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A New Spot on the Bench

Two new coaches bring varied experience to Wolverine basketball teams

By Jay Wamsley | Photography by Jay Drowns

After a whirlwind spring marked by job interviews, press conferences, hiring assistant coaches, and hitting the recruiting trail, Utah Valley University’s two new basketball head coaches have found what they like to sell about their new athletic program.

Hired within a month of each other this past March and April, Mark Madsen — leaving the bench of the Los Angeles Lakers for UVU — and Dan Nielson — top assistant coach with the successful Brigham Young University women’s program — will lead the Wolverine men’s and women’s basketball squads, respectively.

New UVU Coach Mark Madsen

This is going to be a program where I hold myself accountable, where I hold my players accountable to our mission, to our goals to succeed in the classroom and on the court, and in the community.

“I think the biggest thing we want people to know about UVU basketball,” Nielson says of his new undertaking, “is ‘Come be a part of it.’ If you’re a recruit, this is the place where you can do big things. This is the place where you can grow and find your potential, as a person and academically. I think our potential is untapped, and we have so much room to grow.”

Madsen, with two NBA championship rings on his fingers, agrees: “There are so many things about Utah Valley University that make this place special. Number one, the academic rigor here is fantastic. In the two or three months that I’ve been here, I’ve had the chance to meet with professors, with administration, and it is impressive how seriously we take academics. That’s a goal of our student-athletes — to get that degree and not only to get a degree, but to learn, to forge relationships, and to get hands-on experience that will help them when the time comes to walk and get that diploma.”

Nielson, who spent four years as a UVU assistant coach from 2009-2013 and was a part of two Great West Conference championships, says he hopes to recruit players who reflect the same spirit as the university as a whole. He says he wants to put girls in his program who are willing to “not always take the easy route.”

“For us,” he says, “we are looking for people who are tough, and that’s not just physically tough, but mentally tough, where they are able to take every aspect of their life and maybe not do it the easy way but maybe the hard way, the way that will make them the most successful. Maybe that’s placing a screen in basketball, doing the extra practice, or the extra study hall. That what’s we are looking for, the personality that is willing to do the hard work.”

Nielson says he realizes UVU may not sign many ESPN top-100 players, “but you can always combat a higher talent level with players who are willing to think, and be smart, and be tough.”

Madsen says he is also happy to point out to recruits what a beautiful part of the country they will be living in, to go along with their academic pursuits and exciting basketball schedule.

“I always tell recruits how beautiful it is,” he says. “The minute you step off the plane in Salt Lake City, you are surrounded by beauty. We really have an amazing package here to put that together with our schedule. These guys are going to be playing some of the best teams in the country. We are going to put together one of the best schedules in the state and country.”

Nielson, a native of Round Rock, Texas, has worked a total of 18 years in women’s basketball at UVU and BYU, including 139 wins and four NCAA Tournament appearances with the Cougars. 

Madsen coached with the Utah Flash, formerly of the NBA D-League; at his alma mater Stanford, where he also earned an MBA in 2012. He was the head coach of the G-League Los Angeles D-Fenders (now the South Bay Lakers), and an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers from 2013-19. While playing at Stanford, his teams compiled an impressive 105-24 overall record. He then played in the NBA with the Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves for eight seasons. 

With all his experience, Madsen says he is reminded that basketball needs to be fun.

“With the best teams I have been on, you have fun when you play,” Madsen says. “You leave practice happy, upbeat, energized for the day because it has been fun. One of the ways to make it fun is to make it competitive — let the guys play against each other. Guys need to feel the energy, the juice, the spirit of competition. I want to create that environment.”

I think the biggest thing we want people to know about UVU basketball is 'Come be a part of it.' If you're a recruit, this is the place where you can do big things.

With that energized environment, Madsen says his teams will be identifiable by certain characteristics, namely being accountable to each other.

