By Eric Grover
Wahpeton native David Richman leads the Bison back to the Big Dance
Establishing a legacy in collegiate athletics is far from easy. For every success story, there are countless others who have fallen into the anonymity of yesteryear, the dusty pages of old media guides. Every legacy needs a start, and Wahpeton native David Richman, the head coach of the North Dakota State University men’s basketball team, is off to quite a start.
Taking over the program in April 2015 from Saul Phillips, who guided the Bison to a memorable Sweet 16 run the previous season, Richman, 36, stepped up from his assistant role and into the limelight. NDSU was thought of little more than a mid-table finisher in the competitive Summit League, but instead, Richman and the Bison conquered all, tying for the regular season title and winning their conference tournament for a second-consecutive berth into the Big Dance.
“It was a special year and made special in part because of the people myself and our family is surrounded with. Our staff is great and it’s just a bunch of great kids that poured their heart and soul into it,” Richman said. “It made it really fun and special … We paid attention to (preseason rankings) from the standpoint of motivation. Those were expectations, and rightfully so, with what we lost. A new coach and new guys on staff, maybe those expectations were fair, but we never believed in them, that’s who we were. We approached it with the idea to get better every single day.”
Richman grew up in Wahpeton, the son of North Dakota State College of Science president and former football coach Dr. John Richman. He played basketball for NDSCS and was a member of the Wildcats’ 1998 Region 13 championship team. He also got his coaching start at NDSCS as an assistant in the 2002-03 season before moving on to the Bison.
“It’s the foundation of who I am. Wahpeton is a tremendous community with a lot of great people. It’s a blue-collar, workman-like attitude there and that helped establish who I am as a person and a coach,” Richman said. “… A lot of (coaches), their first call is to another coach. For me, whenever I have a question, concern or thought, nine times out of 10, it’s to my father. Yeah, it’s a different sport he coached, but you quickly find out in coaching that it’s more about relationships and how you handle different situations than X’s and O’s.”
With the Bison Sports Arena no longer a viable facility, Richman and NDSU were challenged by more than just their opponents on the court. Simply finding practice space and places to condition and lift weights became another part of winning basketball games.
“There were definitely challenges, make no mistake. When everything’s said and done, in the fall of 2016, everything’s going to be under one roof — our offices, practice facility, our locker rooms and strength and conditioning stuff. At times it was hard to make it all work and get everyone here and there, but our guys did a good job of handling the adversity and eliminating excuses. We tried to make it into a positive,” Richman said. “… It’s a band of brothers here, we use that all the time. It’s a tight-knit group and they are so extremely selfless. They care more about winning and the name of the front of the jersey than themselves. That chemistry and togetherness is what got us to where we were.”
Joined by promising redshirt freshman A.J. Jacobson and Summit League sixth man of the year Dexter Werner on the floor, NDSU was led by guard Lawrence Alexander. The senior, a mid-major All-American, averaged 18.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game and was named Summit League Player of the Year. But his impact went beyond statistics.
“Lawrence means the world to me. He’s a tremendous player, the all-time winningest player (in school history), and that’s a stat the everyone needs to talk about. He’s a hungry, humble kid and for me, as a first-year head coach, to have the ball in his hands during games was great,” Richman said. “But just having him around to lead, develop and encourage other guys, I can’t thank him enough.”
Alexander and the Bison saved their best performance of the year for its most important game, a showdown with archival South Dakota State in the Summit League Tournament final. Alexander dropped in 17 of a game-high 25 points to beat the Jackrabbits 57-56 to punch that famous ticket to the NCAA Tournament and was named Tournament MVP.
“For a mid-major program — obviously getting to the NCAA Tournament is great, and you want to win as much as possible — but for us, that’s the benchmark, putting it all into those three-four days,” Richman said of the Summit League tourney. “It was extremely special and I was so happy our guys could enjoy those moments. ESPN2, national television, your back is against the wall in a hostile environment. But the character of our guys showed through in those moments.”
The Bison’s reward? A No. 15 seed and a road showdown in Seattle with the talented Gonzaga Bulldogs, who put NDSU’s season to rest with an 86-76 victory.
“The Big Dance is the pinnacle of this profession. It’s what you work for every day. It was great for our guys to experience everything that came with it,” Richman said. “Obviously Gonzaga is a very good team and crushed an Iowa team two nights later. A lot of people would argue that this is Gonzaga’s best ever team. I’m proud of how we battled, we had (Gonzaga’s lead down) to six (points) late in the game. That said, losing will never be acceptable here. We want to get back there and win some games.”
The first-year coach, in his first head coaching position ever, led NDSU to a 23-10 record. Richman was named Summit League Coach of the Year and is also a finalist for the Joe B. Hall Award, a honor given to the country’s top new coach.
“It means I’ve surrounded myself with the right people and coaches. Don’t get me wrong, those things are humbling, but this is way bigger than one person and it always will be,” Richman said.
The legacy is growing, but constant vigilance is required. With the loss of a senior class, incoming recruits must rebuild for the future.
“We’re excited about the recruiting class we have coming in. We’ve signed two kids in the early period in November and gotten a couple commitments since,” Richman said. “I can’t talk about those publicly yet, but on paper, we’re excited and encouraged with what we have coming back and who we have coming in. I’m excited about the direction moving forward.”
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