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Jim Molinari sits on the sideline during a game.

In 13 seasons as a head basketball coach before coming to the U, Jim Molinari compiled a record of 218-167 and was named coach of the year for both the Mid-Continent Conference (1991) and the Missouri Valley Conference (1996).

A love of teaching

Interim men's basketball coach Jim Molinari places a high value on education

By Rick Moore

Jan. 24, 2007

In 2004, when the Gopher men's basketball program was looking for a coach to elevate its defense to a new level, Jim Molinari was picked as the man for the job.

The team felt his impact instantly. In that first season of 2004-05, on their way to the NCAA tournament, the Gophers finished third in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing only 62.7 points per game--just two points behind conference-best Illinois. Minnesota's average of 62.9 points allowed in all games was its best in 23 years, and it earned Molinari the label of best assistant coach in the Big Ten by Street & Smith's.

Things have changed considerably since then for the man known as "Coach Mo." Two-plus years after arriving, Molinari was tabbed as the interim head coach of the Gophers following the dismissal of Dan Monson, and his scope has had to broaden accordingly.

But no matter his on-court commitments and the team's current struggle to win games in the Big Ten, Molinari remains clearly focused on what he views as the most important things his student-athletes can take from the U: a great education... and a degree.

He believes as much in stressing academics and character development in his players as in being a master of the Xs and Os on the court.

Why players might seek his counsel

How many Division I head basketball coaches have law degrees? Without crunching the numbers on that one, the guess here is somewhere around one.

Molinari gained a juris doctor from DePaul University in 1980 while helping coach the Blue Demon basketball team. After passing the bar and working as a summer associate at a big firm in Chicago ("I was a tax drone," he quips), Molinari decided to turn his attention to coaching.

Coach Mo believes having a law degree helps make him a better coach, and made the following observation: "We tie our goals to our values--like effort, like discipline, like unselfishness. Whether it's a law firm or coaching, a lot of those principles are the same."

"I've always had a holistic approach to being a coach," he says. "I think coaches are educators. They're professors without tenure. I've always seen the value of education, and that's been my approach."

While athletes--like other students--aren't going to learn everything you teach, "They're smart enough to see what you emphasize," Molinari adds. "[The reality of it is,] I know that my job is to provide options for them. And most options are going to come from their academics."

"I tell them, 'When you get a degree from the University, when you go into a place you're going to get tremendous respect," he says.

For Molinari, helping student-athletes find success is more than just talk. During his 13-year head coaching career at Northern Illinois University and Bradley University, nearly 90 percent of Molinari's student-athletes graduated.

"I really feel that if you coach someone for four years and they leave without a degree, you've used them," he says. "You've sent them out into the world for some trouble."

He also acknowledges the nature of the beast in Division I college basketball--that in addition to trying to educate athletes and make them better people, a coach needs to win games, and if he gets fired, it's likely for not meeting the last requirement.

But, he adds, "You have a tremendous platform [for] the first two."

Molinari also would like to help whittle away any barriers that might exist between the academic and athletic sides of the U and create more of a community atmosphere. He says it's his job, and the job of his players, to represent the University in a way that everyone--faculty, staff and fans--wants to be a part of it.

"We're not an island. We're part of something that's much bigger than us," Molinari says. "I want people who meet us to feel that's our philosophy...."

A special opportunity for faculty and staff

To help build campus community, a joint initiative of U governance and athletics is offering reduced-price tickets to Gopher sports events this semester for U faculty and staff. You can cheer on Coach Mo and the men's basketball team at Williams Arena in games against Iowa (Feb. 7 at 7 p.m.) and Michigan (Feb. 24 at 1:30 p.m.). Tickets are $15 while supplies last, and are available at the U of M Bookstores in Coffman Union and the St. Paul Student Center, and at the ticket office in Mariucci Arena. Other special offers are for men's gymnastics (Feb. 17), women's gymnastics (Feb. 24), baseball (March 24) and softball (April 14).

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