KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Carroll College men’s basketball coach Kurt Paulson walked into the Municipal Auditorium for Sunday’s practice, his mind was on the NAIA National Semifinals and opponent Lewis-Clark State.
But he didn’t forget to think back on his last semifinal appearance.
“We played John Brown,” Paulson said. “We played them very closely.”
That was 14 years ago, when Paulson was still in college and running point for the Saints.
“I feel very lucky that I’m a part of Carroll College, and it’s because of basketball,” he said. “Coming back here — it’s a special place.”
Paulson was on the short end of that semifinal as the Saints lost 73-60.
“That loss hurt, and I think Kurt took it as hard as anybody on our team because he was the orchestrator. He was the leader,” said former Saints men’s basketball coach Gary Turcott.
Now, back on the national stage, Paulson has the advantage of the experience he gained 14 years ago.
“It’s such a unique tournament, because if you aren’t prepared and understand what it is all about, you could be done before you even know it,” said Paulson’s former teammate, Ross Gustafson, who now coaches boys basketball at Kalispell Flathead High School. “Kurt understands what it takes and has such a laser focus. The guy just works hard.”
One year after that tournament, Paulson walked the stage, graduating with a degree in business administration and health and physical education.
He didn’t reach the semifinals again as a player, but he never considered leaving basketball.
Paulson remained at Carroll for two seasons as an assistant coach under Turcott, where he did nothing but learn and listen.
His two years of experience led him to the University of Montana, where he was a graduate assistant under Wayne Tinkle.
He followed Tinkle from Montana to Oregon State and was happy. He was only going to leave if one specific job became available.
“I wasn’t going to leave Oregon State unless it was for Carroll,” Paulson said. “You don’t leave the Pac-12 for just any job. I love Tinkle. He is my mentor and he treated me well. I wasn’t going anywhere unless it was for my dream job.”
Last March, that dream started to come into focus. Carson Cunningham announced that he was stepping down for an opportunity to be the head coach for NCAA Division I Incarnate Word.
Paulson was hired three weeks later.
“I didn’t expect Coach Cunningham to depart after five years,” Paulson said. “I thought Helena was a landing spot for his family. I wasn’t anticipating that (the Carroll job would be open).”
Now in his first year as a college head coach, he has his alma mater knocking on the door of history. No Carroll team has gotten further than the semifinals.
Armed with another chance, he isn’t going to let this one slip away easily.
“It’s personal,” Paulson said. “This time though, I want to win this semifinal.”