Eric Bridgeland admits he was a “fire and brimstone” type of basketball coach when he guided the University of Puget Sound men to three consecutive NCAA Division III tournament appearances.
But now 45, and nearly a decade removed from that run with the Loggers, a calmer, more-seasoned Bridgeland has changed his approach at Whitman College in Walla Walla.
“The biggest change in me between 10 years ago and now, I’ve realized this is a kids’ game — and they want to have fun playing the game,” Bridgeland said. “And if you are not having fun (coaching), it is time to hang it up and do something else.”
Right now, Bridgeland is in the middle of another fantastic run of success, this time with the Blues.
His squad is 27-0, and the only undefeated men’s program in the NCAA — at any level.
And after top-ranked Babson College (Mass.) lost over the weekend, the No. 2 Blues are surely going to move into that top spot heading into the start of the national tournament Friday.
All that it will take for Whitman to match last season’s success in the postseason is winning two games in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament at home Friday and Saturday to reach the round of 16. The Blues open with Rhodes College (Tenn.).
“When we went to the Sweet 16 last year, and came back the following fall, we had a swagger,” Bridgeland said. “It was not a cockiness or arrogance, but a confidence that we could do this again if we did the right things and worked hard.”
But this group wants more. It expects more.
It all started in November with a 108-78 victory over St. Olaf (Minn.), which had also been in the national tournament.
Three weeks later, the Blues defeated defending Northwest Conference champion Whitworth, 79-65.
Twelve days later, Whitman met Wooster (Ohio), which had won more games in the 2000s than any NCAA school at any level. The Blues won, 80-79.
Then came the showdown between the Blues and No. 4 Marietta (Ga.) on a neutral floor in a tournament in Florida. Whitman won, 72-71.
“At that point in time as a coach, you are like, ‘Boy, we really do have a chance to do something special here,’ ” Bridgeland said. “We had played two giants (in Wooster and Marietta), and we got them both.”
A few NWC coaches have remarked that this is Bridgeland’s best team in seven seasons at Whitman. If for no other reason, the players seem not only to play well together, but they like one another as well.
“With the amount of success we’ve had in the last two years, whenever we tell them what the game plan is, they are all in with it,” Bridgeland said. “No questions. They just go out and do it.”
But is this a national championship contender?
Bridgeland knows because NCAA Division III is so predominantly East Coast-based, it is hard for a team from the NWC or SCIAC to travel and win important tournament games.
The last West Coast program to make the final four was Cal State Stanislaus in 1982.
“The deck is so stacked against us with how the tournamnet is run, it would be a real challenge,” Bridgeland said.
“With that being said, anything is possible.”