Of the 68 coaches in this NCAA tournament, only two made the rarely attempted jump from Division III to Division I. One is Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, who won four D-3 championships at Wisconsin-Platteville before moving on to the Wisconsin-Milwaukee job. The other is Dave Paulsen, whose Bucknell team, 14th seeded in the West Region, will play Connecticut on Thursday night at Verizon Center.
Prior to his stint as the Bison boss, Paulsen led the Williams College Ephmen – yes, Ephmen – to the D-3 crown in 2003 and a second-place finish the next year. (Full disclosure: I graduated from Williams about a decade before he did, which is why I know – but refuse to tell – what an Eph is.)
Obviously, this isn’t your typical career path for a major-college coach. Most pay their dues as a D-1 assistant and then become the head man someplace – sometimes in the same place they served as the No. 2 guy. And indeed, Paulsen spent some time at Michigan and Cleveland State early in his career before going the small college route at St. Lawrence, LeMoyne and Williams, his alma mater.
Some have been successful doing this, but not many. Years ago, you may recall, Paul Evans made the leap from St. Lawrence to Navy, where he guided David Robinson and the Midshipmen to the 1986 Elite Eight (before heading off to Pittsburgh). And Mike Lonergan essentially did it when he went from Catholic University to Vermont (with just a year as a Maryland assistant in between). Lonergan had the Catamounts in the NCAA tourney last year.
In Paulsen’s case, what made the transition particularly challenging was that he followed the legendary Pat Flannery, who had gotten underdog Bucknell to the second round of the NCAAs in 2005 (when the Bison stunned 3-seed Kansas) and ’06. Fortunately, it wasn’t the first time he’d been in that situation. His predecessor at Williams was his former college coach, Harry Sheehy (now the athletic director at Dartmouth), who had taken the Ephmen to their first two D-3 Final Fours.
Even so, Paulsen’s first season at Bucknell was a nightmare; a 6-foot-11 center transferred to St. Joseph’s, two other starters suffered serious injuries and the Bison finished 7-23. But here it is two years later, and the Bison are 25-8 and riding a 23-2 streak. This is no finesse team, either. Paulsen scrapped Flannery’s matchup zone for a man-to-man defense and plans to stick with it against UConn, even though the Huskies present many more problems than your typical Patriot League opponent.
“Dick Bennett was a big influence on my coaching philosophy,” he said. “When I was at Cleveland State and we’d play his Wisconsin-Green Bay teams, you just couldn’t get a decent shot. So when I became a head coach, I decided: That’s how we’re going to play… . The biggest challenge is going to be to keep UConn off the glass. That and a kid named [Kimba] Walker.”
Some might look at the Bucknell program and think: limited resources. Of course, it all depends on your frame of reference. At Williams, Paulsen had virtually no recruiting budget and, when he wasn’t coaching basketball, taught P.E. and supervised the JV soccer team. “Supervised” is the correct word, too. He didn’t know a thing about the sport. About the only comment he’d ever make on the sideline, he said, was: “Well struck.”
“My buddies in D-1 would say, `What are you doing?’ he said. “And I’d say, `I’m driving the [team] van to Western New England College.’”
But now he has a budget, a staff – and a darn good group of players. One thing that never changes, though, be it D-1 or D-3, is that “you’ve gotta sell your school, you’ve gotta sell your program and you’ve gotta sell yourself,” he said. “I think what potentially made me an attractive candidate to the people at Bucknell was that I understood recruiting real good students and how to sell athletes,” having had to deal with Williams’ lofty admissions standards.
“The biggest challenge after recruiting these great students,” Paulsen said, “is creating a level of toughness in kids who may not be initially so inclined.” He seems to be succeeding. But then, he has a lot more time to devote to it now that he doesn’t have to coach JV soccer.