By Dave Wright
They work just a mile apart. One of them has coached a national championship team and boasts the highest winning percentage of any current Division III men’s college basketball coach. The other has taken on the task of rebuilding a college basketball program from the bottom up.
But Abe Woldeslassie, the head coach at Macalester College, and Johnny Tauer, the head coach at the University of St. Thomas, have one thing in common. Both were recently named among the Top 50 Impactful Coaches in Division III Men’s Basketball by Silver Waves Media.
Woldeslassie, a St. Thomas Academy graduate, played two years for Macalester after transferring from UST. After serving as an assistant coach out East for a decade, he returned home two years ago to take over a Mac program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2003-04.
“He’s an outstanding person,” Tauer said of his coaching rival. “Any program that rebuilds has to go in steps. The metrics are different. He’s in a great situation there.”
The Scots finished 7-18 during the first season with Woldeslassie at the helm and upped that to 8-17 last season. However, he looks at different numbers to measure progress.
“Look how much more competitive we were than the year before,” Woldeslassie said. That included a win over Hamline for the first time since 2014, a win over Gustavus Adolphus and a sweep of Concordia.
Macalester athletic director Donnie Brooks also sees the progress being made. “By the end of the season, they weren’t just competing,” he said. “Abe has installed a strong work ethic in them.”
With the top five scorers returning—forward Jackson Henningfield is one of the best in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC)—and seven newcomers, Woldeslassie is hoping to use a word that hasn’t been heard for a while around Robertson Center—depth.
For a role model on building up a program, Woldeslassie looks at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Landry Kosmalski, the head coach there, started out with the same records Woldeslassie has. However, by his fourth season, Swarthmore went 22-8. This past winter, that team went 28-1 and was one of the favorites for the Division III title before the NCAA brought things to a screeching halt because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Some people look at Mac and say it’s too hard academically,” Woldeslassie said. “We can’t use that as a crutch. We need to embrace it and use it to our advantage.”
Tauer has extended the tradition of his predecessor, Steve Fritz, and has kept St. Thomas as one of the top Division III programs in the country. The Tommies, ranked fourth in the nation in one poll, were 26-3 overall and headed for a Sweet 16 date at St. John’s on March 14 when their season was derailed.
Though telling his players was hard to do, Tauer reminded them of two positives. The Tommies’ season ended with a big 73-70 win at No. 8 Wisconsin-Platteville. It was the first time in 26 years that they had gained consecutive berths in the Sweet 16.
“Part of the job is to embrace the joy,” Tauer said. “I hope the memory of the win at Platteville sticks with them for a long time to come.”
With a national championship in 2016 and a winning percentage of over .800, Tauer has plenty of fond memories as a head coach at St. Thomas. He also was an assistant coach on a national championship team there and had a terrific playing career with the Tommies that included UST’s first Final Four trip.
In addition to coaching, Tauer is a tenured psychology professor at St. Thomas who studies the factors that affect athletic and academic motivation. That background came into play as he helped his players work their way through the sudden end of their season. For the team’s four seniors, it was an abrupt finish to their college basketball careers.
“What they went through (at the end) was something nobody could be prepared for,” Tauer said. “You try to train their bodies and their minds. You see the growth during the year. It turned out to be a special season.”
Tauer now has to deal with more than just the unusual end to the past season. The 2020-21 school year will be the last one for St. Thomas in the MIAC. While there is great hope that the NCAA will let the Tommies make the rare leap from Division III to Division I for the following season (see the story at the top of this page), nobody knows for sure what the future holds.
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