Ferris State head coach Bill Sall interviews at Northern Michigan with family’s best interest in mind

MARQUETTE – As Ferris State head men’s basketball coach Bill Sall sat in the Izzo-Mariucci Room of the Berry Events Center on Thursday with his back to a Northern Michigan University banner and a Wildcats athletic department table cloth draped before him, the 26-year coaching veteran was honest and frank with the group of NMU basketball supporters gathered.

Yes, the Bulldogs basketball coach of the past 11 years was interviewing for the same position at a GLIAC North Division rival and very much interested in the job, but no, he wasn’t dead set on leaving behind his team in Big Rapids.

His fate is still very much up in the air, with the well-being of his family coming before anything else.

“As I look through things, you have to put your family ahead of everything else. It’s always an important part,” Sall said.

“At this stage, I can’t tell you really one way or the other where I would be leaning. I will say this, I see what Northern Michigan could be and know that Northern Michigan could be a very, very good team in a very good athletic department. To me, that’s exciting.”

Sall was the last of four finalists to interview this week to become Northern’s next head men’s basketball coach, following six-year Hillsdale assistant coach Dan Evans, 15-year Winona State (Minn.) assistant and associate head coach Tom Brown and eight-year Valley City State (N.D.) head coach Jeff Kaminsky.

Unlike the previous three candidates to step before the community and local media, Sall was the lone candidate who didn’t guarantee he’ll accept the position. He didn’t use “we” like the others when talking about the future of Wildcat men’s basketball, either.

Then again, he already has what the other three candidates all want – a head coach position at an NCAA Division II men’s basketball program.

“It’s been a great experience at Ferris,” Sall said. “I love Big Rapids. I love the town. I certainly love my team, but in the same breath, you’re always looking for new things, new challenges a little bit as a coach. I think in my career at this point that’s why I’m here today, to explore Northern Michigan and see what Northern Michigan has to offer as far as a school, as far as an athletic department and a basketball program.”

Sall, a native of downstate Zeeland and graduate of Unity Christian High School in Hudsonville, has led the Bulldogs to four GLIAC North Division titles and three NCAA Div. II tournament berths in 11 seasons with two appearances in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.

The Bulldogs finished 14-13 overall in 2012-13 and 13-9 in the league, good for fourth in the division and seventh overall in the GLIAC. Third-seeded Findlay ended FSU’s season in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.

Sall only loses two seniors from this year’s squad while returning two juniors, four sophomores, three redshirt freshmen – including Gwinn’s Matt Sinnaeve – and two true freshmen. He’ll also bring in an NCAA Div. I transfer from Oakland University and a junior college transfer.

“I love my team,” Sall said. “I think my team at Ferris State is going to be really, really good. We have a lot of freshmen and sophomores that are going to be outstanding.”

While Sall has been head coach at Ferris State, NMU has produced only four winning seasons and has missed the GLIAC tournament for six consecutive seasons, resulting in the resignation of 24-year veteran Dean Ellis in 2010 following three losing campaigns and the release of Doug Lewis Jr. on March 13 after three losing seasons.

The 2012-13 campaign isn’t looking very bright either for NMU, no matter who takes over as head coach, with sophomore point guard Quinten Calloway, freshman guard Stephan Pelkofer and junior Matthew Craggs – all starters – not waiting to see who the next coach is having already transferred out of NMU.

And more could follow.

Sall said he’s ready for the challenge, however, of rebuilding what he said would be a fourth program in Northern, which he thinks of more as perennial contender rather than a GLIAC bottom dweller.

NMU’s best finish in an NCAA tournament – quarterfinals – came in 1993 while the last trip to the Div. II dance was 2000.

“I’ve been a part, as an assistant and head coach, of three rebuilding projects,” Sall said, referencing his first job as an assistant at NCAA Div. III Calvin College in Grand Rapids, third job as an assistant at Hillsdale and current gig in Big Rapids.

“Every one the wins and losses were not very good. It doesn’t happen overnight. We’re not going to talk about national championships right now. We’re talking about just getting to the point where we can field a team that fans want to see play and are excited to be a part of.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think that over time, Northern Michigan could be what it was here in year’s past.”

Sall said the offensive and defensive system he runs at Ferris may not necessarily be the system he runs at Northern because of the pieces in place, though down the road he would like to play an up-tempo game that pressures with man-to-man defense, forces turnovers, but protects the ball.

Sall admitted he lacks experience recruiting the state of Wisconsin and will work to build relationships there because the state is a key source of student-athletes due to its proximity.

He does have strong ties in Michigan, however, both above and below the Mackinac Bridge. He’s also been able to pull players from the north side of Chicago as of late.

“I’m always surprised when I see the good U.P. players not at Northern,” Sall said. “I think every time there’s a good player, he should be at Northern Michigan and no other place.

“We have had a lot of success getting guys from the east side of the state, from Detroit and areas in that area. In the same breath, that area has really changed dramatically in the last five years. There’s not as many good players, much less good players with being good students. We’ve really changed our focus and gone over to Chicago a lot more. We’re in the north side of Chicago a ton. I think it’s a recruiting haven because a lot of teams don’t seem to recruit there.”

Recruiting, strategy and chance of success are all key components for Sall as he makes his decision on whether to leave Big Rapids for Marquette – if NMU offers him the job – but nothing holds a candle to the true deciding factor, which is what’s best for him, his wife Karen, their son and three daughters.

“To me, family is first, so I got to make sure those pieces are going to be covered and there’s a lot of factors that are going to go into that,” Sall said.

“No matter where you go, it’s essential that as a coach and as part of the Northern Michigan athletic department, that in a greater sense you are a part of the community here. That’s what I am in Big Rapids and that’s what I see here as well.”

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