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After Monson turned down the Washington job in 2002—"I regret that," he says. "I also underestimated how much Darci wanted to move back West"—the Gophers went 68--58 over the next four seasons, with one NCAA tournament appearance but also two 10th-place finishes in the Big Ten. "The reality is that while Minnesota is a good job," Monson says, "there are six programs in the Big Ten that are great jobs: Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, with their superior facilities. So every year Minnesota is battling with Purdue and Iowa for seventh. If you win that battle, you are O.K. If you don't, you get fired."
On Nov. 30, 2006, after a 2--5 start, Monson was given the choice of resigning or being fired. He chose the former and took Darci on the honeymoon they had skipped to move to the Twin Cities. He traveled with his two sons (he also has two daughters) to spring training in Arizona. "I always thought that if I had enough money, I could just retire and be with my family," Monson says. "For four months I played Mr. Mom, did some soul-searching, and I realized I missed it. I had to coach again."
When he began his job hunt in the winter of 2007, Monson looked for a school where, he says, he could "do a Gonzaga." The University of Denver and the University of San Diego had openings and, like Gonzaga, were small private schools, but Monson's achievements from his two years of leading the Zags had been overshadowed by his seven-plus seasons of mediocrity at Minnesota. Losing out on the San Diego job was particularly distressing, as it went to Bill Grier, a Gonzaga assistant with no head coaching experience who is also one of Monson's closest friends. "No matter how good you think you are, other people don't see you that way anymore," Monson says.
In March 2007, Monson flew to Los Angeles to meet with David and Dana Pump, the AAU power brokers who ran a head-hunting firm for college coaches. "They told me to come out and have dinner with them, and we'd go to the Pac-10 tournament, and they would help me get a job back out West where I belong," Monson says. "I printed up a résumé like a little 16-year-old. It was so degrading. I walked into the restaurant, and there were, like, 12 people there, a lot of other assistant coaches, and it hit me that this wasn't going to be Help Dan Monson Night. I sit down, and I am trying to stuff this résumé under the back of my shirt, just so embarrassed and feeling stupid."
The next month Long Beach State offered a lifeline that, at first, looked more like a millstone. The school was mired in NCAA troubles, having committed numerous violations related to the admission of six junior college transfers who were ineligible to compete. That ultimately led to sanctions that included probation, limits on recruiting and a reduction in scholarships.
"I remember [UCLA coach] Ben Howland told me that in coaching they will give you three chances, but you won't get a fourth," Monson says. "I didn't think Long Beach State was where I wanted to take my last shot." But athletic director Vic Cegles, who had been hired a year earlier, was looking to take the program in a new direction. When Monson said he wanted to bring in high school recruits and redshirt them rather than rely on juco players, that he wouldn't compromise on academics, that he was looking to create a family atmosphere, Cegles agreed.
Monson lives in Rossmoor, less than a 10-minute drive from campus, and his children walk to school. He schedules practices early in the morning so he can be with his family in the afternoon. On a recent weekday he pulled his oldest son, MicGuire, out of school and took him to a golf tournament. Because most of the 49ers come from Southern California, Monson spends less time on the road recruiting, and his children sometimes accompany him to local high school games. "It's the happiest we've been since Spokane," he says.
He left Gonzaga for Minnesota for the money," says Cegles. "Does he leave again for the money?"
That will be the question of the off-season for Long Beach State, particularly if Monson leads the 49ers on a run in the NCAAs. "I wouldn't be surprised if some schools come knocking," the AD says. "But I think Dan knows what he gave up before, and he knows what he has here. It will be hard for him to leave."
It will be hard, Monson acknowledges. He is older and wiser, but he is also competitive, and his failure at Minnesota gnaws at him. If a job opened up in the Pac-12, would Monson be enticed to again leave a good situation for the big time?