Hard-nosed Headmaster

It's strong stuff, especially at seven o'clock in the morning.

Coach is unhappy with his players. Unhappy? Hey -- to hear him rage, Coach is infuriated by his players, all-out disgusted by his players, and for 22 minutes he lets them have it with both barrels, like a drill sergeant unloading on new recruits or Fidel Castro working himself into a red-ass fever over Yankee imperialism. The cavernous gym -- empty but for the cluster of gangly boys tugging at their shirt straps, a couple of glaze-eyed assistants and Coach himself -- echoes with his surreal diatribe. He starts quietly, with his admiration for a recent 60 Minutes story about career-driven children in India who begin studying at age ten to get into their nation's best technical college. Then, with increasing volume and intensity, he careens into the rejection of young novelists by ignorant publishers; the genetic aberrations that produced Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant; the possibility that somebody's mother may be locked in a closet, drinking vodka; how his college chemistry prof was like Mozart even though he had the "personality of melba toast"; the need for floor balance after shooting the ball; the sacrifices of New York firemen on 9/11; the sweaty tension in the operating room during brain surgery; and ten or twenty other things that shoot by in great fireballs of rhetoric.

Short on coherence but very long on motivational tone, this stream-of-consciousness rant -- one of many the players have endured this season -- is in essence all about swimming upriver and learning to compete and growing up and accepting failure and sacrificing everything for basketball -- and for the things basketball can lead to. "We're simple people," Coach shouts at one point. "We work our balls off and keep comin' back! And when we're not out on the court we study our balls off!"

The withering assault, which names names, and details specific offenses, finally winds down. "If that's old school," the coach concludes, "well, then it's old school."

Welcome to the fiercely principled world of men's basketball at Metropolitan State College. A world of 6 a.m. practices and obsessive work, of endless fundamentalist drilling and constant hectoring. It's a world where the pressure never lets up and where "social development" is even more important than the way the guards play the ball in the middle alley. Three players sport perfect 4.0 grade point averages; the team average is 3.2 -- a solid B-plus. All the team members visit hospitals, take "life skills" classes and attend extracurricular lectures. "You need to be hungry for knowledge," the man tells them.

Although he waves off the notion, this is the world according to Coach Mike Dunlap, the 45-year-old, Alaska-born firebrand who has transformed the Metro State Roadrunners from a nice little club with a decent record into the Duke of Division 2 hoops, the Maryland of the minor leagues. Since he took over the program six years ago, Dunlap's teams have won three straight Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference titles and a pair of NCAA national championships, in 2000 and 2002; they were the runners-up in 1999. In both national-title years, Dunlap was named Coach of the Year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. He lives in Denver with his family, and here he pledges to stay, despite a raft of job offers from Division 1 schools. But basketball people in places like Belgium and Australia know more about him than the average sports fan on West Colfax Avenue, because he finds most of his players overseas.

His record at Metro is astonishing: 150 wins, 30 losses.

Dunlap is, in the estimation of his starting junior guard, Luke Kendall, "one of the best coaches in America -- one of the best in the world." Little matter that it was Kendall whom Dunlap singled out in last week's pre-practice rant as selfish, immature and soft. "With him, we all become mentally tougher," Kendall says. "And that's a good thing."

In Division 2, the players are smaller, less flashy and far less likely to wind up as Shaq's teammate or Jason Kidd's dinner guest than their bigger, more famous counterparts at the major basketball schools. Dick Vitale never has a seizure over them on the boob tube. Instead, they toil in obscure arenas before small crowds. The Auraria Events Center, home to the Roadrunners, is usually half full for the games, despite the championship banners hanging from the rafters and the brilliant, scrappy quality of the play. Simple reasons: Metro State has more than 19,000 students, but it's a commuter school with no campus housing, and 89 percent of the students (average age: 26) also hold jobs. Not exactly an atmosphere where huge armies of half-soused frat boys paint their faces the school colors and claw for the last seats in the bleachers.

The dearth of public attention may bother some of the players, but not Dunlap. "You can't preach purity on one end," the basketball fundamentalist says, "and indulge all the things that lead to decadence on the other. It's a contradiction."

Truth be told, Dunlap's life in the sport began in contradiction. In tough, cold Fairbanks, where he grew up, hoops was not exactly a local passion, and no coach he ever played for believed he had the goods for bigtime college ball. Dunlap was only 5' 10" and, by his account, minimally talented. But the same fire he turns on his players has always motivated him. When he made the squad at Loyola Marymount, in Los Angeles, he became the first Alaskan to play Division 1 hoops and, in his last game -- an NCAA tournament contest against Arizona State -- he found himself on the floor against five future NBA draft picks, including Byron Scott and Fat Lever. How did it happen? "I willed myself to that moment," he says.

His coaching models are all older guys -- UCLA's legendary John Wooden, Pete Newell, Temple's John Chaney and George Raveling, whom Dunlap served for three years as an assistant at Southern California. The young coach wooed these teachers; he grabbed their knowledge, soaked up their old school ways. By the time he became a head coach at Division 3 Cal Lutheran in 1992, he was an amalgam of essentials: an obsessive work ethic, integrity, strong fundamentals and what he calls "the jacket of humility," all fused to belief in a higher purpose.

"It's not really about basketball," he says. "It's a sad day when the discussions start with the banners up there and the trophies. Very sad. Basketball is a medium, the medium that allows me to teach other things, to become a conduit to a larger world."

Dunlap's current Roadrunners team has only two seniors -- five of his national champs graduated last spring -- and for the moment, they find themselves at 13-2, chasing undefeated Nebraska-Kearney (their home opponent this Thursday night) and Colorado Mines for the lead in the conference's Eastern division. But some things don't change. Among his fifteen players, there are seven Americans (five from metro Denver) , three Australians, two Belgians, a Lithuanian, a Yugoslav and an Austrian. A master of recruiting in foreign countries, he can cherry-pick the best young players in big cities like Melbourne (Luke Kendall's hometown), because he coached a pro team in Adelaide for three years, maintains a strong international scouting network and has a proven track record. He's outmaneuvered even some big-deal basketball schools, a friend says.

"We work off the magnet theory," Dunlap says. "If one good player comes, two more will follow." Senior scoring machine Patrick Motumbo, from Liege, Belgium, begat freshman guard Christophe Lombe, from Namur, Belgium. The fourth in Dunlap's line of Australians, Kendall in turn paved the way for countrymen David Barlow and Mark Worthington.

Regardless of native language and background, though, everyone's subject to the coach's relentless pressure and, long after his charm supply is exhausted, his insistence on technical perfection. This is, after all, a man who has written magazine articles titled "The Free Throw," "Motion Offense" and "Shooting: The Simple Approach."

At bottom, what he's about is tough love. "He's teaching us basketball," Motumbo says, "but he's also teaching us the realities of life. The thing is, when we're young like this we don't always understand what he's doing. Sometimes you think, this guy just doesn't like me. But as time goes by, you start to understand. It's harder when you're new here, because you have no clue -- you think the guy hates you. You're shell-shocked. But who isn't? I'm a senior and I'm still shell-shocked."

Some of the Dunlap style is play-acting, of course, and most of it is motivation. But the whole thing, he knows, depends on balance and trust. Consider what Tommy Lasorda once said about managing a baseball team: "It's like holding a dove in your hand. Squeeze too hard and you kill it, not hard enough and it flies away."

What goes for the dove also goes for the Roadrunner.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo