He lost his job on Monday. Six days later, he made the NCAA Tournament

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Dan Monson rode shotgun while his wife, Darci, steered the car down I-15 through the deserts that separate Las Vegas from California. Outside his window, the barren wasteland stretched on to the horizon, offering a view to everywhere and nowhere all at once. The irony of that view was not lost on Monson, who suddenly finds himself on a similar road. He is headed to college basketball paradise, to the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He also is no longer employed by the school he will represent once he gets there.

Long Beach State and Monson parted ways after 17 years on Monday; six days later the Beach completed an improbable three-wins-in-three-days run to capture the Big West tournament and the automatic bid that comes with it. “I guess you could say I’m in the middle of nowhere in a lot of respects,” Monson says as he and Darci cut through Barstow, Calif., racing home to prep for the selection show party they’ll host for the players in a few hours. “I’m in a desert in my car and in my career.”

It is a bizarre and yet somehow oddly fitting arc for Monson.

Twenty-five years ago, Monson was the hotshot coach after launching a tiny Jesuit school into the national basketball conversation. In 1999, Gonzaga rolled to the Elite Eight, the first step in what would eventually become one of the most impressive building projects in all of college athletics. Monson, though, wasn’t there to see the seeds he planted blossom. Lured into the Icarus draw of college basketball potential, he jumped for a bigger job, taking over a Minnesota team mired in a massive academic scandal. He thought it made sense, figured the run he took at Gonzaga could easily be recreated with the better resources Minnesota offered.

He managed to scrub the Gophers’ image, but not find the success the school wanted. He resigned in 2007, at the start of his eighth season, while Mark Few and Gonzaga made their ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance (the streak will reach its 25th season this week). He wound up at Long Beach State which, like Minnesota, needed a clean-up job. The NCAA hit the Beach with three years probation for infractions committed by Monson’s predecessor. He found a good life there, stretching his stay to 17 years, a veritable lifetime in a profession that typically has the shelf life of a browning banana.

But nothing lasts forever in college sports. Two years ago, then-athletic director Andy Fee talked about a contract extension but then Fee left for a position at the University of Washington in August of 2022. His replacement, Bobby Smitheran, came aboard this August, while Monson’s contract was nearing its end.

After an 18-9 start, the Beach lost its last five games of the regular season, limping into the conference tournament at 18-14. After the final loss, to UC Davis on March 9, Monson texted Smitheran to set up a meeting. He understood the program might need a new voice, and recognized perhaps a change would do him good, too. He offered to resign after the tournament, but Smitheran said he preferred it happen immediately. Monson said he didn’t want to quit on his team, so they agreed Monson would coach them through the conference tourney, but announce the decision immediately.

In a statement Monday, Smitheran thanked Monson for his 17 years of service and announced the search for his replacement would begin immediately. “A change in leadership creates an opportunity to re-envision the future of our storied men’s basketball program,” he wrote.

It could have been ugly along with awkward. That it wasn’t has everything to do with how Monson is wired and what the last 25 years has taught him. Humbled by his own ambitions, he has been gifted the grace of perspective. It’s not that it’s been easy. Monson is disappointed he won’t be able to see his four junior players complete their career; telling his family he’d lost his job was hard; telling his players was even harder.

On Thursday morning, the day of Long Beach State’s first conference tournament game, Monson woke up an emotional mess.  Darci shared the words once shared with her by a wise man: “Would you trade your life for anyone else’s? When Monson asked who told her that, she laughed. “You always say that,” Darci answered. It was the reset he needed. Monson’s elderly parents (his father, Don, was the head coach at Idaho and Oregon) made the trip to Las Vegas, as did his two sisters. The scheduling stars aligned, allowing all four of his kids – son MicGuire is a grad assistant with his dad; younger son Maddox is on the team; daughter Mollie rows at Gonzaga but is on spring break; and youngest McKenna is in high school – to make the trip, too. “I’ve really been able to be thankful for what I have, instead of what I just lost,” he says. “I think sometimes you need a little check to appreciate things.”

He did not ask his team to play for him; instead he asked them to play for each other. Monson thought that got a little bit away from his team during the losing streak, that they played with one another; but not for one another. In film before the championship game against UC Davis, Monson painted a picture for the Beach, telling his players how amazing the next 48 hours could be, how they’d celebrate their win in Las Vegas and then celebrate it more at his house on Selection Sunday. “We got you, Coach!” they yelled back, revved up by his speech. And then Monson broke down, the emotion he’d try to bottle finally spilling over. He asked his team captain, Jadon Jones, to take over. Jones played in the tournament championship game two years earlier (Long Beach State lost that one), and Monson wanted Jones to share some advice. “He told them that to stay in the moment, that the moment’s not too big if it’s only this moment you’re worrying about,” Monson says. “The last thing I put on the board before we left the locker room was, ‘Stay in the moment.’”

That’s what Monson will do this week. Odds are the Beach will earn a double-digit seed and need to craft an upset to stretch their season and Monson’s Long Beach State career beyond the first round. He doesn’t know what will happen after that. He knows he wants to stay in coaching, maybe consider another head job if the right one comes along, or perhaps find a young head coach who is looking for an experienced assistant to show him the ropes.

But that is a conversation for another day. As Darci drove along, heeding the advice of an announced speed check on the GPS on Sunday morning, Monson was only worried about finding a place to keep the family’s golden retriever out of the way (the dog scares some of the players) and getting things ready so his team could enjoy Selection Sunday. “I could care less that I don’t have a job,” he says. “I’m working for free. There’s nothing I’d rather do than coach in the NCAA Tournament. I bet if you asked every coach if he’d coach for free just to play in the tourney, they’d all say the same thing. I know how hard this is and I am going to enjoy every minute of it. Who’s got it better than us?”

(Photo: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

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