Basketball has been part of Dawson Community College coach's life since grade school
Nearly 900 games into his career, Dawson Community College Buccaneer Basketball coach Don Mast still has a passion for his sport.
Mast, 54, who is from Glendive, has been coaching at DCC for 20 years, but
his coaching career began 10 years earlier in Winifred.
There, he coached football, basketball and track for five years before coaching five years at White Sulphur Springs.
Basketball has been a part of his life since fourth or fifth grade, Mast said.
It was his experience playing the sport in school and later for Rocky Mountain College that led him to want to coach it at the high school and college levels.
"Most of my actual playing experience was in basketball, which was probably why I chose basketball over the other (sports)," he said.
Mast applied to coach at DCC because he wanted to return to the area.
"I am from Glendive, so I always had the draw to come back into eastern Montana," he said.
Junior college basketball
Junior college basketball, like any other college basketball, is a big step up from high school games.
"The progression from high school to college is a huge progression," Mast said.
He noted that the game at the college level is much faster and the athletes are much stronger than they were in high school, and the season is almost twice as long.
The benefit of a two-year junior college is it puts athletes in the games sooner than if they played at a four-year school, the coach said said.
At the same time, some players entering junior college might be struggling athletically or academically, and this means he must keep an eye on them, he added.
But he said DCC offers them excellent academic support. "Dawson has in place a lot of tools for kids to be successful," Mast said.
Starting at the junior college level can give athletes a better shot at playing for a Division I school, Mast said, since Division I schools looking for a quick fix to a roster situation often pick up junior college players
because they've had playing experience. During his time at DCC, Mast's players have gone on to play in the NAIA, and NCAA Division I and II levels.
Recruiting is a major part of all college sports, but at the junior-college level, coaches have to put more time into it, Mast said.
"You are constantly recruiting," he noted.
On average, the DCC basketball program sends out 100 to 300 letters to potential players each year.
Mast also spend hours on the phone calling prospects.
"Most people only see the end product when they come to the game," he said, and are unaware of the number of hours it takes to get to game time - whether it's recruiting, fundraising, scheduling or making sure players keep
Because of his longevity with the basketball program, Mast has a solid base of former players that help him with recruiting by providing names of athletes to look into.
Mast reaches for players who are not expecting to go to a big school right away. His pitch is a candid one.
"I am real honest with them," he said. "I've never had a player that I've said, 'You are going to come in here and play 40 minutes a game,' because if the kid doesn't, then I've lied to them and that is not fair to the kid. In
the long run, I would look very poor," he said.
He tells potential athletes of the benefits of a small college, including lots of individual attention from coaches and teachers.
"If you are not successful at Dawson academically, it is because you really haven't tried very hard," he said.
Thinking back on his career, it is not the games or the scores that stand out for Mast.
"Very seldom do I remember a lot of individual games, or plays in games. I remember relationships that I've had with players," he said, adding he misses his players when they move on.
When losses become tough to take and wins are short-lived, it's relationships with players that matter, the coach said.
Although his players may say he has mellowed over the years, he is not so sure the fans have noticed, Mast said.
"If you ask people that watch me coach, they may not see that mellow as much," he said. "I am pretty intense, passionate, whatever you want to call it, about what I do."
He has high expectations for his players on the court as well as in the classroom. Sometimes that passion and that expectation is read wrongly by the fans, he said.
He's philosophical about coaching and the basketball program, saying he's learned there are some things he does not have control over.
What the future holds for Mast is undetermined.
He said he still loves coaching, but admits he is getting older. Mast has coached in almost 900 games and claimed his 500th career win just last year.
"It is going to come down to when the negatives outweigh the positives," the coach said.
If a time comes when he's not as effective as he once was, that could be the time to step down, he said.
But until then, he is going to enjoy every minute of his job.
"It has been a really good experience for me," he said.
By Justin Joiner
Montana Best Times