Long Beach State coach Dan Monson's defiant run ends with loss to Arizona

Long Beach State coach Dan Monson calls out to his players during the team's loss to Arizona
Long Beach State coach Dan Monson calls out to his players during the team's loss to Arizona during the NCAA tournament in Salt Lake City on Thursday. (Isaac Hale / Associated Press)

At some point, no matter how many one-liners he unleashed or smiles he created or tears he jerked, Dan Monson knew this magical March ride would end.

Oh, sure, the Long Beach State coach wanted to linger two more days, not to mention two more weeks on college basketball’s biggest stage after being told he was out of a job at season’s end.

On the eve of his first NCAA tournament appearance in a dozen years, Monson joked to reporters that he didn’t have to answer their questions because he was working for free. He quipped that he had car and house payments that he didn’t know how he was going to make. He cracked to his players that they would need to put team meals on a credit card.

After 17 seasons at the Beach, the school’s athletic officials told him his coaching tab was overdue. It was the place where he watched his children grow up, his players go from sinking three-pointers to diagramming plays as part of his staff and his wife remain a trusted confidant through every win and loss.

Read more: Days after being fired, Dan Monson guides Long Beach State to NCAA tournament

He didn’t want it to end. Rolling through the Big West Conference tournament last week had made Monson a Cinderella with stubble, a Jim Valvano without the Italian accent. He seemingly had an answer — and a joke — for everything the cruel world of college basketball could throw at him.

Then came a beast that could not be slayed, a joke that elicited only silence.

Arizona was simply too much Thursday at the Delta Center. There was no game plan Monson could diagram, no fellowship he could create among his players that could overcome this mighty force during an 85-65 loss in the first round.

The dream did not die quietly, the 15th-seeded Beach matching the second-seeded Wildcats basket for basket for most of the first half. When a Jadon Jones steal led to an AJ George floater on which he was fouled, the Beach held a 22-17 lead and its throng of fans was roaring in celebration of the possibilities.

Long Beach State guard Marcus Tsohonis (0) looks around Arizona guard Kylan Boswell (4)
Long Beach State guard Marcus Tsohonis (0) looks around Arizona guard Kylan Boswell during an NCAA tournament game in Salt Lake City on Thursday. (Isaac Hale / Associated Press)

But Long Beach State could not keep up with Arizona’s shot making from long range or point-blank range. Down by just six points at halftime, the Beach (21-15) were on the wrong side of a 17-2 run full of easy baskets and three-pointers to open the second half. By then it was apparent the Wildcats (26-8) would advance to the second round to face either Nevada or Dayton on Saturday.

What’s next for Monson? The 62-year-old has said he wanted to keep coaching and surely will get another offer either as a head coach or an assistant. The winningest coach in Beach history also took Minnesota and Gonzaga to the NCAA tournament, reaching the Elite Eight in 1999 with the Bulldogs. This guy offers more than a robust sense of humor.

Monson made the most of his latest March moment. With any comeback hopes erased, he put his son Maddox, a walk-on guard, into the game for the final 75 seconds. When reserve center Jeffrey Yan made a free throw, Monson clapped in appreciation.

On his way off the court, Monson blew kisses with each hand to the Beach cheering section.

Read more: Already dismissed, Dan Monson leads Long Beach State on unlikely last dance

“I absolutely soaked up every minute today,” Monson said. “I'm going to remember it for a lifetime. I just hope it's a long time that I got left to remember it.”

Amid the tear-stained locker room, Monson’s players told him how much they appreciated him. They also reminded him their bond will endure even if he’s no longer their coach.

“There is no goodbye,” Jones said. “He's created a family. He brought us all here. We're all here 'cause of him. We all might not be playing for him again, but we're going to keep in touch.”

Arizona’s Tommy Lloyd became the latest coach to share his disdain for the way Monson’s dismissal was handled considering his history at the school.

“That guy gives 17 years to Long Beach State, and they fired him without another year in his contract,” Lloyd said. “He's walking out of this deal in 30 days with no benefits, no severance pay, no nothing. When you sit in my position, what we put our families through, I mean, I don't think that's right. That guy does not deserve that.”

Monson remained classy to the end, refusing to criticize athletic director Bobby Smitheran after a reporter told Monson that his boss credited Monson’s dismissal bringing the team together for the run to the NCAA tournament.

“If it helped,” Monson said, “I'm really happy we did it because I wouldn't trade it for the job or any other job. I've said that all along. If that's what spurred it, that's great. But we'll never know 'cause that's how it played out. We'll never know if it did or not. It's not really worth talking about.”

Staying in character, Monson got in the last word after his final game. After embracing Lloyd, Monson told his counterpart he was glad he got to spend the end of his Beach career with family. The coaches have been close since Monson helped Lloyd get his start in coaching by promising him an administrative role at Gonzaga that Lloyd accepted under Mark Few after Monson had left for a job at Minnesota.

Earlier this week, Monson and Lloyd went for pizza together with Few. After showing up late, Monson teased Lloyd that he had been busy installing the Princeton offense. With Arizona moving on Thursday, Monson told his friend that he wanted credit for their run in the tournament.

Arizona guard Pelle Larsson (3) guards Long Beach State guard Jadon Jones (12) as he drives up the court
Arizona guard Pelle Larsson (3) guards Long Beach State's Jadon Jones as he drives up the court during an NCAA tournament game in Salt Lake City on Thursday. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

“If we're the one that jump starts them to go win a national championship,” Monson said, “I can always let him know that I helped 'cause family helps each other.”

Near the end of his remarks, Monson told the story of giving his players a bracelet at the start of practice each season with the motto “MINDSET” on it. The M is for meaningful. I is for indivisible. N is for no excuses. D is for discipline. S is for selfless. E is for excellence. T is for toughness and thankfulness.

His final game with the Beach, Monson said, was a T game — all about toughness and thankfulness.

“It's been a heck of a ride,” Monson said. “I knew the car was leased. I knew this week it didn't even have insurance to it. But I got to drive a heck of a car. I've got to give it back now. I'm hoping I can drive again. If I can't, I'll walk 'cause I've got places I can go.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.