SMSU MEN’S BASKETBALL: Mustangs coach approaching Big milestone

Independent file photo SMSU men’s basketball coach Brad Bigler (left) poses with seniors Mitch Weg, Drew Osmundson and Joey Bartlett at halftime of their February 11 game against Augustana University. Bigler is currently one victory away from tying Greg Stemen as the winningest coach in SMSU men’s basketball history.

MARSHALL – Brad Bigler has been a part of the Southwest Minnesota State University men’s basketball program for almost all of the past two decades – first as a player (1997-2002), then as an assistant coach (2003-2009) before becoming head coach on Sept. 30, 2009.

It’s arguably been the best stretch of basketball in program history, and there are numbers to show for it. SMSU is 342-229 (.599) with Bigler on the roster or coaching staff, compared to 290-527 (.355) without him.

He’s about to make some more history.

Going into tonight’s game against Upper Iowa, Bigler has amassed 140 career victories, only one win behind Greg Stemen as the winningest coach in SMSU men’s basketball history.

“Brad Bigler has positively impacted SMSU basketball like no other individual ever before,” Stemen said. “The term ‘Mustang for life’ gets thrown around a lot, because many if not most former students and student-athletes from SMSU truly embrace and appreciate their experience at SMSU. Brad has lived it; as a student-athlete, as an assistant, as an associate head coach, and now as the head coach. With that being said, I can think of no one more deserving of the title ‘winningest coach in SMSU men’s basketball history.'”

The link between Stemen and Bigler goes beyond just the wins record. Stemen joined the coaching staff in 1999 when Bigler was a player. In 2003, Stemen hired Bigler as a graduate assistant. Bigler was elevated to full-time assistant coach prior to the 2005-06 season and named associate head coach one season later. When Stemen resigned in 2009, Bigler’s head coaching career began.

“The only thing I was ever good at was surrounding myself with people who were better and smarter than me,” Stemen said. “There were numerous coaches and players who fit that bill, but Brad might be the perfect example. I never recruited Brad, but being fortunate enough to coach him for a brief time, it helped me realize the type of player I would want to recruit moving forward. He was unselfish, competitive, as tough as the day is long, a true leader, and he always played for the name on the front of the jersey.”

Just like Stemen added Bigler to his coaching staff after he coached him as a player, Bigler now has a pair of his former players on his coaching staff in Tramel Barnes and Nick Smith.

“It has been a really cool experience getting to both play for Coach Bigler as well as work for him the last 4 years,” Barnes said. “Coach Bigler has a very cool, calm and collected way that he goes about things on and off the court. He does a very good job connecting with guys and giving guys confidence to play to their max potential. Coach is one of the smartest x’s and o’s coaches that I know. He has a passion for always continuing to learn and trying to improve on every aspect of the program, which is why I feel we have had the chance to make runs over the years.”

One thing on Bigler’s side is longevity, which could allow him to continue to make history going forward.

The 38-year-old is early in his ninth season, which puts him tied with Pierre duCharme (1981-90) for longest tenure as coach in program history. In the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, only Matt Margenthaler (Minnesota State-Mankato), Tom Billeter (Augustana) and Chris Johnson (Sioux Falls) have coached longer at their respective schools.

That sentiment was echoed by Bigler in preseason, when he was asked about this record on the horizon.

“(The record) doesn’t even cross my mind,” he said. “That’s one of those things that’s a longevity deal. I’m just very fortunate that (SMSU director of athletics Chris) Hmielewski has had a lot of confidence in me, and I just appreciate his support.”

SMSU hosts Upper Iowa tonight, with opening tip scheduled for 6 p.m.