“We want to have a great tempo with our teams at UVU,” he says. “We want to play as fast as possible while still being true to our principles. There is going to be a lot of movement, both on the ball and off. And we want to be a team that really gets into people defensively. There’s never been a team that wins championships that only plays one side of the ball. We want to be a potent, powerful team on offense, but we also want to be a defensive juggernaut. And to do that it takes repetition, it takes training, and it takes accountability. I think every athlete longs for accountability. This is going to be a program where I hold myself accountable, where I hold my players accountable to our mission, to our goals to succeed in the classroom and on the court, and in the community.”

That reliance on defense will be a cornerstone of the women’s team, as well, Nielson says, along with preparation. 

“For us, our style starts on defense,” he says. “We are really big into game planning, and we want to be ready for each game with our defense principles to stop our opponent. If you can slow or stop your opponent on defense, play a lot of man-to-man defense, you will take away the opponent’s advantage, and we will plan for that. Offensively, we want to run a lot of motion, we want to let the players think and be able to move. We’ll run some plays, but the biggest thing is letting the players be able to think for themselves. I have found as a coach that once I teach them the correct way to do things, then in the game they are just having fun. And that’s when players are doing the best, when they relax and know what they are doing. Our job is to prepare them now so that when they go into the games, it’s just things we do every day and having fun.”

Madsen was selected by a committee headed by UVU President Astrid S. Tuminez and then-interim athletic director Dr. Jared Sumsion, who was named UVU’s AD also in May. At Madsen’s appointment, Sumsion said," Mark Madsen embodies the mission and vision that we strive for here at UVU. He's hungry and filled with passion. Coach Madsen will work tirelessly to help his players achieve their dreams."

Tuminez echoed Sumsion, saying, “With his strengths and experience, he will inspire our student-athletes in and out of competition, and will help us build even stronger relationships with our broader UVU community."

New UVU Coach Dan Nielson

Likewise, Tuminez said she was thrilled to welcome Nielson “back to UVU and back to ‘the Den,’” the UVU student cheering section for athletic events.

Nielson says he got his first taste of coaching when he was a high school player. His summer league coach was unable to get to a game on time, and called and told Nielson to be the coach for the night.

“So, I was kind of player-coach for that one game, and I had a blast. I remember thinking, ‘I like this coaching thing, I like the strategy and the thinking behind it,’” Nielson says. “And then there was a meeting I had with coach (Jeff) Judkins at BYU, a great friend and great mentor to me in coaching. I was just a player on the practice team, about my second year there, and he pulled me into his office and said, ‘Hey, you ought to consider coaching, you know what you are talking about.’ So, for a young guy, that was pretty meaningful, coming from a former NBA guy, and kind of sparked even more the thought process of going into coaching.”

Madsen says legendary UCLA coach John Wooden shaped his life decisions. After reading and being inspired by Wooden’s book, “They Call Me Coach,” Madsen had the opportunity to meet the coach: “I had the chance to pick his brain briefly and considered it an honor. In his book, he says he was in coaching for one reason only — to help his players achieve their goals. And truthfully, that’s it for me. I love basketball, but I want to help our players achieve their goals, on the basketball court and off the court.”

Madsen says he appreciates the basketball tradition at UVU, “the practice facility, the banners on the wall, the NBA players, the men and women who have helped to put building blocks in place, the loyalty the players and coaches here have had for each other. Coming here is such a great fit for me. 

“Going forward, I want this team to be in a position where we are competing for the WAC championship. That is our goal. We want that automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament… the goal here is to win the WAC Tournament and go to the NCAA Tournament. That is how I will measure our program, year in and year out.”

Nielson points to postseason activity as his team’s goal as well. He says he felt last year’s team was “gaining momentum and taking steps forward… it’s realistic to believe we can make a real run in the postseason.”

But, he says, he also wants his team members to grow as individuals. 

“These are outstanding, genuine people, and that stands out when you meet them,” the new coach says. “We want parents to know that this is a good place, that this is a place where their girls will be taken care of and helped to succeed, both on and off the court, and I think that starts with us and the way we treat their daughters. As a player, this is a place you can really thrive. And we love to have those kinds of people here at UVU, who want to do something different.”