Billeter’s return gives Vikings hope

tom-billeter

Men’s Basketball Ready For Its Encore

ryan-heuer

Dan Jansen, Casey Schilling and Alex Richter are gone. That’s 5,774 career points. Augustana couldn’t afford to lose its coach, too.

Fresh off of a Division II national championship, Vikings head coach Tom Billeter reportedly became a finalist for the head coaching vacancies at Cornell and South Dakota State.

Both schools went with other candidates, and Billeter told the Argus Leader in April that he didn’t know if he would have accepted either job had one been offered.

Augustana has won 65 of its last 70 games but graduated three of the greatest players in program history. Any team would have a tough time recovering from that, but the Vikings will find the rocky waters of a rebuild a little smoother because Billeter remains in charge. He started with far less than he has now.

This year marks Billeter’s 14th as Augustana’s head coach. He’s essentially built the program from the ground up.

“When I got here 13 years ago, it was unbelievable,” Billeter said. “We didn’t have balls or uniforms. They were gone. Someone stole all of them—we didn’t have anything.”

The Sioux Falls Skyforce and Texas A&M University—where Billeter spent five years as an assistant before accepting the Augustana job—each donated six basketballs to Augustana, Billeter said.

He then convinced a donor to give the team “a bunch of money” with which the Vikings bought practice and game uniforms.

“So 13 years ago, we didn’t have balls or uniforms,” Billeter said. “To get an opportunity to play for a national championship, it was a lot of hard work, but I have great assistant coaches and players. It’s been a process the whole time. … We just continued to work hard.”

Balls and uniforms are necessities, but so is a gym to practice in. Augustana didn’t have a practice space designated for the basketball teams when Billeter arrived.

He immediately went to work on a project for the practice gym. He started at Augustana in 2003. By 2007, the Vikings had a state-of-the-art practice facility.

“I raised the money for it,” Billeter said. “It took me three years. It didn’t cost the school a penny.”

Billeter traveled around the country at his own expense researching how he could make the best facility possible within budget. He went to Duke University, which had just built a practice gym and took several ideas from the Blue Devils, one of Division I’s most successful programs.

“I went all over [the country] for about a year,” he said. “I just drove my own car. I actually flew out [to Duke] on my own dime. … I wanted it done right. I didn’t know how to build a gym. I spent a lot of time on that thing.”

Billeter visited several schools and community centers across the Midwest gathering information. He even copied the lighting system from a gym built by Dakota State University, a small NAIA school in Madison, S.D.

“They had the best lights I’d ever seen,” Billeter said with a laugh.

So as things stand in early November, one exhibition into the Vikings’ first season without their “big three,” things will be tough. Billeter admitted as much. But as long as he remains the coach, it shouldn’t be that way for long.

He rebuilt the program from the ashes of a team that hadn’t finished better than sixth in the conference since 1990. It had, quite literally, nothing when he took over. Losing good players when they graduate is just part of the job.

“When I had Cody Schilling, Corey McIntosh and Cam McCaffrey, people said I’d never replace those guys,” Billeter said. “I agree that we won’t replace [Jansen, Casey Schilling and Richter] today, but we have some pretty good young players. When Casey and Dan were sophomores, we were 16-14. … The next year, we won 31.”

Billeter isn’t promising a 30-win season next year, but he’s confident in his staff’s ability to recruit and develop talent.

It’ll take time, but with Billeter at the helm, the Vikings will find success again sooner rather than later.

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