Former Duluth mayor and longtime Minnesota Duluth basketball booster Gary Doty remembers watching his cousin, Dave Baker, star for the Bulldogs from 1957-61.
Romano Gym — the UMD Physical Education Building, as it was called back then — would often be packed, with fans lining the bleachers. Unlike today, it even had seats on either end.
“You couldn’t get in,” the 72-year-old Doty recalled. “I was in sixth or seventh grade, and we used to have to sneak in. I remember crawling in a window one time because I couldn’t get in the gym. There was a window open down one of the sides, so I crawled in the window to get in the game because there were no tickets left. Everybody wanted to go in. It was wild.”
Those were the days.
Return to glory
While UMD has certainly had some lean years since then, the Bulldogs are experiencing a Romano Renaissance, with the refurbished facility playing host to better basketball in recent years. That, in turn, has seen an increase in interest, slowly but surely. And if you can’t get excited about basketball this weekend, you never will.
The UMD women are 19-5 overall and lead the NSIC at 16-2 going into matchups with Northern State (12-12, 8-10) on Friday and defending league champion Minnesota State-Moorhead (16-9, 11-7) on Saturday. The Bulldogs have their best conference mark since going 16-2 in 1999-2000 under Karen Stromme.
After serving as UMD women’s basketball coach for 21 seasons, the program is dear to Stromme. She now serves as UMD’s senior associate athletic director and is understandably giddy.
“I wake up every day with a smile,” Stromme said. “What I like the best is when I’m out and about, at the grocery store or somewhere else, and somebody will say, ‘How ’bout those Bulldogs?’ And that’s fun, hearing how much they love coming to watch the games. That’s inspiring to us.”
The UMD men are 18-6 overall and 13-5 in the NSIC, jockeying for position atop the NSIC North Division standings with Northern State (18-6, 14-4) and Minnesota State-Moorhead (15-9, 11-7). These are the last home games of the regular season, and with UMD men’s hockey off this weekend and the women's hockey team out of town, UMD men’s basketball coach Justin Wieck is hoping for big crowds at Romano, which has a capacity of 2,028.
“The interest has continued to climb and climb, and it’s been fun to have some really meaningful games here in Duluth in mid-February and hopefully March,” said Wieck, in his second season with the Bulldogs. “It’s a fun brand of basketball to watch for both our teams, and when you start talking about conference championships and stuff like that, these games are pretty important. It’s a credit to our guys. They’ve definitely earned it.”
From lean to mean
The once proud UMD basketball programs haven’t seen this kind of success in more than a decade.
After Stromme retired from coaching after going 20-9 in 2004-05, her protege, Sue Fiero, guided the UMD women to a 16-12 mark before deciding coaching wasn’t for her and stepping down. Karen’s brother, Dave Stromme, filled in for one year on an interim basis, going 15-14, before Tanya Bauer was hired.
The Bulldogs struggled in their one year under Bauer, going 4-23 record for their first losing season since 1980-81.
“I think it was just the turmoil of four coaches in four years,” Karen Stromme said. “That’s hard on anybody. You can’t point fingers. That’s difficult for any program to sustain.”
Annette Wiles came in and brought stability, including a 20-11 season in 2009-10. But UMD didn’t challenge for a conference title again until last season, going 23-7 overall and finishing second to Moorhead at 18-4 in NSIC play. If the Bulldogs hold on this year, it would be their first conference title since going 25-5 overall and 15-3 in conference play under Stromme in 2002-03.
Mandy Pearson is in her fifth season as UMD women’s basketball coach and has seen an increase in wins each season.
“Our alumni are excited about our record, but they’ve been amazing the whole time,” Pearson said. “There was always pride. I’ve felt like that since I first walked on campus. This place takes a lot of pride in everything they do. There just might be a little more excitement now about both programs.”
Pearson was asked what it was like having Stromme, the former coach, as her boss. Rather than see it as added scrutiny, she embraces it.
Pearson keeps a poster of Stromme in her office pointing out the Duluth native’s 440-184 career record, 21-straight winning seasons and combined 15 NCAA and NAIA playoff appearances. Pearson even had Stromme speak to her team before the first practice of her first season, talking about UMD’s tradition of excellence.
“It’s Karen Stromme — she’s amazing,” Pearson said. “She’s never walked in my office and told me what to do, but she is always there if I ask for advice. It’s an absolute blessing to have her around, and it would be absolutely ridiculous and crazy if I didn’t want her involved. Our players love her, the community loves her and our alumni love her. She helps us connect with other people. She’s like a bridge, and it’s all helpful. There’s zero negativity.”
Wieck says a lot of the same things about former UMD men’s basketball coach Gary Holquist.
Future is bright
The UMD men haven’t had a 20-win season since going 20-11 under Holquist in 2008-09. They haven’t had a conference title since going 19-11 and 14-4 in NSIC play in 2001-02.
The last time both programs reached 20 wins in the same season, as the Bulldogs are on the verge of doing, was 1996-97, when the UMD women went 20-7 under Stromme and the men went 21-6 under Dale Race.
Holquist, who coached 26 years in the UMD men’s basketball program, serves as UMD’s senior development officer and is married to Stromme. Holquist said one of the reasons he stepped down from coaching after the 2011-12 season was he felt he could have more impact fundraising. He said the basketball programs had gone from the NCAA Division II maximum of 10 scholarships down to five.
“The people who come in this building every day help us retool the program to where it needs to be,” Holquist said. “That goes from our alumni and fans to our donor base. Everyone has made a contribution. There was a dead spot, financially, where we just couldn’t do what we needed to have done. We had to financially take care of our own problems, our own business, and we did that.”
The Bulldogs sure have if this season is any indication. Not only are the Bulldogs having success on the court, but Romano looks the part, with old-school touches meshed with a new videoboard, collapsible seats and a heating and cooling system as part of a $12 million renovation.
The UMD men’s basketball team features forward Brandon Myer, a senior from Superior who is two points from passing Mike Patterson (1,808 points, 1961-65) for second place on UMD’s all-time scoring list.
Myer was a freshman the year the Bulldogs were historically bad, going 4-25 in 2016-17. Myer admits the thought of transferring crossed his mind, but said he’s glad he stuck it out. Now, he’s being rewarded for it.
“That was growing pains,” Myer said. “At Superior, and a lot of places I played, I got used to winning, so that was the growing pain of learning how to lose, too, and I’m grateful for it looking back.
“This feels really good. Something I talked to my family about is that hopefully I leave UMD in a better place than when I arrived. With the coaches and teammates and everyone involved, with all that help, now I think I can say that.”
What: NSIC women’s and men’s home doubleheaders
Friday: Northern State, 5:30/7:30 p.m.
Saturday: Minnesota State-Moorhead, 3:30/5:30 p.m.
Fast fact: UMD’s programs are a combined 22-1 at Romano Gym this season