Consider the top 25 list of active Division I college basketball coaches with the best winning percentage. His is the name many wouldn’t know, having worked at schools many never see.
But there Danny Kaspar and his 68.7 percentage are at No. 21, just behind titans such as Billy Donovan, Tom Izzo, Bob Huggins, Larry Brown and Gregg Marshall, just ahead of Tubby Smith. We mention this now, because Kaspar is about to face perhaps the oddest moment of his coaching career.
“It makes me very proud,” Texas State’s Kaspar said the other day of the numbers by his name. “It validates your efforts. You’d like to think you made the right choices in both who you hired on the staff and who you recruited.”Many of Kaspar’s 478 victories came in 13 exhilarating years at Stephen F. Austin, where he took a program ranked 299th out of 318 in the RPI, and turned it into a winning machine that made it to the NCAA tournament. Where he watched his daughter grow up, and his career blossom. Then he moved to Texas State.
And where should Texas State be headed to play Wednesday night? Stephen F. Austin. No coach in the nation this season may have a more emotional homecoming.
“It’s going to be very strange, walking on that court,” he said. “Thirteen years. How many practices? How many games? Also, it’s going to be weird playing against those guys. I tell everybody you just have to go through it to understand what I’m talking about.”
He was in the visiting locker room at the Stephen F. Austin arena maybe six times in 13 years, always to say hello to the other coach. Wednesday, he will be the other coach. He and his Bobcats will be making the 245-mile Texas trip from San Marcos to Nacogdoches. “It’s going to be different,” he said. “I’m still trying to sell my house there. It’s been on the market for 18 months.”
He remembers how it all came together for him there. “We made our living at SFA by taking players that were very lightly recruited,” he said. A lad named Jacob Parker, for instance, had only four scholarship offers from anywhere. Thomas Walkup had only two. Kaspar wanted them both.
Now they are 1-2 in scoring for Stephen F. Austin, and Kaspar will be trying to stop them, not sign them.
“I know,’’ he said, “they’re going to want to beat the hell out of me.”
Not many have been able to do that. Texas did, just last Saturday, but Kaspar’s second Bobcats team is still 5-2, and No. 13 in the nation in scoring defense at 54.6. The top-10 Longhorns cruised, but could manage only 59 points. Earlier this season, Texas State held Texas Lutheran to 31.
So it was at SFA, where Kaspar’s teams twice led the nation in scoring defense. He wasn’t coaching Kentucky. McDonald’s All-Americans weren’t arriving by the busload. He had to find another way, and did. By 2013, the Lumberjacks had been the winningest program in the state in the past six years.
“We took kids that were highly coachable, reasonably skilled, reasonably athletic and tried to model them into a team,” he said. “I think if you’re going to take kids that had four offers, or two offers, or none, you’re never going to have great offensive teams, and win.”
Control the pace. Take good shots. Guard the basket. Play together. Others can appreciate that. “He’s saving the game of basketball,’’ Bill Walton once said on a broadcast. When Texas State was looking to fill its job, the athletic director received a call from a man who said he wanted to recommend Kaspar. Gregg Popovich was on the line.
Curious that Kaspar turned out that way, for he played at North Texas, which had no 'D' in its name, or its game. “We once scored 95 points against Houston,” Kaspar said years ago. “Problem was, Houston scored 142.”
But he had learned the value of defense playing high school basketball in Corpus Christi -- this guy is as Texas as a cowboy hat -- and he sharpened that belief as he grew as a coach.
From 2007-2013, only two teams in America were in the top 10 in scoring defense every season. One was Wisconsin. The other was Stephen F. Austin. Remember when the NCAA did not offer an at-large tournament invitation to the 27-4 Lumberjacks in 2013? Kaspar does. His last game as SFA coach was a 58-57 NIT loss to Stanford.
Sensing it was just time to change, he moved to Texas State. President Lyndon Johnson’s alma mater had not seen a winning season in a decade.
“I’m not saying we’re Princeton and walk it up the floor, but we’re not run and gun,” Kaspar said. “That’s what they were here, they were run and gun. They didn’t care if they finished last in defensive scoring a long as they finished first in offensive scoring.”
Kaspar had other ideas, but his first Texas State team started 0-5 against a tough schedule, “and I’ve lost all those seniors that are looking warily at me because I’m preaching defense and smart basketball.”
The Bobcats finished 8-23, and Kaspar struggled with some attitude issues in his locker room. “Last year was the first team I ever had without captains,” he said. “My philosophy is if you think you have great leadership. then vote on captains early. If you’re not sure, then vote on captains late.”
That team never did vote. This one might soon. “I’m learning toward it,” he said.
So things are getting better.
“Kids want to go where you’re winning. That’s why we’ve got to get it turned around here. We’ve got to take diamonds in the rough, we’ve got to take kids we believe in, and nobody else believes in, and that’s scary sometimes.”
But now he’s got to back to Nacogdoches. Scary? Stephen F. Austin has won six in a row. The Lumberjacks are waiting for him.