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Mark Bennett: 'Born to Coach' co-author says Schertz's ISU success mirrors his LMU days

Mar. 1—Nine years ago, Scott Erland helped his late father Paul Erland co-author a book about Josh Schertz — "Born to Coach."

The full title of that 2015 release is "Born to Coach: Josh Schertz and the Remarkable Rise of the LMU Railsplitters." It refers to Schertz's past role as head basketball coach at Lincoln Memorial University, a private school in remote Harrogate, Tennessee — population 4,237 near the Volunteer State's borders with Virginia and Kentucky. Schertz turned that unheralded program into a NCAA Division II powerhouse in 13 seasons from 2008 to 2021.

The book had a decent following in Tennessee.

Now in 2024, its premise is making sense to folks in Terre Haute. In his third season as coach of the Indiana State Sycamores, Schertz indeed appears to have been born to coach.

His 2023-24 team can secure the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship outright with a victory Sunday over Murray State in Hulman Center. Tipoff is at 4 p.m.

The game is a sellout. That's become an expectation in this season's homestretch. That situation alone should explain the magnitude of Schertz's coaching performance.

So far, Schertz's ISU record is 59 wins and 38 losses in three seasons and 48-18 in the last two.

His Sycamores already clinched at least a share of the MVC title with Wednesday's 85-67 victory at Evansville. ISU's 2023-24 records stand at 25-5 overall and 16-3 in the conference. Second-place Drake (24-6, 15-4) could share the Valley crown if the Bulldogs beat Bradley on Sunday, and ISU loses to Murray State.

Either way, ISU has a piece of the regular-season championship for the first time since 2000, when Royce Waltman's team beat Bradley before a boisterous Hulman Center crowd that included Larry Bird. It was Bird, of course, who'd led Indiana State to its first and only other MVC regular-season title in 1978-79. The euphoria of that title-clinching win over Bradley in 2000 was so intense, Braves coach Jim Molinari joked that the officials were hugging Bird in celebration.

Terre Haute should be just as excited, especially if the Sycamores nail down sole possession of the title with a win Sunday.

Erland will be following from afar in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he now serves as communication manager for the Knoxville Police Department.

"I can't tell you how excited I am for [Josh]," Erland said Friday morning by phone. "He just does it the right way. People should not take for granted what he's done there."

That's for sure.

Several MVC coaches have delivered strong performances on the sidelines for their programs this season, but if there's any justice in the world, Schertz should be the Valley's Coach of the Year. Sycamore coaches have won that award only three times, and two also guided those MVC regular-season champion teams — Bill Hodges in 1979 and Waltman in 2000. Tates Locke won the Valley Coach of the Year in 1991 after steering ISU to a .500 record after the program lost 85 games in the previous four seasons.

Schertz similarly uplifted Lincoln Memorial, but then kept climbing. When Schertz got there in 2008, LMU had recorded just one above-.500 season since joining Division II nine years earlier. When Schertz left Harrogate in 2021, the Railsplitters had won 337 games and lost just 69, and had reached the NCAA Division II Final Four three times.

Erland played on Schertz's first two LMU teams. A four-year LMU baseball player studying English, Erland asked the new basketball staff for a tryout when Schertz was hired.

"They said they wanted me to be part of the team, and it was a great experience," Erland recalled.

He emphasized, "I was by no means a shining star." Erland got spotty playing time. Those teams finished 14-14 and then 20-9. "I probably wouldn't have seen the floor on some of the teams he assembled later," Erland added.

Erland got his degree and worked as LMU's sports information director, a job that entails distributing news and results of campus sports teams. As Schertz's transformation of the basketball program continued, Erland's father Paul — a hoops lover and writer — decided to tell the outside world about the Railsplitters' amazing story. Scott Erland said he assisted, but his dad wrote and drove the project. Paul Erland died in 2019.

"It was just something my dad wanted to do," Erland said Friday.

Fast-forward to the 2023-24 college season, and ISU's rise into its first Associated Press Top 25 ranking since the Bird NCAA Finalist team. Copies of "Born to Coach" began popping up in social media posts about the Sycamores.

"It was really a cool moment for me, now that my dad has passed away," Erland said, calling it a "full-circle" moment. "It's really cool the book has a second life with the success of Indiana State."

Indeed, copies of "Born to Coach" are available ($12.95 per copy) at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore at Fourth and Cherry on the ISU campus. Its subject — the now 48-year-old Schertz — is someone Erland considers to be a friend. Before Erland left LMU to take the job with the Knoxville PD, his last dinner in Harrogate was with Schertz and his wife, Natalia.

"I've followed this Indiana State team closely," Erland said. "It's the same thing that happened at LMU. You're just watching it on a larger scale."

One of Schertz's virtues is a humility and connection to others, from the student managers to campus workers. "He never lost that human side of this," Erland said. "He cared about his guys. He cared about the people around him. He always defers credit to people around him. None of [his ISU success] surprises me at all."

Just as Erland's book has gained some interest in Terre Haute, LMU fans are tracking Schertz's Sycamores. "I'd say Indiana State has a little bit of a following," Erland said.

That link to Tennessee hasn't escaped the Brooklyn, New York-born Schertz. That includes Erland.

"Scott Erland is one of my favorite people in the world," Schertz said Friday. "The opportunity to be a small part of that [book] project for he and his dad was very cool. I would never have agreed to it if it was anyone else or under any other circumstances but this was very special for them and for me."

"LMU and East [Tennessee] will always be in my heart, those people are amazing and the support they gave to me and our program was unmatched," Schertz added. "The fact that they continue to follow and cheer for us here just shows the quality of human beings that I was fortunate to be around in my 13 years. It's never easy to leave a place, but every time I step back on campus there it feels like home. And that's a credit to the people there."

Terre Haute and ISU should do its utmost to keep making Schertz feel at home here. He's good for the university and good for this city.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.