Now is the time, Northern Michigan is the place for Winona State’s Brown to make jump to head coach

MARQUETTE – Winona State associate head men’s basketball coach Tom Brown said he and his family have been more than comfortable over the past 15 years living and working in the town Brown spent his college days as a student-athlete.

He’s acquired an itch over the past two years, however, that he fears can’t be scratched with the Warriors.

That’s because his boss, head coach Mike Leaf, hasn’t developed the longing to retire like Brown once thought his mentor would around this time.

“The one thing that coach Leaf told me way back when, was when he was 50, he was going to retire and he’s 51,” Brown said. “I can see coach Leaf teaching and coaching there for another 10-15 years. I want to be a head coach.”

After missing out on the North Dakota head coaching job seven years ago as the school then still known as the Fighting Sioux made the transition from NCAA Division II to Div. I, Brown was dormant in the coaching carousel until the past two offseasons.

Now Brown finds himself as one of four finalists visiting Marquette this week to become the next head men’s basketball coach at Northern Michigan University after winning two NCAA championships, four NCAA regional championships, six Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference regular season championships and five NSIC tournament championships as a part of Leaf’s staff since 1997.

“All of those experiences have just made me, prepared me for this opportunity, if I do get this opportunity at Northern Michigan University,” Brown said Tuesday during a community forum that included local media. “Those experiences are very valuable. There’s no way you can replace those.”

Brown said there isn’t necessarily a right time to make a move to head coach, but there is such a thing as a right place.

NMU and Marquette remind Brown a lot of Winona, he said, though he wasn’t referring to the cold and snow.

Brown described the WSU men’s basketball program as a “middle of the road club” that needed to be built up when he and Leaf arrived. It not only lacked facilities, but scholarship dollars as well.

That’s not the case at NMU, which has two practice gyms in the PEIF, the Berry Events Center and the full amount of scholarships – 10 full – allotted to Div. II teams by the NCAA.

The Wildcats have posted six consecutive losing seasons, however, and last made the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament in 2007.

This year, the final of three seasons for former head coach Doug Lewis Jr., the ‘Cats finished 5-21 while the Warriors and Brown finished 27-8 after losing in the NCAA Elite Eight.

“I want to move up. I want to move on. I want to challenge myself,” Brown said. “Right now, nothing against (NMU), this is a big challenge because the team has been on a little of a rocky road here the last couple years.

“We have to get it turned around and I think I can do that. Actually, I know I can do that, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work, it’s going to take help from the administration, the other coaches in the department. Everybody has to work together to support everybody’s program. That’s what I’ve learned at Winona State.”

Brown failed to share any details on the offensive or defensive system he would run as head coach of the Wildcats, just saying he would taylor his strategy based on the opponent and focus on fundamentals.

As for recruiting, he was very specific about his strengths and weaknesses in the region.

Under Leaf and Brown, the Warriors have heavily recruited the university’s home state of Minnesota as well as its neighbor to the east – Wisconsin.

Winona, Minn., a city of about 27,500, sits on the southwest shore of the Mississippi River with Wisconsin on the Northwest shore, making the Badger state a second home.

“I’d be recruiting against coaches I already recruit against in St. Cloud State, Winona State, (Wisconsin-)Parkside and Michigan Tech,” Brown said. “I see a lot of those guys at AAU events. The state of Wisconsin has been very, very good to us.”

In addition to Wisconsin and Minnesota, Brown also visits Illinois. Where he doesn’t spend any time recruiting, however, is the state of Michigan – not the Upper Peninsula or downstate.

Brown said ideally he’d use Marquette County and the U.P. as a recruiting base, finding three or four players each year, but admitted “that’s going to be pretty hard to do.”

So he’ll continue to mine Wisconsin for talent while building up his relationships in Michigan, which isn’t entirely foreign since just this past year the Warriors won games downstate against GLIAC foes Northwood and Ferris State.

“I’m going to recruit Wisconsin very hard,” Brown said. “The one thing that you guys will probably get me on is I don’t know the state of Michigan that well. We just don’t recruit (there). I haven’t recruited the area and so I don’t know it.

“Any connection that I might have, I have to use that and then just keep working at it and working at it. Will it take time? Yeah, it might take some time, but if I can get one or two kids from the U.P. or a couple hours away and get a couple from Wisconsin every year, that’s my goal.”

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. Follow him on Twitter at