BILLINGS — He’d just shot Montana State to the Big Sky Conference championship, and a young and exuberant Danny Sprinkle leapt atop the scorers’ table at Worthington Arena in Bozeman, pumping his fists toward a rambunctious crowd in celebration of a berth in the NCAA tournament.
The MSU men’s basketball program hasn’t seen a night like March 9, 1996, in the 23 years since.
Sprinkle was a sharpshooting freshman guard from Helena, and his 30 points and seven 3-pointers spurred the Bobcats to an 81-70 win over Weber State in that conference title game. When the dust settled, Sprinkle was named Big Sky tournament MVP.
Now as he returns to his alma mater as head coach, Sprinkle has his eyes on leading the program back to those same heights.
“I can still remember almost every play of that game and just how electric the crowd was. It was amazing,” Sprinkle said during an interview with 406mtsports.com. “That’s probably what sticks out more. Obviously, the time with the team and celebrating in the locker room, but just the general electricity around the arena, even before the game, was something I’d never experienced.
“That’s the ultimate goal. That’s the culture that we’re going to build and something we’re going to talk about a lot. That’s why you try to get to the Division I level is to play in the NCAA tournament. Obviously, academically and getting your degree is the most important, but on the basketball court that’s the goal, to get to the NCAA tournament.”
Sprinkle said he’d dreamed of becoming MSU’s head coach since the day he was hired as a graduate assistant at Cal State-Northridge in 2000, a year after his playing career ended. It became a reality last Thursday when Bobcats athletic director Leon Costello named Sprinkle the 23rd coach in program history.
Sprinkle replaces Brian Fish, whose contract was not renewed after five seasons.
“It’s a dream right now but it’s going to be one of the hardest dreams I’ve had,” said Sprinkle, who spent the past six years as an assistant at Cal State Fullerton. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to get to the top, but we’re going to be willing to do that. It was a dream but it’s kind of like you woke up and now it’s time to go to work.”
Therein lies the question. How will Sprinkle manufacture a turnaround at Montana State?
How much work will it take?
Sprinkle said he plans to usher in a sweeping culture change within the program that begins by building greater mental toughness. The Bobcats have struggled to win consistently over the course of several years — the program has a .459 overall winning percentage and is .423 in Big Sky games since Sprinkle’s career ended.
Furthermore, the team hasn’t won more than five total road games in a season in eight years.
If Sprinkle did one thing as a player at MSU (besides make shots from all over the floor) it was win: The Bobcats posted four straight plus-.500 seasons in that stretch, including a 21-win campaign during that championship year of 1995-96.
The Bobcats must possess a strong psyche to compete every night in today’s Big Sky Conference, Sprinkle said.
“We have to develop a toughness,” he said. “Any championship team can score the ball, but you have to take pride on the defensive end and really be able to shut people down.
“There’s going to be ups and downs. You’re playing a 20-game league schedule, which is a lot. You’re going to have little funks where you might lose two in a row but you have to be mentally tough enough to bounce back and you’ve got to win some tough games on the road.
“So that’s part of the culture that we need to change, mentally probably more than anything.”
Sprinkle, who previously noted that he’ll implement a similar up-tempo style used by former coach Mick Durham, said he likes the look of Montana State’s returning players, a group that includes All-Big Sky guard Harald Frey, budding big man Devin Kirby, and 3-point specialist Ladan Ricketts.
The coach also said he’s on the hunt for a couple new signings that can complement MSU’s current crop and help right away.
“Some of the young kids, I think they have a lot of potential. I don’t think they know how good they are,” Sprinkle said. “It’s going to be a big spring and summer for them, getting in the weight room and really getting their bodies into great shape and really pushing them in our summer workouts to see what they’re made of.
“Just from the talks that I’ve had with them, I’m excited about this group. I really am. I think they’re just as excited for some change. I think it’s going to be a good fit.”
Sprinkle has been on the job for less than a week, but he already has high expectations for what’s to come.
Will those expectations culminate in an experience like the one he and the program had in 1996? Time will tell. At the very least, an effort is underway.
To this point, it's the pinnacle of Sprinkle's life in basketball.
“I’ve put that jersey on. I’ve played against the teams in this league. We won a championship. We cut down the nets,” Sprinkle said.
“I can’t give a specific timetable. I think if we get a couple pieces in here recruiting-wise late that can enhance our program and enhance some of the players that we have, I see no reason why we can’t be competitive next year. I would never rule anybody out in this league.”