I will never forget my first impression of Jim Russell in 1996 when he walked into the Brainerd Dispatch office for his first interview as the new head coach of the Central Lakes College men’s basketball team.
I thought, “Boy, is he small!”
Russell stands all of 5-foot-7 with a pair of sneakers on.
“It’s a measuring stick of who I should recruit, and who I shouldn’t recruit,” he joked about his stature.
He may be small, but Russell has made a bigger impact on the CLC men’s basketball program than any predecessor. His Raiders teams have experienced one losing season (11-13 in 2000-01). That’s an accomplishment for a guy who took over a program that was not exactly a basketball juggernaut.
According to Dispatch records, before Russell arrived at CLC, the Raiders had 13 winning seasons in their first 53 years of playing the sport. In contrast, Russell has built CLC into one of the top teams in the Minnesota Community College Conference and Region 13.
Dec. 15, in the CLC Invitational, Russell won his 300th career game, 79-75 over Fergus Falls. He was able to share the milestone with John Pecarich, his assistant since Day One, and with two of his current assistants, Ben Seevers and Scott Savor, both of whom played in Russell’s first CLC victory.
“When I looked around the locker room afterward and all of a sudden I realized, 300 wins, John, Scott and Ben have been with me since the first one,” Russell said. “Then, for (Savor and Seevers) to come back and help me says a lot about the program. They have trust in it, they believe what we’re trying to do is right. To come back, and feel good about what they experienced here, to me that’s pretty special.”
The milestone afforded Russell an opportunity to reflect on former players who have suffered adversity. D.J. Mayfield was shot and killed, Brandon Flanders was killed in a car accident. Duane Maybon suffered a stroke, and is paralyzed from the neck down. All contributed to 300 wins.
So did players who have gone on to the next level, like Marcus Ayala at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, Kwamane Johnson at Waldorf (Iowa), Michael Farrington at Bemidji State and Nash Faulk at St. Cloud State.
Since Russell arrived in the 1997-98 season, the Raiders have gone 300-125 (.706). He led the Raiders to 13 MCAC state tournaments, two region tournaments and two national tournaments.
In 2008, his Raiders won the first state championship in program history, CLC’s first region title since 1949. That year, CLC went to the NJCAA Division III tournament for only the second time in program history.
In 2010, his Raiders won their first 22 games.
Last season, they set a program record for wins (29), won state and region championships and finished fourth in the nation.
Russell pointed out a few facts that are frankly stunning. He’s one of a few, if not the only, Vietnamese head men’s college basketball coaches in the U.S. He also says he’s the only minority head men’s college basketball coach in Minnesota other than the Gophers’ Tubby Smith.
Russell believes he has succeeded because his expectations are high, and he expects to compete at a high level.
“We have competed at the highest level, if we had talent, or we didn’t have talent,” he said. “That to me speaks a lot about our system and the coaching staff that was built in here. We’re trying to teach the game the right way.
“We try to get the right kids that fit in school and in the community. It didn’t matter where they came from, it didn’t matter what color their skin was. We just try to get kids who want to be here.”
His accomplishments are significant despite his recruiting base being limited. Area high school players often want to leave home to play at a 4-year school. CLC doesn’t offer athletic scholarships. And, some potential recruits are in postsecondary education programs and will have already finished their first two years of college.
“It’s a lot easier to recruit outstate than in-state kids,” Russell said. “It’s a lot easier to recruit unknowns. Minnesota kids are more likely to go to a 4-year school.
“Local kids are really hard to recruit. We could be top of the mountain and it’s still probably the toughest to get those kids to come here. That part has been very difficult. I wouldn’t say I’m used to that. I just kind of know it’s the nature of the beast.”
His teams’ trademarks are simple but demanding – play stringent defense and play team basketball. Players unwilling to buy into those concepts won’t play for Russell.
“My defense isn’t so hard,” he said, “but the biggest part of defense is hard work and teamwork. A lot of kids don’t think defense is teamwork. Some think defense is stopping their guy.
“If a kid understands how to play defense, they get better on offense. They will understand the movement that they need to be successful on offense. Defense and offense go together. A lot of kids don’t put that together.”
With winning comes frequent questions. Does Russell plan to coach at CLC his entire career?
“I think if the opportunity is right, if the job is right, if it’s right for my family, yes, we would definitely consider it,” he said. “It also would be hard to walk away from something you built from the level it was at to now.
“Coaches probably have dreams like kids do. We want to coach at a certain level. They want to play at a certain level. What are your priorities and what fits you best?
“I think you can find a school anywhere, but if you want to have success, you have to make sure and find the right fit.”
MIKE BIALKA, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.