Saturday was Dave Thorson’s second day on the job as an assistant coach for the men’s basketball team at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. After 23 years as the head coach at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis – where Thorson’s teams won nine state championships, including the last six in a row in Class 3A -- the 51-year-old is beginning a new adventure with a new team at a new school in a new town. And he’s making an impression.
After a GPS-aided drive from a Des Moines hotel to the Drake campus Saturday morning, he was walking from his car to the basketball offices when he crossed paths with a member of the university maintenance staff.
The maintenance guy said, “You’re here early.” To which Thorson replied, “You’ll get used to seeing me.”
Thorson’s hiring was announced by the university Friday. Soon after, he was greeting a recruit and the young man’s family for a campus visit. When it was time for the visitors to take a tour of the campus, Thorson tagged along to make himself more familiar with his new school, a private liberal-arts university with an enrollment of 5,000. The Bulldogs play Division I basketball in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Thorson, his wife Rita and their 8-year-old daughter Ella will be moving to Des Moines, and the coach is excited about their new adventure.
“I’m only officially two days in,” he said during a Saturday afternoon phone conversation as he drove from Des Moines to the Twin Cities. “All of it’s been great. I love the fact that the school has a sterling reputation. It reminds me a lot of DeLaSalle, frankly.”
Thorson, a native of Fargo, N.D., began his coaching career as an assistant at South Dakota in 1989 and was an assistant at the University of Minnesota from 1990 to 1994 before taking over as coach at DeLaSalle. His Islanders teams had a record of 527-130 but the numbers mean less to him than the bonds he forged at the Catholic school that was founded in 1900.
“It was an incredibly hard decision,” he said. “I love my kids. The relationships that I have with them is something that I really value and cherish.
“As much as I loved going to DeLaSalle, I wouldn’t have predicted that I’d be there for 23 years. It was absolutely the greatest decision of my life. To be a part of the DeLaSalle culture; when I stepped into it I had no idea how it would impact me.”
Thorson initially taught social studies at DeLaSalle and was the school’s athletic director from 1997 to 2004, when he became the vice president of development. In that position, he helped secure nearly $30 million in funds for DeLaSalle.
During Thorson’s time as a Gophers assistant coach under Clem Haskins, one of the student managers (and later an assistant coach under Dan Monson) was a Roseville High School graduate named Niko Medved. After four years as the head coach at Furman University in South Carolina, he was named Drake’s head coach the day after this year’s MSHSL boys state basketball tournament ended. One of his first calls was to Thorson; they have been friends for two decades.
“He and I philosophically are a lot alike,” Thorson said. “Niko was kind of my right-hand guy at Minnesota; he was way more than a manager. And the relationship we have extends beyond basketball. My daughter was the flower girl at his wedding. His wife and my wife are very good friends. Our families have spent time together. That part of it, for me, that personal part, is extremely important.”
Medved, 43, was an assistant under Monson for one year before becoming an assistant at Furman for seven years. He then was an assistant at Colorado State for six years before returning to Furman as head coach.
“Adding a coach of Dave's caliber is tremendous for Drake basketball,” Medved said. “Dave is the entire package. He's one of the best coaches in the history of Minnesota and one of the best coaches I know. He's a tremendous leader and communicator who develops players in all areas of their lives. His vision is in direct alignment with my vision and the mission of Drake University.”
Thorson said, “Some would say that being a college basketball assistant coach is a young man’s game. I would say that I know right now I still have the passion.’
Anyone who has watched DeLaSalle play over the years has never doubted Thorson’s passion. He has been known to be in a full sweat before tipoff and he spends most of the time during games standing and exhorting his players, yelling “Contain! Contain!” while his teams play defense. At the end of his final game at DeLaSalle, as the starters were replaced one at a time at the end of a 72-44 state-championship victory over Austin at Target Center, he smothered each of them in a bear hug.
“I just felt like from a timing perspective that DeLaSalle basketball is at an apex right now,” he said. “I think it’s a premier program in the state and it will continue because it’s built on people. I was just the guy who happened to be the head coach, but there are so many people who make it happen. The program’s in great shape.
“If there was any wavering on that I wouldn’t leave because I believe too much in the place. Now someone can come in and keep it going. Some of the grinding work of getting it going, that field’s been plowed. From that perspective, I just felt like the timing was right.”
Thorson said he will miss his DeLaSalle players, along with other people he came to know so well there. Asked about the memories he holds, he said, “Without question it’s all the relationships. First with my basketball players. We sort of stand on the shoulders of others, and with that understanding, I think back to my first team that really sold out and worked hard. Frankly I think there was a little fear to buy in, in terms of preparation and intensity, but it’s grown to a championship level.
“It took a few years to establish that culture. I’ll forever be indebted and grateful to those players. And the relationships I’ve had with other students and people I’ve worked with over the course of time. One of the things I say all the time is ‘Once an Islander, always an Islander.’ I may be a Bulldog now but I’ll be an Islander for life.”
The Drake men’s and women’s basketball teams play home games at the on-campus, 7,152-seat Knapp Center, which is next door to a new $8 million, 44,000 square-foot practice facility that includes locker rooms, team lounges and a film room.
“They raised the money for the practice facility in one year,” Thorson said. “There’s no question that Drake wants a winner. If I didn’t think we couldn’t be competitive, I wouldn’t have done this.”
One of Thorson’s former DeLaSalle players is on the Drake roster. Samm Jones is a redshirt freshman who transferred from Northwestern at the end of the fall semester. Also on the team is Edina graduate Graham Woodward, who played in all 62 games the Bulldogs have played in the last two seasons, starting 27 games last season when Drake went 7-24 overall and 5-13 in the Missouri Valley Conference.
It’s a safe assumption that Thorson will work extremely hard in recruiting Minnesota players.
“I’m a Minnesota prep basketball fan, and Minnesota basketball is a place that in my mind is fertile for Drake,” he said. “I’m going to spend time in Minnesota making sure all the guys who want to play college basketball understand that Drake is a great option.” --John Millea is a graduate of Drake University.
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