Valley City State’s Kaminsky has history of turning around last-place programs like Northern Michigan

MARQUETTE – While attending the NCAA Division I Final Four and Div. II championship game in Atlanta back in early April, Valley City State (N.D.) head men’s basketball coach Jeff Kaminsky couldn’t help but think of Northern Michigan University.

Kaminsky had already applied for the school’s vacant head coach position by that time, but had not been contacted yet. As he watched Drury (Mo.) defeat Metro State (Colo.) for the national title, however, the Wildcats were on his mind.

“As I’m watching that game … I was thinking about Northern Michigan, thinking, ‘We should be in this game,'” Kaminsky said. “That needs to be our goal, to be in that game. That process needs to start immediately.”

Having dug three other collegiate men’s basketball programs out of the basement at three different levels, Grand Valley State alumnus Kaminsky has turned his attention to salvaging the Wildcats as one of four finalists vying to become the struggling program’s next head coach.

NMU has finished last in the GLIAC North Division each of the last four seasons – going 5-21 overall and 4-18 in conference in 2012-13 – and in the bottom three spots of the league’s overall standings each of the last six years.

VCSU finished last in the now defunct NAIA Div. II Dakota Athletic Conference at 14-14 overall and 6-12 in the league in 2004-05 before Kaminsky took over that program the next season.

When Kaminsky took over NCAA Div. III Wisconsin-Superior starting in the 1994-95 season, the Yellow Jackets were coming off a 4-20 year that included just one win in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

Kaminsky’s first head coaching gig was a junior college – Mid State Technical College – in Wisconsin Rapids. He said that team was 1-21 and losing by an average of 40 points per game before he took that over.

“I’ve gone into three different programs that have all been in a lot worse shape than this is,” Kaminsky said Wednesday about NMU to a crowd of community members and media at the Berry Events Center’s Izzo-Mariucci room.

“I’ve taken over three different college programs. They all had one thing in common before I took them over. They were all in last place.”

Kaminsky left UW-Superior after 11 seasons in 2005 as 28th all-time in wins in the WIAC and second all-time in wins at UW-Superior at 116-163. His highest finish with the Yellow Jackets in the league was tied for fifth in back-to-back seasons – 1999-2000 and 00-01.

At Valley City, Kaminsky is 133-103 in eight years, having produced four 20-win seasons and shared the DAC title in 2009-10.

The team went from last in the DAC to fourth in the then eight-team league in Kaminsky’s first season and by his third year, had its first winning season since 1989 and first 20-win season in 20 years.

“If you look at the three programs I’ve went into, they all had limited resources. To me, (NMU) is by far the best situation I’ve walked into,” Kaminsky said.

“Looking at (NMU), we have 10 full scholarships and really good leadership. I’ve been really impressed with the people that I’ve had the chance to meet with today.

“The facilities are fantastic. It’s a great community. There’s no reason to me to see why we can’t have a lot of success here with the basketball program.”

Kaminsky said NMU sits in his home recruiting territory, but he also has the ability to reach beyond the Midwest.

VCSU currently has three players from the state of Florida who were brought to Kaminsky’s attention through a former player who now coaches in the Miami area, the coach said.

VCSU also one player from Texas and another from Florida, as well as two from the state of North Dakota and three from Minnesota.

“I really feel one of my strengths is the recruiting ties I have naturally fit with Northern Michigan,” Kaminsky said, “but then I also have the ability to reach out when we need to to get some really high caliber student-athletes.”

While Minneapolis and Chicago are popular spots for Kaminsky now, he plans to use his ties in Michigan and Wisconsin more if he takes over the ‘Cats.

Former players of Kaminsky’s now run high school programs in Wisconsin, while south of the Mackinac Bridge he has family ties in the Grand Rapids and Detroit area, he said.

At Mid State, Kaminsky said he recruited Grand Rapids and while at UW-Superior, he pulled standout recruits from both Munising and Iron Mountain.

“This is an area that I’m familiar with,” Kaminsky said. “It’s always important to recruit the local area when you have the talent to do so.

“I have a lot of great contacts in Wisconsin. In fact, several of my former players … they’re head high school coaches in Wisconsin. I’ve got a lot of great contacts there.”

Kaminsky’s style of play centers around a simple, maybe obvious, saying he borrowed from another coach, which is, “You have to get better shots than your opponent and more of them.”

To do that, Kaminsky’s teams pressure the ball on defense and on offense look for ways to get easy shots.

Defending and rebounding will be the keys to winning right away, he said.

“From a defensive standpoint, I’ve always believed in being aggressive,” Kaminsky said. “We primarily play team-pressure, man-to-man defense. I like to get out and we like to pressure the ball as much as we can.

“Primarily offensively, we run some motion and then we have three different sets where we have a number of different options out of those sets. One set is more of a spread set, one is a high-level motion and one is more of an open post set.”

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