Otzelberger busy in first day as a Jackrabbit


Standing in front of his new players, a handful of dedicated fans, administrators and other coaches, T.J. Otzelberger officially took over. After a decade of serving as an assistant coach, the 38-year-old Milwaukee native began his tenure as the head coach of the South Dakota State men’s basketball team on last Thursday.

On the stage, Otzelberger sat there, rarely changing facial expressions while listening to Director of Athletics Justin Sell thank people who helped with Otzelberger’s hiring.

When it was his turn to speak to the crowd, Otzelberger appeared stiff, as if he was unsure of how his speech was going to go over. But everything settled down and after a number of lengthy interviews with select media members, he started to settle into his new home and his new role, appearing more confident as time passed. 

On his first official day as the new boss, Otzelberger planned to get to know his players, figuring out a way to continue the success former head coach Scott Nagy left behind.

“It’s about spending time with the student athletes and learning what their goals are, what their expectations are, where they think we can go,” Otzelberger said. “I think we can be great. I think we can build on the successes that are here. It’s about what they want to accomplish and what they want to do.”

Returning SDSU players were given the opportunity to meet with two prospective candidates during the search. One of them was Vince Taylor, who was an assistant coach at Texas Tech University at the beginning of the week. The other was Otzelberger.

Throughout the entire process, the players were kept in the loop by Sell, sharing their opinions on the process and being honest about who they would like to see as the next head coach, which was something Sell praised them for during the introductory press conference.

It didn’t take Otzelberger long to win over the players. Sophomore forward Ian Theisen said the first impression their new coach made was “a great one” when the team met with him on the Sunday before the announcement.

“There’s not one person on that team that had anything bad to say about him,” Theisen said. “We all loved him right away. He’s an intense guy, you can kind of tell that in his voice, so we appreciated that as he was going to get after us no matter what. We got the impression that he’s not going to take a day off.”

Known as one of the top recruiting assistants in college basketball, Otzelberger spoke to Theisen and the other players about what he hopes to do with the team offensively.

Given what they have returning – the majority standing 6-foot-5 or taller, all with three-point shooting ability – Theisen said their new coach looked to bring a similar style that was used at Iowa State while also building around their size and agility.

“They have a real fast-paced offense, they get up and down the floor real well,” Keaton Moffitt said of Iowa State’s offensive style. “They have a ‘get after it’ mentality that I don’t think we always played with before, but I think that could be good for us.”

Moffitt’s situation is even more unique than the rest of his Jackrabbit teammates’. Though he technically finished off his career this past season, due to past injuries while with the University of Sioux Falls, paperwork has been filed as SDSU hopes to gain another year of eligibility for the 6-foot-5 do-everything guard.

With the change in head coach, the Jackrabbits will have some sense of familiarity with the new regime. Rob Klinkefus, the last remaining assistant from Nagy’s staff, is being retained and will serve as an assistant under Otzelberger.

“Right now the most important thing was to get [Klinkefus] on board,” Otzelberger said. “There’s some people we definitely want to start reaching out to, but at this point it’s Coach Klinkefus and I and now we’re going to start moving forward from there and see how we can put the best group together.”

During his 10 years as an assistant, Otzelberger has spent time with some of the best college basketball programs in the country. Coming to SDSU from Iowa State, Otzelberger has worked under the likes of Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State), Lorenzo Romar (University of Washington) and Greg McDermott (Iowa State).

McDermott, who is currently the head coach at Creighton, made the three-plus hour drive from Omaha to be there for his former assistant’s introduction.

Between radio and television interviews, Otzelberger was able to take a few minutes for himself, meeting McDermott for a joyful embrace to celebrate the hire. It was the first time since the beginning of the press conference Otzelberger deviated from his calm, collected demeanor, showing a wide smile as he and McDermott hugged each other.

SDSU’s new leading man has already completed some film study on his team, watching three different games at the beginning, middle and end of the season to gauge improvements and regressions throughout the year.

Something that stood out to Otzelberger, as it did with just about anybody that watched the Jackrabbits from January on, was that Mike Daum was really good.

“One thing I saw with Daum is how much better he got from start to finish,” Otzelberger said. “Credit to the coaching staff and their work in developing him. Credit to him for his work ethic and what he did to get to that point and…he’s phenomenal.”

Daum has received high praise since his breakout campaign that saw him earn both Summit League Freshman and Sixth Man of the Year honors. Otzelberger had some more to add to it, comparing his lengthy 6-foot-9 forward’s abilities to the likes of Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki due to his versatility and being a threat both in the paint and on the perimeter.

“He doesn’t have a weakness,” Otzelberger said.

While dad was talking up his team, Otzelberger’s 18-month old twins Jayce and Olivia took the opportunity to wander around the Frost Arena floor, getting a feel for a place they’ll spend many winter nights watching dad’s teams play.

Jayce even decided to join the media fun, getting some screen time of his own while joining T.J. for a television interview.

After all the interviews, talking with the players, meeting some of the fans and getting better acquainted with his new home, Otzelberger looked forward to spending time with his kids and his wife Alison, reflecting on how he got to SDSU.

“It’s been an unbelievable ride that’s led us to this point,” Otzelberger said. “I almost want to pinch myself to make sure this is really happening.”