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March Madness is the last dance for Long Beach St coach Dan Monson, who was let go last week

Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson participates in a net cutting ceremony after his team played an NCAA college basketball game against UC Davis in the championship of the Big West Conference men's tournament Saturday, March 16, 2024, in Henderson, Nev. Long Beach State won 74-70. (AP Photo/Ronda Churchill)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The film session last week was a cringeworthy review of bad boxouts, poor spacing and defenders standing flat-footed. In other words, Long Beach State coach Dan Monson told his team, “The kind of plays that get coaches fired.”

This week, it's easy to laugh at that story, even if some of the smiles come between the tears.

In the wake of all that basketball badness that Long Beach put on film, to say nothing of the five-game losing streak that came with it, Monson did, in fact, get his walking papers last week. The one concession: He'd be allowed to coach through the end of the season.

The season is still going. That he spent Wednesday preparing his team for its first-round game in the NCAA Tournament against Arizona — a team coached by Tommy Lloyd, who got his start on the sidelines thanks to Monson himself — is a testament to the resilience of this coaching lifer and players who took responsibility for the meltdown.

And if March Madness is America's annual chance to celebrate the improbable, or sometimes impossible, then consider the 62-year-old coach to have cut down the nets before a single shot goes up this week.

“I've reflected this week that, I don't have a job, but I don't need one,” Monson said. “I've got everything I want with my family, with my players, with my friends."

Monson's fate was sealed after the five-game skid dropped the Beach — the nickname for the school that hasn't won an NCAA game since 1973 — to 18-14, its chances of a run to March Madness barely a blip, even in a conference with no true powerhouses.

It was portrayed as a mutual decision to part ways. Monson said the first-year athletic director, Bobby Smitheran, told him coaching out the final few weeks of the season would give him a chance for a well-deserved sendoff.

“The athletic director said it will be a celebration and you can go coach,” Monson said. “I asked him, ‘Have you ever seen that work?’”

In this case, it did.

After three wins in three nights last week, the Beach found themselves cutting down the nets at the Big West Tournament, then waiting to see where they'd go for a most-unexpected trip to the NCAA tourney.

“We felt like failures,” junior guard Jadon Jones said of the tear-stained meeting when Monson told the team he had been let go. “I know it's a business and they have to make business decisions, but to do it before the tournament, it felt like they'd given up on us. And we knew we had to prove them wrong."

The chip was on their shoulder. But to portray this as “us against the world” isn't quite accurate.

Monson's dinner when the team arrived Tuesday night was with none other than Lloyd, along with Mark Few of Gonzaga, who is also in Salt Lake City this week. Back in 1999, Monson, at the time coaching at Gonzaga, brought Lloyd on as a grad assistant. Then, a few weeks later, he left for more money and a bigger stage at Minnesota.

When Monson left, Few took over. “He's the sole reason I got into this profession,” the Zags coach said.

This is Gonzaga's 25th straight trip to the tournament — a streak that began when Monson's magical run to the Elite Eight in '99 left him as one of the hottest coaching commodities in the game.

“It's a story worthy of a Disney show, the way it's played out,” Few said. “It's also a lesson for all those athletic directors out there to take pause and realize, these jobs are hard and sometimes if you've got a good guy there, you might hang with it.”

Monson made no effort to mask the strange truth behind this unexpected journey. He opened his 20-minute media session by announcing: “I don't have to answer any questions I don't want to, because I'm working for free today.”

His path to Long Beach State was a reclamation project for both himself and the program. He was fresh off his disappointment at Minnesota, where seven-plus seasons produced only one NCAA trip. Long Beach State, meanwhile, was entering NCAA purgatory, filled with probation and scholarship reductions, the residue of recruiting violations committed by the previous coaching staff.

Monson turned it around quickly and got the program to the tournament in 2012. But this is his first trip back since. When the losing streak hit late this season, it came as little surprise to him and his family that a new AD might make the decision he made.

“We all knew his contract was ending,” said Monson's wife, Darci. “When we started on the slide, he and I talked. There were a lot of tears. After we lost to Irvine (on March 2), I was really struggling. And then when we lost to Davis (on March 9), he was really struggling.”

Smitheran steered clear of the team's open practice and media session Wednesday, and did not respond to emails from The Associated Press requesting an interview.

Earlier this week, a school official confirmed this once-in-a-lifetime run to the tournament won't change the end result. Monson's tenure as Long Beach State's coach will end — either Thursday, or Saturday, or, who knows, a week or two down the road.

It's why the words he has highlighted on the chalkboard before every game of late have been: “Stay in the moment.”

“It's been a life-changing week, and in a good way," the coach said. “And next week, I've got a house payment, a car payment. Don't know how I'm gonna do it. But don't really care.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness