BILLINGS — Now that the fanfare has subsided, Danny Sprinkle is settling into his new job as head men’s basketball coach at Montana State.
He knows the work ahead is daunting.
“It’s been a whirlwind. Tons of different emotions, tons of different responsibilities and things we have to get done right away,” said Sprinkle, who has been described as a favorite son returning to coach the program with which he starred as a player.
“You feel like you get about 500 things done a day but you feel like you didn’t make a dent in anything.”
Sprinkle, hired April 4 to replace previous coach Brian Fish, was a member of the MSU’s last NCAA tournament team in 1995-96. After starring at Helena High, Sprinkle led the Bobcats to the Big Sky Conference crown as a freshman, and was named tournament MVP after scoring 30 points in the title game against Weber State at Worthington Arena.
But 23 years seems like ancient history, and based on trends alone Sprinkle and the Bobcats have an uphill climb to return the program to a league-championship level.
Can Sprinkle reconcile his previous success with his goals as a head coach? There’s a lot to unpack, so prepare for a numbers crunch:
Sprinkle’s career as a player under coach Mick Durham came during one of MSU’s best stretches in the last 30 years. The Bobcats have had only had 11 winning seasons since 1989-90, but four of those came during Sprinkle’s playing days, including two 21-win campaigns.
Since 1999-2000, Montana State owns a pedestrian .459 overall winning percentage and a .423 mark in Big Sky games. It’s had only six winning seasons within the league in that span. The Bobcats’ last overall winning season was in 2009-10 when they went 15-14.
A big part of Sprinkle’s job — and he acknowledges this — will be to return balance to Montana State’s rivalry with Big Sky power Montana. Since the 2010-11 season the Bobcats are 1-17 against the Grizzlies, and dropped 13 in a row at one point.
Montana has been the best team in the Big Sky since 1990, with 11 trips to the NCAA tournament and 15 appearances in the league championship game. Since 2010, UM has captured five of the last 10 conference crowns.
“It’s very important. It’s important to the people of Montana,” said Sprinkle, who went 6-3 as a player against the Grizzlies. “You can’t underestimate that, you can’t undervalue that.
“Obviously Montana … coach (Travis) DeCuire has done a tremendous job. He has. He’s done a tremendous job with those guys. He’s got great players, they play tough, they’re physical, they play the right way, and that’s where we’ve got to build towards, too.”
At his core, Sprinkle knows cultivating toughness will be at the center of this effort, but there are plenty of variables at work. The league is bigger, the conference schedule is longer and more difficult, recruiting has become more wide-ranging and competitive, et al.
And MSU has fallen behind Weber State and Eastern Washington, also, which adds to the challenge.
Based on the numbers, the Grizzlies, Wildcats and Eagles have been the class of the league in the past 30 years, with more combined Big Sky championships (19) and title-game appearances (35) among any trio of teams by far in that span.
Coached by DeCuire, Randy Rahe and Shantay Legans, respectively, those programs show no signs of letting up going forward.
Montana and EWU went head-to-head for this year's championship in Boise, Idaho, with the Grizzlies prevailing.
Since 2010-11, the Bobcats are 9-47 overall against that triumvirate (and 4-30 against Montana and Weber State). Sprinkle the player went 20-8 against those three (and 13-7 against the Grizzlies and Wildcats).
You can argue that he knows what it takes.
“You’ve got to get the right players in here and you’ve got to be able to compete with not only Montana but Weber State, Southern Utah, Northern Colorado, Eastern Washington … every team has been really good,” Sprinkle said.
“That’s the fun thing about this league. It’s tough to win on the road. You’ve got to definitely take care of your home games but you have to compete with those teams that have been at the top for the last 15 years, the Webers and Montanas.”
From a personnel standpoint, if the Bobcats add a couple more pieces to complement star guard Harald Frey, big man Devin Kirby and the team’s other returners, Sprinkle said he sees no reason why they can’t be competitive within the Big Sky next season.
At the very least, Sprinkle knows Frey, who again should be one of the top players in the league in 2019-20, is the catalyst.
“Harry’s terrific. On the court, off the court, in the community, everybody loves him,” Sprinkle said. “He’s going to be our leader. On the court, he makes everybody better. If you watch the games, not only can he shoot it and really score the ball himself but he makes the game so much easier for his teammates.
“They almost need to play off of Harry because he’s unselfish where he knows how to find them. He can make the game really, really easy for you.”
The job will be difficult, but Frey is where it all starts.