|Dale Wellman, head coach of the 2018 Division III men’s basketball national champion.
Nebraska Wesleyan athletics photo
By Ryan Scott
When you think of Division III basketball coaching trees, you might think of Dave Hixon, recently retired from Amherst. His longevity and success means that tons of today’s head coaches spent time learning from him and helping the Mammoths win. You might also think of Bill Fenlon, whose tree extends into the NBA and who has been so willing to help and support young coaches, many consider him a mentor even if they never served on the staff.
The name at the top of another rising Division III coaching tree might not be so familiar, since he never played or coached in a Division III basketball game, but had a tremendous influence on two of the past three national champions: Jeff Neubauer.
“Not only were we on staff [together] at Eastern Kentucky, but we shared an office — you actually had to walk through Merk’s office to get to my office. I had to walk through his office everyday to get to mine. We immediately hit it off.”
That’s Nebraska Wesleyan head coach and 2018 NCAA Division III national champion, Dale Wellman speaking about the inauspicious beginning of his relationship with Josh Merkel of Randolph-Macon, head coach of the reigning national champions.
“It’s just such a cool thing,” says Neubauer of the success of his protégés. “These guys both made terrific decisions. They both decided specifically they wanted to be Division III head coaches, so left my staff to join Division III programs. What they’ve done is incredible and I’m so proud of them.”
Neubauer, now retired from coaching and on to a second career act, learned at the feet of legendary innovator, John Beilein, best known for his time at West Virginia (where Merkel was on staff) and Michigan (where he gave Duncan Robinson a chance to shine), but also from one season coaching at Division III Nazareth in the ’80s.
“Neubauer has an eye for winning people,” notes Merkel. “It gave us a chance to be around a lot of basketball minds and share a lot of ideas and we’re all connected to this day. His organization and approach, how to make the complex simple.”
|Josh Merkel, head coach of the 2021 Division III men’s basketball national champion.
Photo by Doug Sasse, d3photography.com
What Neubauer inherited from Beilein and passed on to Wellman, Merkel, and a host of other coaches is an ability to think outside the box, be creative, and a willingness to buck tradition if he thought it would make the team better.
It’s that willingness to change that’s most evident in the championship runs of Wellman and Merkel, both teams riding a unique zone defense to the very top, despite the best intentions of their coaches.
Wellman notes the exact moment the fortunes of Nebraska Wesleyan changed in January of 2018. Sitting at 17-3, with one of the best, most efficient offenses in the country, the Prairie Wolves had lost two overtime games Wellman didn’t think they had any business losing.
“The only reason we’re losing these one-possession games is we’re not a good man-to-man team. I told my assistants: first half [of the next game] no matter what we’re going to play man and then it doesn’t matter if we’re up 20, down by 20, or tied; we’re going to play our zone in the second half. At halftime we were up by two, Coe is shooting 68%. We ended up winning by 20 and forced 13 turnovers, 12 of which were steals. Our guys immediately bought in and we went on a 13-game run [to the title].”
They stuck with the zone even as UW-Oshkosh hit two early threes in the title game (and eventually set a Final Four record for made threes). It was the glue that allowed the offense to run. Merkel was there that night and called Wellman in the offseason.
“Dale gets all the credit. I watched that zone and called Dale in the offseason and he went through it exhaustively and because of our connection I felt confident I could call him with questions. I was a man-to-man guy; we didn’t do much zone at all.”
One advantage, for both teams, is that so few top programs run zone. Wellman noted they had no film to watch of Oshkosh playing against zone; Merkel said it took him 25 minutes to dissect the 20 Elmhurst offensive sets against a 3-2 for the entire season.
Veteran, or at least experienced, players help, too. Freshmen have a tough time learning where to be and how to move. While Nebraska Wesleyan and Randolph-Macon both run zones that originated in Wellman’s head, they’ve evolved quite differently. It’s not your middle school zone defense, where you get assigned one part of the court and try to keep the ball out of it.
“We try to empower our players,” says Merkel. “Make some mistakes, don’t make the same one twice. No easy buckets.”
