The dust is finally settled after a storm of men’s basketball coaching moves in the Frontier Conference.
After four positions opened in the Frontier this spring, the final coaching job was cemented when Lewis-Clark State College this week announced the hiring of Austin Johnson, who formerly headed Corban University.
It capped off an offseason that saw the coaches from the top programs — Carroll, Western or Lewis-Clark State have finished in the top three each of the last three seasons — leave for greener pastures. Providence moved on from Anthony Owens after he posted a 53-64 record over four seasons.
Carroll College enjoyed a resurgent success under Carson Cunningham, who posted a 132-57 record at Carroll, two trips into the NAIA quarterfinals and one to the second round and consecutive Frontier Conference titles.
Cunningham made the biggest leap of any of his coaching cohorts, advancing up to the NCAA D-I level at the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.
Carroll College moved swiftly in finding his replacement, hiring former player and Oregon State director of basketball operations Kurt Paulson. Paulson played at Carroll from 2001-06 and was a member of the 05-06 team that set the school record in wins at 30.
While it’s Paulson’s first top coaching job in the college ranks, the Whitefish High graduate is well connected to Montana and the Northwest recruiting scene.
Paulson retained all the top players in the program and secured a re-commitment from Montana High School Gatorade Boys Basketball Player of the Year Sam Beighle.
Carroll lost the NAIA Player of the Year in Ryan Imhoff and graduated four other seniors, but with the addition of one post player and the rest of the returners, the Saints could be right back in the mix.
Western, which finished second in the conference over the past two seasons, saw longtime coach Steve Keller leave to take over Providence’s basketball team, a move that is believed to be largely financial for Keller, who twice previously applied to the job.
Keller led Western for a successful 11 seasons, posting a 231-124 record. His teams were consistently a threat to win the conference and appeared in the NAIA tournament eight times.
Keller’s exit stung players at Western.
The Bulldogs selected Mike Larsen, a former top assistant at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota, a NAIA D-II school. Like Paulson, this is Larsen’s first head coaching job in the college ranks.
Larsen became an all-state basketball player in Utah during his high school years, and then played for three seasons at Northwest Missouri State and then played one final season at Dakota State.
Larsen’s hiring didn’t fully reinvigorate a talented Bulldogs roster. After Larsen’s hiring, honorable mention All-American forward Brandon Jones announced he’d transfer from the program.
He was part of a Bulldogs team that went the farthest of any Frontier Conference team at the NAIA tournament, making the quarterfinals.
If the Bulldogs keep the rest of their roster in tact, they could be back in the mix this upcoming season. With one major contributor on the way out, that’s a big if.
Larsen’s facing an uphill recruiting battle after being hired just a few weeks ago. The Bulldogs had not signed any recruits under Larsen to this point. He was also the only coach in the offseason carousel who had no ties to Montana or the program he’s taken over.
No pressure, Mr. Larsen.
Meanwhile, Keller’s brought in five recruits to Providence and could have the Argonauts making noise immediately in the Frontier.
The Argonauts graduated five seniors, all who mostly started. It’s a lot of pieces to replace for a team that finished in sixth last season, but Keller’s shown he can build programs wherever he’s been.
In a few weeks, Keller has signed five recruits, four from Montana.
Johnson was the final hire in the Frontier, becoming official on Tuesday. He served as an assistant coach at Lewis-Clark State from 2010-16, and coach at Corban during the past two years, posting a winning record this past season.
His 2016-17 team went on a surprise run to win the Cascade Collegiate Conference tournament and make a NAIA D-II tournament appearance.
The Warriors graduated three seniors from a strong 2017-18 team. Johnson will also be under the gun, taking over the job after other coaches have been recruiting for weeks.
Many coaches in the Frontier have their recruiting classes cemented and Johnson will just be getting started.
The Wichita, Kansas, native played basketball at Oklahoma Wesleyan. He assisted outgoing coach Brandon Rinta for four seasons.
Rinta made the second biggest leap this offseason, joining his alma mater NCAA Division-II Central Washington as the coach.
Four programs having new faces in 2018-19 means Rocky Mountain College, Montana State-Northern and Montana Tech all benefit from consistency and stability within those programs. Each program has brought on a slew of recruits this offseason, too.
It’s rare a new coach can takeover a program and immediately win a conference title. The Frontier is certainly up for grabs each season, but Bill Dreikosen, Shawn Huse and Adam Hiatt may have a leg up in the immediate future.