Back in the ‘50s in Bessemer, Mich., they kept the baseball and football fields locked during offseason and when there weren’t organized competitions going on. The kids who called the small Upper Peninsula town (population 2,148) home dug holes under the fence to get in.

The basketball gym was always locked up, too. The kids of Bessemer wore “choppers” — gloves with the fingers cut off — to keep their hands warm when they played outside during winter. While the choppers provided comfort, they hurt dexterity and limited what the children could do with the basketball.

That’s why Michigan women’s basketball coach Kevin Borseth insists he never learned to shoot.

In late February, sitting in the plush maize and blue coaches’ locker room in Crisler Arena, Borseth couldn’t pinpoint exactly how he wound up with a Division I coaching job at a nationally renowned university.

“One thing led to another, and here I am,” he said. “I’d explain that but one thing just kind of led to another.”

“I think there’s a gauge inside of us that says I want to be the best at what I do,” he said. “A long time ago someone gave us a pat on the back because we did something good and we never forgot that.

“It’s like the horse who got the sugar cube. People gravitate towards doing well because they get pats on the back for it. And I don’t think my career is different than anybody else’s is.”

Falling in love with the game
As a third grader, Borseth had his first experience in a big game.

Borseth’s recreational league team split up to scrimmage at halftime of a high school basketball game. The aspiring youngsters had dribbled around chairs to practice fundamentals for their big game.

For the young Borseth, nothing was bigger than that moment.

“It was huge,” he said. “It was the NBA championship.”

That exciting atmosphere helped fuel Borseth’s love for basketball, a sport he continued to play through high school along with baseball and football.

Bessemer High School saw four head football coaches and an unimpressive record during Borseth’s time as quarterback. Pat Gallinagh, an All-American defensive lineman for Michigan State in the 1960s, took over as head coach in Borseth’s senior year.

Trying to get the program back on track, Gallinagh added a Saturday morning practice to the team’s weekly schedule, which already included two-a-days Monday through Friday.

“Just about the whole team boycotted the practice, but Kevin went and talked to all of them and got them back out for the team so the program didn’t disintegrate,” Gallinagh said in a phone interview.

The next fall, Borseth went to Lake Superior State for college, instead of a place like Michigan, where according to Gallinagh, he could have played if he had had consistent coaching throughout high school. But he stayed close to home and played basketball, his favorite sport.

A decade after playing outdoor basketball during frigid Michigan winters as a kid, Borseth graduated and moved back home, where he finally got his hands on the keys to the local gym when he volunteered to watch over the kids playing there.

It was at that gym in Bessemer where Borseth realized his passion for coaching.

With the keys, the gym was his. He would shoot around until the kids that came to practice on Saturday mornings showed up. Then he would give them pointers.

He wanted them to have that same memory he had, when he scrimmaged at the high school game, so he prepared them for their own time in the limelight.

Around the same time, he began working as the assistant football and baseball coach at his alma mater, Bessemer High. Gallinagh recalls Borseth’s ability to yell at his players without making them upset. A few years later, it was clear his tactic was working.

“The two seasons he coached with me we were something like 19 or 20-3, so we had really good years,” Gallinagh said.

While he got his feet wet in football coaching, Borseth was also testing his mettle as a basketball player in a local league. His team traveled regionally to play different teams, one of those at a nearby low-security prison.

When he later lost his job in the homebuilding industry as interest rates soared and his employer was forced to close its doors in 1983, he found a new job at Gogebic Community College in Ironwood, Mich. Borseth taught business classes, coached the women’s basketball team and served as an assistant coach for the men’s team.

In his five years as head coach for the women’s team at Gogebic, he built a program from scratch.

When Borseth took the job, the women’s team had two players. It was up to him to recruit the rest from the classes he taught. After starting 0-7 that first year, Borseth’s team finished 11-11. In his last two years combined, his teams went 35-14.

“That first year was probably the most fun I’ve ever had coaching,” Borseth said. “All you do is learn to play games and play against programs that probably have the same level of commitment by their athletes as your programs and that isn’t a great deal.”

Another part of his job was to supervise the same prison gym he had traveled to as a player, at Camp Ojibway. He was there every night just to keep things in order, but took it upon himself to give the prisoners some basketball pointers.

“I made it like hockey where you couldn’t pass too many (lines) because (the prisoners) would just get the rebound and throw it to the other end of the court,” Borseth said. “I made them pass the ball up the court.”

Movin’ on up
In 1988, Borseth landed his first job at a four-year institution, coaching the women’s team at Division II Michigan Tech, a team that had never experienced a winning season. Borseth had his work cut out for him.

He wasted no time turning the Huskies into a national powerhouse, taking them to the NCAA Division II Championships seven times in his 11 years at the helm, amassing a 225-97 record.

Borseth went to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in 1999 for his first Division I job. The fanbase doubled in his nine years as head coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay, according to athletic director Ken Bothof, partly because fans came to watch his one-of-a-kind sideline demeanor, something that’s attracted attention everywhere he’s been.

From anywhere in the stands — even at Crisler, which seats 13,800 — one can look toward the bench and Borseth will be pacing in front of it, yelling out to his athletes. He is often so loud you can hear him shouting but can’t make out quite what. And all the while he is flailing his arms like an orchestra conductor.

“I think our fans always found him in his own way to be entertaining,” Bothof said.

“When our fans saw the passion that he had for the game, I think that led to great atmosphere at our games,” he said. “Our fans fed off of that. They talked about how it was fun to come to games because obviously we were winning but they also loved to watch some of (Borseth’s) actions through the game as well.”

