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COLUMN: A coaching legacy returns to his roots

by FRITZ NEIGHBOR
Daily Inter Lake | July 28, 2021 8:09 PM

As youth basketball camps go, last weekend’s inaugural Carroll College satellite camp was just what Kurt Paulson ordered: Not too big, close to home and the final one of summer.

“I don’t get up here often, to be honest,” said Paulson, a 2001 Whitefish grad now in his fourth year guiding the Saints’ men’s basketball program. “June is all camps. July was recruiting until just a few days ago. I was in LA, Vegas, Portland…”

Montana?

“We’ve offered a lot of Montana kids,” said Paulson, whose best player on last season’s NAIA quarterfinals team was from Belgrade. … Serbia (Jovan Sljivancanin). “I want more.”

Paulson was standing outside the Whitefish High School gym, where around 30 kids would be put through the paces by a crew that included Sam Tudor, the current Flathead girls’ coach who was Paulson’s assistant at Bigfork High for a couple years.

“Sam and I grew up together in the Rustler Field House,” said Paulson, harkening back to the days his dad, Frontier Conference commissioner Kent Paulson, was Great Falls CMR’s coach.

It’s been a basketball life: Paulson’s two seasons with the Vikings came in between stints with Wayne Tinkle at the University of Montana. First he was a poorly paid graduate assistant working three jobs to get by; then he was a full-fledged assistant coach.

In between? Paulson is blunt: “I wasn’t ready (to be a full-time college assistant) and Wayne Tinkle told me that. He said, ‘You’ve got to get a little bit of game experience.’

“(Bigfork) was the best experience I could get. Making all the decisions. I was teaching and coaching. It was awesome. Unbelievable group of kids — gym rats. I honestly had a blast.”

And so it was that Bigfork won back-to-back State B championships — under Tudor.

“Wayne called me at the end of June in 2013 and we had just done 25 summer league games and went 24-1,” Paulson remembered. “Had a great team coming back. I was super excited about that group. But that was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, being an assistant for the Griz.

“Sam came in a year later and did an unbelievable job.”

Paulson, meanwhile, went to Oregon State when Tinkle left Montana to take over the Beavers’ program in 2014. Their second season, OSU made its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 26 years.

By this time Paulson must have had a rep: He remembers outgoing Carroll coach Carson Cunningham giving him an early heads-up that the job was open.

It was 2018, and why not — Paulson had put in his time as a college assistant, and had played point guard at Carroll under Gary Turcott, and alongside Travis Williams and Ross Gustafson and Jeff Hays.

Tinkle also gave his blessing/recommendation.

“I think that’s what really pushed it over the top, was Wayne,” Paulson said.

We’re just about caught up, though it’s worth mentioning Carroll’s first trip to the NAIA basketball championship came in Paulson’s first year as coach.

Married and the father of two young girls, Paulson has plenty of basketball ahead. He’s not 40, and yet he’s been around so long he has a Mt. Rushmore of basketball influences.

His dad, Turcott, Tinkle and his high school coach Julio Delgado.

“Those four guys — that’s where I learned everything,” he said. “All four of those guys were at my wedding. Nobody has a better Montana coaching tree than I do, I feel.

“I’m so lucky.”

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 758-4463 or fneighbor@dailyinterlake.com