Many of the same factors that drive a typical career move apply to college basketball coaching. Consider T.J. Otzelberger’s move to South Dakota State for his first head-coaching position.
A 10-year Division I assistant-coaching veteran, Otzelberger said he felt prepared to make the leap to head coaching in 2016. Relocating his family from Ames, Iowa, was not a decision made lightly — not with twin toddlers in the house.
Brookings, South Dakota, offered a family-friendly environment that appealed to him.
The potential to succeed in a new job is also a high priority. So, too, is the input offered from a respected network.
Otzelberger saw the potential in South Dakota State, a program that reached the NCAA Tournament in three of the previous four seasons. As for gaining input from his trusted peers, the Jackrabbits got some lofty endorsements.
“Coach [Lorenzo] Romar had a game against South Dakota State about five years ago, when Nate Wolters actually torched them at Washington, so he had a very favorable opinion of what the state of SDSU basketball was,” Otzelberger said, recounting his discussion of the position with his former colleague.
Otzelberger spent two years as an assistant to Romar at Washington, joining the staff in 2013 — two years after current NBA guard Wolters dropped 34 points on the Huskies. Romar, the longtime U-Dub head coach, is one member of an impressive professional network the 38-year-old Otzelberger built in 10 years as a Division I assistant. In two tenures at Iowa State, he worked alongside Fred Hoiberg — currently of the Chicago Bulls — and Steve Prohm, the Cyclones’ current head coach.
Another former Iowa State coach played a big part as Otzelberger gauged his future.
“Greg McDermott was helpful, because he worked with the athletic director [Justin Sell] when he was at Northern Iowa, so they have a personal relationship,” Otzelberger said.
McDermott, now the head coach at Creighton, hired Otzelberger to his Iowa State staff in 2006 after Otzelberger worked in high school and junior college basketball for the five years prior. That relationship comes full circle a decade later, with Otzelberger taking the next professional step.
That connection with Sell attracted Otzelberger to South Dakota State. The coach said Sell’s leadership in the South Dakota State athletic department stood out.
It’s manifested in competition for the Jackrabbits across multiple sports, and the college basketball-following nation saw it culminate last March, when South Dakota State nearly upset Maryland in one of the most memorable comebacks of the 2016 Tournament.
South Dakota State’s cultivated a winning identity in Sell’s seven-year tenure. Building upon that is Otzelberger’s new challenge. He strives to do so without losing his own vision for the Jackrabbits.
“This profession, when you get your shot, it’s a dream opportunity. You want to give yourself every chance to make it work,” he said.
However, citing the career changes his own colleagues made — McDermott going from Iowa State to Creighton, and both Hoiberg and Prohm coming to Ames — he added a qualifier to what constitutes making the leap successfully.
“The one thing that’s really resonated with me: you’ve got to be yourself,” he said. “A place may or may not have been successful, [but] you have to trust and feel comfortable with what you think is in the best interest of your team to win, regardless what’s happened in the past.
“You’ve got to respect and appreciate what’s gone on before you,” he continued. “But Prohm’s advice or Hoiberg’s advice — all those guys were kind of along the same lines: You’ve got to do what you think is going to be successful, and not worry too much about the past.”
Otzelberger has a unique opportunity to craft South Dakota State’s successful program according to his vision. The Jackrabbits return Mike Daum, a low-post standout from last season’s Summit League-winning roster.
Daum capped his 15.2-point, 6.1-rebound-per-game freshman season with 16 points and six boards against Maryland.
However, with the departures of four guards who accounted for 46 points per game, Otzelberger arrives at an opportune time to introduce some new philosophies.
“There was initial buy-in right away, and I think they realized we’re going to add some pieces and were going to need to address some things to be successful,” he said.
Noting the importance of veteran guard play — which bolstered the Jackrabbits in the Summit League, as well as Otzelberger’s former Iowa State team with Monte Morris playing a key role on a Sweet 16 run — South Dakota State will need to reshape its identity.
South Dakota State finished 75th nationally in adjusted offense last season, per KenPom.com. Otzelberger comes to Brookings having worked with teams at Iowa State and Washington that were some of the most prolific in college basketball.
Expect the Jackrabbits to live up to their speedy nickname under their new head coach.
“We’re going to play more in transition, and maybe more pick-and-roll,” Otzelberger said.
The end result may well be more 92-point nights, like the one Wolters powered against Washington in 2011. That game left an impression on Romar, and South Dakota State left an impression on Otzelberger — personally and professionally — that made this the right fit for a career change.