Since being named head coach at South Dakota three years ago, Dawn Plitzuweit has led the Yotes to three straight 20-win seasons, culminating in two WNIT appearances and an NCAA Tournament berth last spring. In her second year, South Dakota was 14-0 in Summit League play, and Plitzuweit was named conference coach of the year for the first of two consecutive seasons. Three Yote players have been named all-Summit League during her tenure.
A standout at Michigan Tech, Plitzuweit got her first coaching job at her alma mater working for her former coach, Kevin Borseth. They teamed up for 11 seasons there, at Green Bay and at Michigan. Plituweit’s first head coaching job was at DII Grand Valley State.
What were your goals for the program when you came to South Dakota? How did you go about trying to achieve them?
For us we set high expectations in our program: put forth the best effort in everything you do, both on the court and academically. I have been very blessed to coach high academic-achieving women. When we don’t get the best effort in practice, we go again until we get that. We also expect community service. We also expect energy. Even if you watch our bench, you are entertained.
We tell them to be thankful, because there is lots to be grateful for here at South Dakota. We want them to be humble and hard-working at the same time. We also want them to be present; you can multi-task, but you can’t multi-focus.
How would you characterize South Dakota basketball?
Highly-skilled, highly competitive. What’s great about the state of South Dakota is that high school teams play with a shot clock, so the game is fun to watch when I’m out recruiting. I catch myself out of state, because every single time I’m looking up to see where the shot clock is at. Having a shot clock here helps players be ready for collegiate level play.
What do you look for in recruits when you’re scouting possible Yotes?
From a recruiting standpoint there are a couple key things we look at. One is toughness level. In order to compete at a high level, we have to have a lot of toughness. That means getting rebounds, deflecting passes and staying with plays. Also, it’s making the simple plays. That toughness category encompasses skill level.
We’re together 10 months of the year, so energy level is important to me. That goes with toughness, too. That’s part of the togetherness piece. Look at where we’re at from an academic stand point: at least half of our kids are in some form of the medical field.
What is fun about coaching at South Dakota, and in the Summit League?
It’s fun because of the kind of people we have a chance to work with everyday. They are committed to being their best, and also to having a good time. They are fun-loving individuals. While we work hard and get after it, there’s also some laughing and giggling. From an academic standpoint, we are at a university that offers 200 different degrees. We recruit and retain quality young ladies. Our fan base is phenomenal. Last year we averaged over 2,400 fans per game. The roof is dropped lower than a normal arena, which intensifies the atmosphere.
This year we have great competition and an eager team, so hopefully that’s a good combination. What’s amazing is how well teams (in the league) shoot the ball. We had five teams last year in top 10 percent in the country in three-pointers.
You were Kevin Borseth’s assistant coach for many years. What did you learn from him, and when did you know you were ready to be a head coach?
I learned a great deal from coach Borseth. He’s an incredible X’s and O’s coach in terms of breaking down your opponent. I think he has incredible balance in his life, and that helps him understand that it’s more than just basketball. Our expectations in this program don’t come from Borseth, but the culture he created, because those are the kinds of things that grew from what he taught. His balanced approach is important for his student athletes. He allows his players to have a lot of fun, but we played our tails off for him.
I don’t know if I felt like I was ready at that time (that I took the first head coach job). At Grand Valley coach Williams was an assistant there, so I was fortunate because in my head, I had someone I was learning from in a coach with experience.
What kind of a player were you?
I was a point guard who enjoyed getting to the basket and posting up, so I’m usually running a motion offense where our guards post up. Our posts get to shoot three’s. Defense was a key focus for me, so a major focus for us is making sure we’re guarding opponents.
How did your career as a player effect what kind of coach you have become?
When I was a player, my favorite NBA player to watch was Magic Johnson. Not just for his incredible skill set and passes, but I loved the fact that he was celebrated as someone who could smile and have fun during the course of a game. Playing for Borseth, he was willing to accept that I was willing to have fun and play really hard while doing it. I could crack a joke. The part I really enjoy from playing is the love of the game and the passion I had for it.
What are your goals for the Yotes?
Our goals this year are to continue focusing on the process and seeing where that takes us, but this year we are really working to refine a few things in our program. We have worked on refining our defense because we want to continue to get better on the defensive end of the court.
Then we’ll see where that takes us. The Summit League is a great conference, but also a conference that shoots the ball so efficiently. We’ve got to continue to find a way to guard all of those players.
How have young athletes changed since you were in college? How do you reach this new generation?
My husband I have two children who are in that era right now – a son who is a sophomore in college and a daughter who is a junior in high school. During my recruitment, I was looking for a relationship with a coach; I was looking for a coach I’d invite to my wedding. When I played in college, I had so much respect and admiration for (Borseth). He was someone I’d invite to my wedding. It’s not like I went into his office all the time. We joked and talked but didn’t have extensive meetings. What players are looking for in their coaches today isn’t necessarily any different.
The way it’s experienced now is different from the standpoint that kids now are under more pressure than they’ve ever been before. We have middle school kids acting like they know what their career will be. In college, they are being pressured to get jobs. More than anything, young people need to be reassured. It’s critical on our generation to do this. When student athletes have that connectivity, then they can perform at a very high level relative to their own skill sets. That’s something that’s continued to evolve.
We weren’t under the same pressure these kids are. We didn’t see stat sheets after the game – we just knew if we won or lost. We didn’t hear about it online, the exposure wasn’t there. That made it a lot simpler.
If you were anything else besides a coach, what career would you be in?
I’d be a kindergarten teacher. I would have so much fun doing that. I’d get to hang out with kids who are so excited to be at school and so willing and energetic and will try anything. That’s what I went to college to become, initially.