dribble penetration, then kick it back out. We want more efficient basketball. In the games we’ve lost, we’ve taken more shots than in games we’ve won.”
Kaspar isn’t the first in his family to choose Texas State. His daughter, Nicole, is a senior on the hill. So, Kaspar has seen a lot of it. And he’s always liked it. And he likes it more all the time. The university is on the move, he said. Seems there’s a new building going up every six months, he noted. During the interview process, the Texas State administration discussed facilities upgrades, including improvements to Strahan Coliseum. And the airports. There’s a big one in San Antonio, and a big one in Austin. Imagine trying to recruit a kid to Nacogdoches, and driving him there from the nearest decent airport.
He really wanted this job.
“It’s a very beautiful campus, being in a great location,” Kaspar said. “We’re not far from Houston, Dallas or San Antonio. We’ve got major metropolitan areas. The facilities are good. I think they can be better, but they are good. There is a commitment from the athletic director and (Texas State) President (Denise) Trauth to making them better. It’s one of the fastest growing schools in the state. My daughter goes to school at Texas State, and we’ve gotten to know the campus quite well. I believe I can sell it. If you don’t like what you see, don’t take the job. I can see how happy my daughter is going to school here.”
The money’s good, too, by the way, and so is the security. Kaspar signed a five-year deal paying $270,000 per year.
Texas State’s move up to bowl-level football has raised the stakes throughout the university, but, particularly, in athletics. But that means it also has raised the opportunities. And people in the business know it.
“You can’t believe how many people wanted to be my assistant coaches, the calls that I got,” Kaspar said. “A lot of people believe that I can win here, but they also believe in the school. If there’s one school in the state that can move up athletically from mid-major status to major status, it’s right here.”
That’s kind of the plan. And the plan involves Kaspar leading the way, without racehorse talent. Just winning ways.
A version of this article appears in the July-August edition of Bobcat Magazine, a publication of the San Marcos Mercury. A new edition of the magazine will be published on July 4.