ISU men's basketball coach Dan Muller (Photo courtesy of GoRedbirds.com)
By Bryan Bloodworth
No one could imagine the impact Dan Muller would have on the Illinois State University community as a basketball player and student when he stepped on campus 17 years ago.
He was in the starting lineup in his first game as a freshman. He never missed a game and ended as the 10th leading scorer in Redbird history. He was a two-time Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year and is a member of the ISU Hall of Fame.
He led the Redbirds to a 91-36 record during his four-year career and to the school’s last NCAA Tournament appearance in 1998.
Off the court, he was just as successful. He was a two-time GTE Academic All-American and became the only men’s basketball player in school history to be named a Bone Scholar, the highest academic honor at ISU.
Fast forward 14 years and Muller now finds himself back at Illinois State preparing for his first year as the Redbirds’ head coach.
Over the next three days during Muller Time in Lefty’s Corner, we’ll bring you insight into one of the most popular players in ISU history as he begins his head coaching career.
We’ll find out his thoughts about the program; his expectations; who has influenced him in life; his fondest memory at ISU; what he’s like away from basketball; about his family. And we’ll even find out what makes him cry.
Today, Muller talks about building the ISU program; his coaching style; if this was the job he always wanted and things he won’t tolerate from his players on the court.
You talked at media day about wanting to build a culture at ISU. How do you define that?
Any great or even good leader or coach tries to establish their culture. The culture that was here was established by Tim before he left and it was a good healthy one.
But everyone is a little different, so when I came in a lot of what I wanted to do was just let our team know my expectations. It’s going to be about accountability. It’s going to be about competition level. It’s going to be about being great teammates, treating people the right way and, in my opinion, what it takes to win championships.
It's about what it takes to be the best you can be and a strict discipline of just trying to do your best. Our practices have been tough and competitive. We’re still working toward that. This is a work in progress and our guys are trying. But it’s like anything else, you can’t just flip a switch on. It takes some time.
Is this the job you always wanted?
The way I approach life is I just try to do my best. I don’t look to the next step. I don’t look three steps ahead. I plan and I prepare for where I’m at and what I’m doing. But do I sit around and dream about jobs? No.
Did I sit around and dream about this job? No. But I certainly would have loved to have it. I did try to get it when they hired Jank (former coach Tim Jankovich). They were right for not hiring me then, but it is a job I have always had a great passion for. I’m blessed to be here.
You had a lot of success on the court here as a player. Are you afraid to fail here and do you feel extra pressure because of your past success?
I don’t think so. That’s just how I am. I can handle pressure pretty well because I don’t mind what people say. I mind what they say about our players and my family if they ever do.
As long as I know I’m doing my best, then I’m o.k. with what happens. I believe in life you try to control what you can control. You do your best. You don’t make excuses. Then when you get the results you’re o.k. with them. If you keep that mindset, I think you can handle things better.
My job right now is to make sure our players can handle the expectations and keep our standards and expectations internal and try to minimize the pressure. I’d rather have the pressure of winning because you have a good team then having a bad team and trying to figure out how to win.
What is Dan Muller like as a coach in practice and how will he be during a game?
That’s probably a better question for my players to answer. I just try to be consistent. I think if you establish expectations and hold guys accountable so every time a guy doesn’t do a certain thing you emphas then I think you’ll be o.k. and guys will know what to expect.
I’m intense, but I try to keep an even keel. I try to make sure our players have confidence. There are things that will not make me happy and when that happens it’s only because it’s either hurting our team or it’s not what it takes to win.
In games, I don’t plan on being a crazy yeller. I don’t plan on being a dramatic coach, but I will coach with some emotion. I think in practice you get on them a lot, but in games you let them play free.
You were a two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the Valley. Where did that defensive mentality come from?
It came from just understanding what it takes. When you’re little, coaches talk about defense. It’s something that if you don’t mind doing the hard things and you have some toughness to you that you can do it. You don’t want to let your teammates down.
I was blessed with some solid athleticism and size and I understand the game real well. I always did, so I think that helped me become a good defender. But in the end, it comes down to your will.
We were blessed with a real good defensive team when I played. I was an above-average defender on a real good defensive team. We had other guys, who could really defend. It was a culture Coach (Kevin) Stallings set and I was one of the guys who could physically do it. Once it got going, I took some pride in it. It snowballed from there and then I wanted to do it even better. We are going to guard this year.
You started nearly every game here as a player. Did you envision that?
No. A lot of these things come back to the same thing. I just wanted to do my best. I do remember coming in and not expecting anything. I just wanted to play hard and see what happened.
I was lucky. We had a good team, but we had a need at my position. If I was playing another position, I probably would not have started as a freshman or played as much. We had better players at those other positions.
What won’t you tolerate on the court from your players?
I won’t tolerate guys not competing. I won’t tolerate not being a good teammate and there’s a huge difference between being a bad teammate and not holding your team accountable.
I want my players to hold each other accountable. You’re allowed to get on your teammate, but you should be positive more than negative. I won’t tolerate just a total lack of concentration.
Tomorrow during Muller Time in Lefty’s Corner, we’ll talk about his recruiting strategy; how he views the Missouri Valley Conference and we’ll also find out about the more personal side of Dan Muller.
Bryan Bloodworth can be reached at email@example.com