Much of the defense is positional and reactive, adapted to the kind of offense the opponent runs and which shots and movements they’re trying to get. It’s as active as a typical man-to-man, but with different, team-oriented principles. You couldn’t try to run this is a pickup game with strangers.
But if you think defense is the key to the Neubauer tree’s success, though, think again.
“Neubauer’s practices were offensively dominated,” remembers Wellman, “80-85% offensively dominated. I was saying, ‘you can do that?'”
“At this level, without scholarships, you’re still trying to get the best guys you can find, who can put the ball in the basket. “To recruit to this defense would be limiting,” adds Merkel.
It’s not a coaching tree with just two branches. Four of Wellman’s assistants are now Division III head coaches. One, Chris Hamilton of Franklin, coached for Merkel as well.
Branches of the tree
It’s not just Josh Merkel and Dale Wellman. All of the following head coaches come from the Jeff Neubauer coaching tree at Eastern Kentucky:
Josh Merkel, Randolph-Macon
The two coaches are great friends and have enjoyed similar success, but they could not be much different as people. Wellman is an affable, laid-back guy — or at least he gives off that vibe — but he’ll also most often be described as smarter than everyone else, cerebral, capable of deep and complex thought coupled with an ability to explain it all simply and clearly.
Merkel is friendly, too, but organized, hard-working, planning out every detail and seeking to maximize every moment.
“Coach Merkel will never ask his players to do something he wouldn’t do,” says Hamilton. “He holds the guys to a high standard and exemplifies that; it’s an excuse remover. Both guys are incredibly self-aware; they know who they are. Dale will not take himself too seriously; he’s the first one to crack a joke. Coach Wellman knows the best food spots in any big city in America. Both of them are amazing dads — to see that at the highest level I’ve taken so much from them on how to be a family man and win, too.”
Both coaches credit their different personalities and approaches for the success of their friendship, both personally and professionally — seeing and doing things differently helps both men grow as friends and coaches, something definitely indicative of the Neubauer style.
There’s a third branch of the tree blossoming in Division III with the very late summer hiring of Austin Newton at Berea, a relatively new member of the division. Newton played at Eastern Kentucky and spent time on Neubauer’s staff before making a great run as a high school coach in Berea. He’s moving literally across the street to re-enter the college ranks.
“Austin is the absolute perfect fit for the community of Berea, Kentucky,” says Neubauer, who was obviously excited about Newton’s new opportunity. “Often as coaches we have to bounce around, but Austin Newton is the other way. He’s from Kentucky and his wife is from right there in Berea and he had so much success as a high school coach in that area. It’s a perfect fit.”
Newton feels the same way, “This is a place I could be happy for 30 years.”
While a small liberal arts college with a billion dollar endowment is nothing new for Division III, Berea is unique in that no tuition is ever paid by anyone. All students must be Pell Grant eligible (which indicates an exceptional financial need) and have a minimum 3.0 GPA. Enrollment is limited to approximately 1600 and students work a job on campus for 10 hours per week.
“It’s incredibly humbling to get to know my players’ stories,” says Newton. “The more I learn about the mission of the school, the more impressed I am with the opportunity we can offer. Our facilities are top notch and not paying tuition should be a recruiting advantage.”
As a founding member of the new Collegiate Conference of the South, Berea can’t quite be sure what its basketball future holds. Many of the leading schools lost quite a bit to graduation and Newton’s excited to get rolling and make a difference.
He explains his on-court philosophy is typical Neubauer fashion: “We’re about being very unique in what we do, being hard to prepare for. We’re going to get shot up, score the basketball and change defenses like crazy.”
The Mountaineers are off to a 5-4 start, beating Hamilton’s Franklin squad on a late three and a steal to seal a two-point victory, followed by a six-point win at Center. This modest early-season performance is just one win short of last year’s 6-17. Will Berea be the next team to watch for a Division III national title? It seems unlikely, but given the success of his fellow former Eastern Kentucky assistants, I sure wouldn’t bet against it.