The arena was sold out for most games and the girls rarely lost. But that didn’t mean Borseth wasn’t yelling at the top of his lungs. Under Borseth, the Lady Phoenix won nearly 78 percent of their games, never losing more than three conference games in any of his nine seasons at the helm.

The program was 24 years old when Borseth took charge and Green Bay had seen the postseason only three times in its history, including an NCAA run that took place the season prior to his takeover.

Borseth didn’t skip a beat, leading Green Bay to the NCAA Tournament in his first two years and five more times in his seven remaining years with the program. The team never missed out on postseason action with Borseth in charge, playing in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament the two years it didn’t go dancing.

Fans could expect to be greeted by him at the door on their way in. And he and his family waited customarily on the court if fans wanted to touch base after games.

Wisconsin-Green Bay loved Borseth, and Borseth loved Wisconsin-Green Bay. He started getting attention from elsewhere, but he wasn’t going to leave for just anything.

Borseth turned down a head coaching job at the University of Colorado. But when Michigan offered him the head coaching position for its women’s basketball team in 2007, it looked like the dream of a lifetime could become a reality.

“He wanted to be at the University of Michigan all his life,” Gallinagh said. “I think if he had a chance to play there he would have jumped at it.”

Borseth identified with Michigan colors from an early age, sporting a blue and gold jersey as quarterback for Bessemer High. He remembers looking up to Bessemer alumni Ralph Heikkanen, an All American for the Wolverines in the 1930s; and Reuben Kelto, Michigan’s MVP in 1941.

“It’s like living a dream,” said Borseth, who made his first trip to Ann Arbor for a Michigan-Ohio State football game in the ‘70s. “And to the people in my area, it’s absolutely off the charts. They are all Michigan fans, too. That’s what we do.”

A year to build on
Borseth played football for four coaches in four years at Bessemer High School. And while that’s no easy task, especially for a quarterback who must adjust to a new style every year as a result — it’s not easy for a coach either. Gallinagh had a lot of work to do when he took the head football job at Bessemer Borseth’s senior year. The program had been in shambles in recent years, according to Gallinagh, who recalls that the team had won maybe two games in the previous three years.

But the Bessemer football program had a history of excellence. And with a steady coach again, the program quickly rebounded.

When Borseth arrived at Michigan three years ago, he didn’t have the luxury of a strong tradition. During these last three years, he has been working to put his stamp on the program.

“Most of (Michigan’s opponents) had penciled in a victory before they even went out on the court to take a shot,” Gallinagh said. “That’s why they were able to pull so many upsets in (Borseth’s) first year there.”

In the three seasons before Borseth came to Ann Arbor, the Wolverines won four conference games total.

In his inaugural year, Michigan was a .500 team and got past the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

“The problem was when he first got in there I don’t think anybody took University of Michigan women’s basketball seriously and now everybody takes them seriously,” Gallinagh said. “They’ve upset a number of teams so far since he’s been there and that’s the way you build a program. A little bit at a time you pull an upset.”

“I’ve done so well for so long that I never felt the other side of it,” Borseth said. “And now I feel the other side of it. It’s not fun. Now we are trying to build a program where we can win conference championships and get NCAA bids here as well. And we are at a national university where the sky’s the limit.”

Despite this newfound and rather unexpected success this season, his first three years in the Big Ten haven’t been all roses. After a-better-than-expected first year in which the team went 9-9 in conference, 17-20 overall and made a run to the quarterfinals of the WNIT, Borseth didn’t sleep much last season, when the team ended the conference schedule 3-15.

In that first year with the program, Borseth gained some fame that he might have done without. When his team gave up an 18-point lead to Wisconsin to lose by two, he learned firsthand what it means to be on a national stage.

In the postgame press conference, Borseth’s fists slammed, his papers flew and he made his frustration over what he saw as an unacceptable lack of offensive rebounds known to a room of reporters. While his conductor-like demeanor shows his passion and intensity for the game, failing to control his emotions in the filmed press conference made him the laughingstock of college sports for a brief time.

But as he begins to make a name for the Michigan program, next time his name is being talked about nationally, it will be on a sweeter note.

After 25 years, he had coached at the community college, Division II and Division I levels before coming to Ann Arbor. And his resume prior to Michigan was looking pretty snazzy — 70 percent of the time his team came out on top.

He was warned that he would have to get used to losing more at the next level, but nothing could prepare him for the level of competition in the Big Ten.

“We aren’t over the hump yet,” he said at the end of February with two regular-season games left. “We’ve still got a ways to go with our program. We are trying to build a base so we are a credible women’s basketball program for all the young aspiring athletes that want to be able to play for a program that’s got some tradition.”

This year’s squad, in Borseth’s third season, beat expectations to go 8-10 in the regular season before advancing to the quarterfinals in the Big Ten Tournament. Considered on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament, Michigan ultimately settled for a WNIT bid. The Wolverines proved themselves, blowing out four opponents en route to the Final Four of the WNIT to make program history.

And Borseth believes his team’s WNIT run acts as a good building block toward the national competitor he hopes to make the Wolverines.

“A year like this hopefully makes some people stand up and take a look at our program and say hey, they are for real, these guys are for real,” Borseth said after the 76-59 loss to Miami in the Final Four that ended the Wolverines’ season. “I think years like this hopefully we can use to build on.”

It hasn’t been an easy three years, but this season’s success is just the beginning of what could be the most successful Borseth era — on his biggest stage yet. Every day he goes to work, every time he puts on his navy sports coat with a maize interior to pace the sideline, he is reminded that he is living his dream. There is nowhere else he would rather be.

Borseth’s still got the keys to the gym, but this one seats 13,800.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.