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Former players remember Dave Gunther as successful coach who drilled the fundamentals

Mar. 18—GRAND FORKS — Jim Goodrich was looking for a place to transfer after starting his college basketball career at the University of Nebraska.

"A former Nebraska coach said if he'd have his son play for anyone, it would be Dave Gunther," Goodrich said.

That was the level of respect former UND men's basketball coach Dave Gunther received in not only North Dakota and Minnesota but around the country.

Gunther, 86, died Saturday.

Former players remember Gunther for his success, his focus on fundamentals and his passion for his ex-players.

"For me, it was a real blessing to play for him," said Goodrich, who now works with Athletes in Action in Iowa City, Iowa. "In all of my experiences, he was the best at fundamentals."

Gunther coached UND from 1971-88, racking up 332 wins. He led the then-Fighting Sioux to five North Central Conference titles, eight NCAA Division II tournaments and three Elite Eights.

"Back in those times, he was a legend among college and high school coaches," said former UND player Steve Brekke, who was all-NCC in 1982 and 1983. "I had coaches tell me they'd run his offense or his defense or practice like he did. He was so well-respected. He was fair. He was well-prepared. You always got the feeling you were always going to be in the game. He wasn't a man of many words but when he said something you listened."

Goodrich scored more than 1,000 points at UND in three seasons, averaging more than 14.0 points per game all three years.

"I really appreciated his halftime adjustments," Goodrich said. "We won some games because he would figure out what the opposition was doing to us."

Former player Fred Lukens, who was an all-NCC pick in 1977, played five years for Gunther. He wrote his thesis for his master's degree on Gunther.

"I got to ask him why he did everything the way he did, and he was kind to allow me to do that," Lukens said. "We never faced a situation we weren't prepared for. He was a very astute basketball mind. He was intense, but he wasn't a yeller. There were certain things you just didn't do."

Gunther stressed defense and hustle. He had a points system for the players that awarded as many points for drawing a charge as for making a basket. The team's practice shirts said 'defense and hustle win.'

"Turning the ball over was something you didn't do; basic defensive mistakes were something you didn't do," Lukens said. "His master's thesis was how many turnovers it took to change the outcome of a game.

"Our teams were very much Gunther's style — very unselfish. We had talented players, but we had to have the right mindset. He prepared us for that. Nobody cares who gets the credit. You get good shots, you play good defense and you do the unselfish things."

Later in life, Gunther loved to hear from his former players. Those players kept a close bond and have been exchanging text messages in recent days.

"As we all got older, you found out what a great man he was," Brekke said. "I'd get together for lunch with him and at the end, he'd give you a hug and tell you he loved you. Everybody thinks of this guy as tough but he had a soft heart and cared about his players."

Brekke's dream was always to play at UND. His first two college basketball stops were at Bemidji State and Lake Region State College.

Over pie and a soda at a diner on Highway 2, Gunther offered Brekke a scholarship to play at UND.

"He fulfilled my childhood dream," Brekke said. "That same year, I rode a city bus, took a taxi and flew on an airplane for the first time as a 20-year-old. He gave me that opportunity. I'll always be grateful to coach and this university to have been given that opportunity."