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From running open gyms at a prison to the NCAA tournament, a unique style has served Green Bay's Kevin Borseth well

Green Bay's Kevin Borseth has coached college basketball at various levels for more than 40 years. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Green Bay's Kevin Borseth has coached college basketball at various levels for more than 40 years. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images) (Justin Casterline via Getty Images)

Kevin Borseth had a feeling about his team when they took the floor against No. 22 Creighton. As they went through warmups and pregame talks in an unfamiliar locker room he didn't sense nerves. Instead, his Green Bay squad oozed confidence.

They’re going to win, he thought.

Borseth was right. The Phoenix upset Creighton, 65-53. The following week they topped No. 23 Washington State, 59-48, setting the tone for their season.

“Some people hope they win, and some people know they are going to win,” Borseth said. “This is one of those teams that knows they’re going to win. And that’s hard to come by.”

The Phoenix have been to 14 NCAA tournaments with him at the helm, and Borseth transformed the program into a mid-major powerhouse, one that was expected to win the Horizon League year after year.

On Thursday the Phoenix play Youngstown State in the Horizon League quarterfinals. They’ll have to win three games in a row in order to earn an automatic bid.

It’s been five years since Green Bay’s last March Madness appearance. But this team, Borseth says, has what it takes to break the unwanted streak.

He would know. He’s coached hopeful teams, confident teams and some that fall in between. It’s been 41 years at four different programs and three different levels, but Borseth remembers each team.

He also remembers how it started, with a phone call from a friend and an unexpected opportunity.

Borseth grew up in Bessemer, a town of 1,805 people in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he gravitated toward athletics. The fact that he’s a basketball coach now was all about timing and opportunity. Borseth says he would have coached any sport, and he dabbled in baseball and football.

“I’ve always been a sweatshirt guy,” he said. “I’ve never been a business-type guy.”

So when his friend and former high school teammate Deke Routheaux called in 1982 and said he had a coaching job for him, Borseth jumped at the opportunity.

Routheaux had served as the women’s basketball coach at Gogebic Community College for seven years before moving over to the men’s side. His athletic director had a candidate in mind, someone with more coaching experience, but Routheaux pushed back. He knew Borseth was the right guy.

Routheaux coached at Gogebic for 31 years, but says bringing in Borseth was his “best recruiting job.”

Borseth immediately took a shine to coaching, which was a good thing, because it consumed all of his time. It was a complicated gig, with multiple responsibilities.

During the day, Borseth taught classes, then in the afternoon he headed up practice with the women’s teams. In the evening he helped Routheaux with the men’s team.

Then at 9 p.m. Borseth drove 20 minutes to the local minimum security prison where he ran open gyms for the inmates.

At first, his job was simply to open the gym and watch as the inmates used weight machines, jump ropes and punching bags. Some of them liked to shoot hoops, and ever the coach, Borseth couldn’t help but gravitate to the court.

He started by implementing a few rules and it grew from there.

“One thing led to another,” he said. “And eventually we were bringing teams in from the outside to play these guys.”

Running open gyms at a prison might seem like a far cry from coaching a Division I women’s basketball program, but at its core, Borseth says, all coaching is the same. And those days at the Ojibway Correctional Facility taught him one of his most important coaching lessons.

“I learned that if you listen to the people who are playing, you get a lot more out of it,” he said. “So with all the teams that I’ve coached from then on, I listen to the players quite a bit, because they are the ones doing the work. They should have input.”

Green Bay's Kevin Borseth embraces Meghan Pingel in the closing seconds of a Horizon League tournament game in 2022. (James Black/Getty Images)
Green Bay's Kevin Borseth embraces Meghan Pingel in the closing seconds of a Horizon League tournament game in 2022. (James Black/Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Over the years, that idea has morphed into Borseth’s most important, and also most unconventional coaching mantra: “The name on the back of the jersey is more important than the name on the front.”

That’s a direct contradiction to the usual phrase, a coaching cliché that touts the importance of the team over the individual. But Borseth takes the opposite approach.

“It’s all about people,” Borseth said. “I think our job as coaches is to help these young athletes get confidence in themselves. And in order to do that, you have to invest time in the name on the back of the jersey.”

Borseth holds onto that philosophy as the college basketball landscape changes. He knows basketball is a business, and that winning is the ultimate goal, but Borseth still wants it to be fun for his players. Even though, as Routheaux said, “he’s one of the most competitive guys out there.”

Borseth has won at every level, going 747-295 so far in his career. After coaching for five years at Gogebic, Borseth went on to coach at Division II Michigan Tech, where he led the Huskies to a Final Four in 1993. Then, Green Bay called.

Today, Borseth is in his second stint as the head coach of the Phoenix. He headed up the program from 1998-2007 before taking the head coaching job at Michigan.

But there is a big difference between coaching at the mid-major level and in the Big Ten.

“The higher you climb, the less room there is to breathe,” he said.

And after five years, Borseth wanted to breathe again. So he came back to the program that felt like home.

It gave him the opportunity to be close to his five children, who all live in the Green Bay area, and also allowed Borseth to enjoy a few more years with his parents, who were in their 90s when he moved back. Green Bay is 215 miles from Bessemer, as opposed to the 577 miles between Borseth’s hometown and Ann Arbor.

Borseth picked up right where he left off, and the Phoenix went to five NCAA tournaments in a six-year stretch. That success has made Green Bay into a desirable landing spot for local talent. Ten of the 13 players on the roster this season are from Wisconsin.

“The opportunity to be home and to play for a dominant mid-major program, made it a no-brainer to come here,” said Natalie McNeal, who originally went to St. Louis before transferring back to her home state.

She also wanted to play for Borseth.

“He encourages hard work to earn what you get. Nothing is given to you,” McNeal said. “But at the same time, he treats us like his daughters. He treats us like we are family.”

At this point in his career, Borseth’s basketball family is extensive — “I go to a lot of weddings,” he said with a laugh — but he remembers every moment from the 41 years.

He remembers his first team at Gogebic, when he told his players to run a line drill, and his captain surprised him by yelling out, “You aren’t running hard enough!”

He remembers seeing two of his players at Green Bay during his early days studying under a tree during a 90 degree day and wondering why they weren’t off swimming somewhere instead.

He remembers Lyndsey Robson hitting a half-court shot against No. 18 Syracuse to force overtime in 2019, eventually leading to a Green Bay upset.

“There are a lot of really fond memories,” Borseth said.

But he doesn’t have one for this team. Not yet.

“I’m hoping that moment is still coming,” he said.