Discipline, respect, key to 1,000 wins
By Scott Thoma
Nearly everyone from players, parents, fans, officials, and even opposing coaches, express the same word when describing New London-Spicer (NLS) girls basketball coach Mike Dreier.
Dreier, who is in his 44th year as head coach at NLS, doesn’t just instill X’s and O’s in his players, although that would be the natural assumption of someone who has won over 1,000 games in his coaching career. That is more than 300 more wins than the next closest girls’ basketball coach in state history. The all-time win leader for boys basketball coach is late Chisholm icon, Bob McDonald, who had 1,102 wins during his 59-year boys basketball tenure.
“X’s and O’s are important, too,” Dreier said. “But I try to teach more than just that. It’s about discipline, respect, and other things that are important.”
Whatever he’s been teaching his players is the recipe for success. He has had just one losing season in those 44 years, that coming in his first year of coaching when the Wildcats finished 3-15. He has lost only 186 games in those 44 seasons.
Dreier, 70, remembers his first win.
“It was against Kimball 29-22. It was a thriller,” he said with a sarcastic laugh.
That first win came on Dec. 12, 1978, when Dreier was a 26-year-old rookie coach. He started out as a varsity assistant basketball coach when he was initially hired as a Social Studies teacher at NLS. The head coach stepped down the next year, and Dreier moved up to head coach for the 1978-79 season.
The Wildcats went 10-10 the next two seasons, and it’s been nothing but winning seasons ever since.
His most memorable game, if he had to pick one, was his first section championship in 1985.
“That first time going to state was pretty special,” said Dreier, a 1969 Burnsville graduate and the oldest of nine siblings. “It was the first time NLS had been to state in any team sport.”
As a player, if you don’t listen to what Dreier is preaching, or show any disrespect to another player of official, there is little chance to you will escape his wrath.
“When Mike yells at you, it was because you deserved to be yelled at,” said former NLS standout Jackie (Reese) Clark, who played on varsity from 1985-88. “He would sit us down in practice and explain to us that if he yelled at us, it wasn’t personal. He just wanted you to know that’s not the way he taught you how to do something. He never belittled us or cut us down. He just wanted to get his points across.”
“People who have never played for Dreier will often ask me about his yelling,” said Tonia Nelson, who played for the Wildcats from 1989-93. “I always tell them you have to listen to what he says, not how he says it.”
In a recent game against Annandale, in which his son Matt is head coach, Dreier called a timeout to remind his players about committing “dumb” fouls.
Once the game resumed, two of his players were whistled for fouls away from the basket.
“Hey,” Dreier barked to his players on the court. “We just called a timeout and talked about that. And now you got two fouls within 30 seconds. Come on.”
Fouls like those were few and far between the rest of the game.
“Many people see the intense side of him, which is definitely seen every time he steps in the gym,” Matt said. “But many don’t see or hear about who he is behind the scenes, making connections and positive memories with so many of the players.”
Reese said that Dreier’s disciplinary coaching has led to her not being late for anything in her adult life.
“We would get out of school at 3:02 and we had to be on the court for practice at 3:08,” she said. “If we were late, we had to run laps. I’m never late for anything now. His expectations of us were so high. He really respected all of us, and we didn’t want to let him down and see the disappointment in his eyes.”
Dreier also does not allow the players to talk on the bus to away games because he wants that time spent to focus on the upcoming game. Players must also walk or run over to the official and hand them a loose ball instead of throwing it. His players have also been told not to disrespect an opposing player or official by disagreeing or talking back to them.
“It’s just to teach the team to respect others,” Dreier explained. “If the official makes a call we don’t agree with, it’s my job to let the know, not the players.”
Dreier notched his 1,000th career win on Jan. 28 at home against Watertown-Mayer.
“Yeah, I’m kind of glad it’s over with,” said Dreier when asked. “The only time I thought about it was when someone would bring it up. I just want to coach the girls.”
Dreier was presented with a basketball with his photo and the words “Congratulations Coach Mike Dreier 1,000 wins” printed on it. He was also given a crystal piece etched with his accomplishment.
Many of his former players were in attendance on that historic night.
“I don’t know if my words can express how much of an impact Mr. Dreier had on my life, how much he taught me, and how much I respect him,” said Nelson, who was also in attendance for Dreier’s 1,000th win. “Mr. Dreier is the type of coach who loved and valued his players so much that he would not allow any player to be anything less than their best.”
Dreier appears uncomfortable when posing for a photo, or even talking about his accomplishments. There’s a reason for his humbleness.
“It’s not about me,” he stresses. “It’s about the kids, their parents, the fans, my assistants (Margaret Essler has been one of his assistants for 37 years) and anyone else who helped along the way. They are the ones who made this happen. They are all a part of it, not just me.”
Basketball has always been a family affair for the Dreiers. Mike’s wife, Vonnie, is the scorekeeper for home games. Both coaching sons (a third son, Tim, lives in Las Vegas) can attest to the fact that their father would rather just coach and let others worry about the wins and awards.
“My dad has never been one for personal accolades because that has absolutely no impact on why he does what he does,’ said Matt. “But with him hitting 1,000 wins it is really fun to see so many former players come back to reunite with him and to hear the stories from many different players on the impact he made in their lives.”
When Dreier won the National High School Basketball Coaches Association prestigious John Wooden Legacy Award in December, he never mentioned it to anyone.
“He didn’t even tell his family,” laughed Joey. “I saw it somewhere online that he had won that award and I asked him about it, but he just kind of shrugged his shoulders. He’s more concerned about teaching values to his players and making sure they work hard.”
Over the years, Dreier’s teams have qualified for 19 state tournaments, winning state titles in 1997 and 2002. The Wildcats also were state runners-up six other times.
“To play for Mr. Dreier meant that you were willing to be part of a team,” said Nelson. “Everyone was held accountable, and no one was more important than anyone else. We were expected to be good representatives of our team, our school, and our community.”
Dreier is admittedly an old school coach, often working late hours to grab any advantage he can. He’s not into the new-age technology, and still even carries a flip phone.
“My dad watches a lot of game film, and he can spot things that most other coaches probably wouldn’t,” said Joey. “He puts so much time and energy into watching film. He is very detail-oriented. But he really loves what he does. He still has that same energy and passion for the game as he always has. Proud is such an understatement, but I am very proud of him. “
Matt said it is bittersweet coaching against his father.
“Obviously, you want your team to win, but you hate seeing the other team lose,” he explained. “I am so proud of my dad’s accomplishment because it goes to show what he is all about, working hard. He has taught my brothers and me, as well as all the players that he has coached, that hard work pays off.”
Dreier, who retired from teaching in 2011, has given no immediate thoughts to stepping down as coach.
“As long as I still enjoy it and as long as I’m healthy, I’ll probably keep coaching,” he said.
And how would he like to be remembered?
“Just that he cared,” Dreier said humbly.