From running open prison gyms to the NCAA tournament, a unique style has served Green Bay’s Kevin Borseth well

By | March 7, 2024

Green Bay’s Kevin Borseth has been coaching college basketball at various levels for more than 40 years. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

Kevin Borseth had a feeling about his team when they took the floor against No. 22 Creighton. As they went through warmups and pregame conversations in an unfamiliar locker room, he felt no nerves. Instead, his Green Bay team exuded confidence.

They’re going to win, he thought.

Borseth was right. The Phoenix upset Creighton, 65-53. The following week they topped No. 23 Washington State, 59-48, setting the tone for their season.

“Some people hope they win, and some people know they’re going to win,” Borseth said. “This is one of those teams that knows they’re going to win. And that is difficult to achieve.”

The Phoenix went to fourteen NCAA tournaments with him at the helm and Borseth transformed the program into a mid-major powerhouse, one that was expected to win the Horizon League year after year.

The Phoenix will play Youngstown State in the Horizon League quarterfinals on Thursday. They must win three games in a row to earn an automatic bid.

It’s been five years since Green Bay’s last appearance in March Madness. But this team, Borseth says, has what it takes to break the unwanted streak.

He would know. He has coached hopeful teams, confident teams and teams that fall in between. It’s been 41 years since I worked at four different programs and at three different levels, but Borseth still remembers every team.

He also remembers how it started, with a phone call from a friend and an unexpected opportunity.

Borseth grew up in Bessemer, a city of 1,805 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he focused on athletics. The fact that he is now a basketball coach was all about timing and opportunity. Borseth says he would have coached any sport, and he dabbled in baseball and football.

“I’ve always been a sweatshirt guy,” he said. “I have never been a businessman.”

So when his friend and former high school teammate Deke Routheaux called in 1982 and said he had a coaching job for him, Broseth jumped at the chance.

Routheaux was the women’s basketball coach at Gogebic Community College for seven years before moving to the men’s team. His athletic director had a candidate in mind, someone with more coaching experience, but Routheaux backed down. He knew Borserth was the right man.

Routheaux coached at Gogebic for 31 years, but says bringing in Borseth was his “best recruiting job.”

Borseth immediately started coaching, which was a good thing because it took up all his time. It was a complicated gig, with multiple responsibilities.

During the day Borseth taught, and in the afternoon he led the training with the women’s teams. In the evening he helped Routheaux with the men’s team.

Then at 9 p.m., Borseth drove 20 minutes to the local minimum-security prison, where he kept gyms open for the inmates.

At first his job was simply to open the gym and watch the prisoners use weight machines, jump ropes and punching bags. Some of them loved to shoot hoops, and as a coach, Borseth couldn’t help but gravitate toward the field.

He started by implementing a few rules and it grew from there.

“One thing led to another,” he said. “And we ended up bringing in teams from outside to play these guys.”

Running open gyms in a prison may seem a lot different than coaching a Division I women’s basketball program, but at its core, all coaching is the same, Borseth says. And those days at the Ojibway Correctional Facility taught him one of his most important coaching lessons.

“I learned that if you listen to the people playing, you can get a lot more out of it,” he said. “So on all the teams I’ve coached since then, I listen to the players a lot because they’re the ones doing the work. They should have input.”

Green Bay's Kevin Borseth embraces Meghan Pingel in the final seconds of a Horizon League tournament game in 2022. (James Black/Getty Images)Green Bay's Kevin Borseth embraces Meghan Pingel in the final seconds of a Horizon League tournament game in 2022. (James Black/Getty Images)

Green Bay’s Kevin Borseth embraces Meghan Pingel in the final seconds of a Horizon League tournament game in 2022. (James Black/Getty Images)

Over the years, that idea has become Borseth’s most important and unconventional coaching mantra: “The name on the back of the shirt is more important than the name on the front.”

That’s a direct contradiction to the common expression, a coaching cliché that emphasizes the importance of the team over the individual. But Borseth takes the opposite approach.

“It’s all about people,” Borseth said. “I think our job as coaches is to help these young athletes gain confidence in themselves. And to do that, you have to invest time in the name on the back of the shirt.”

Borseth is sticking to that philosophy as the college basketball landscape changes. He knows basketball is a business and winning is the ultimate goal, but Borseth still wants it to remain fun for his players. Even though he is, as Routheaux said, “one of the most competitive guys around.”

Borseth has won at every level, with a mark of 747-295 so far in his career. After coaching at Gogebic for five years, Borseth went on to coach at Division II Michigan Tech, where he led the Huskies to a Final Four in 1993. Then Green Bay called.

Today, Borseth is in his second stint as head coach of the Phoenix. He led the program from 1998-2007 before taking the head coaching job at Michigan.

But there is a big difference between coaching at the mid-major level and in the Big Ten.

“The higher you climb, the less room there is to breathe,” he said.

And after five years, Borseth wanted to breathe again. So he returned to the program that felt like home.

It gave him a chance to be close to his five children, all of whom live in the Green Bay area, and it also allowed Borseth to enjoy a few more years with his parents, who were in their 90s when he moved back. Green Bay is 345 miles from Bessemer, as opposed to the 577 miles between Borseth’s hometown and Ann Arbor.

Borseth picked up where he left off and the Phoenix went to five NCAA tournaments in six years. That success has made Green Bay an attractive landing spot for local talent. Ten of the thirteen players on the roster this season are from Wisconsin.

“The opportunity to be home and play for a dominant mid-major program made it a no-brainer to come here,” said Natalie McNeal, who originally attended St. Louis before returning to her home state.

She also wanted to play for Borseth.

“He encourages hard work to earn what you get. Nothing is given to you,” McNeal said. “But at the same time he treats us like his daughters. He treats us like we are family.”

At this point in his career, Borseth’s basketball family has expanded — “I go to a lot of weddings,” he said with a laugh — but he remembers every moment of the 41 years.

He remembers his first team at Gogebic, when he told his players to perform a line exercise, and his captain surprised him by shouting, “You’re not running fast enough!”

In his early days, he remembers seeing two of his players in Green Bay studying under a tree on a 90-degree day and wondering why they didn’t go swimming somewhere.

He remembers Lyndsey Robson hitting a half-court shot against No. 18 Syracuse to force overtime in 2019, ultimately leading to an upset of Green Bay.

“There are a lot of great memories,” Borseth said.

But he doesn’t have one for this team. Not yet.

“I hope that moment will come,” he said.

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