Drew Diener at the rally Wednesday Night
Editor’s note: Regular Sports Nut columnist Howie Magner is on assignment (leprechaun training), so Milwaukee Magazine interns Logan Macomber and James Carlton will serve as temporary guest writers.
Around here, there are some prominent family names that are synonymous with a specific type of success. You’ve got the Zucker brothers of airborne comedy fame. The Bartolotta restaurant family with Italian fine dining. The Schiltz, Pabst and Blatz broods that made Milwaukee famous way back when.
And in the sports world, there’s no lineage more associated with triumph than the far-reaching Diener basketball dynasty. The multiple-generation hoops history of this distinguished Wisconsin family is a storied one, filled with nearly a dozen relatives playing or coaching at major high-school, college and even professional levels.
A primer: There’s Tom Diener, the head coach at Milwaukee Hamilton and former coach at Vincent, where he won five state championships. His brother, Dick, a Fond du Lac legend and Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Famer, who’s also won a state title. Dick coached Travis, the best-known Diener, a star at Marquette and an NBA player for six seasons. Travis currently plays on a professional Italian league team with his cousin, Drake, who excelled at DePaul University in Chicago. And then there are a slew of other cousins that also played in college, including Rachel (Saint Louis), Brittney (Lewis in Illinois), Derek (West Point) and Drew (Saint Louis).
Got all that? Take a deep breath.
This week, the decorated Diener family tree added yet another ornament. The Cardinal Stritch men’s team won its first-ever NAIA Division II national championship, and with it, Drew Diener, in his fourth year as head coach, was able to place a shiny new trophy atop his kin’s crowded mantle.
The second-seeded Wolves made mincemeat of William Penn (Iowa) on Tuesday night, devouring the top-seeded Statesmen, 73-59 in rural Missouri.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Drew Diener says while on the bus home Wednesday evening. “It hasn’t really set in yet.” He talked about how exciting it was, especially for his team used to playing in front of a few hundred fans, to experience the fanfare, accolades and exposure of playing for a national championship on television.
The title was the culmination of four years of steady improvement for Cardinal Stritch under Drew Diener, the three-time Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference coach of the year. His first two seasons ended in the first round of the NAIA Division II tournament, and last season he guided the Wolves to the Elite Eight.
This year, his team won it all.
“It’s definitely my greatest accomplishment in sports,” he says, “and doing so with the group of guys we’ve got was awesome.”
Since he was named head coach four years ago, Drew has had his father, Dick, with him on the bench as an assistant coach. It was the same this season. Dick coached high school ball for more than 30 years and says the community and “lifelong relationships” he developed kept him at that level. He retired from that several years ago and now makes the hour and a half commute every day from Fond du Lac to northern Milwaukee for practice. And, just like the teams he coached, he makes sure to be on time.
It’s been invaluable to have his father alongside him, says Drew, who was named the NAIA Division II coach of the year, an award he stressed any coach could achieve with Dick’s expertise on hand.
“I’m really lucky,” Drew says. “Having [Dick] around has had a lot to do with our basketball success. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Dick, who took seven of his high school teams to state tournaments and is no stranger to high-stakes tournaments, described the national-championship experience as “unbelievable” and “fantastic.” He says being a Wolves assistant is the “next chapter” of his career and one he doesn’t plan on ending it anytime soon.
He started taking his sons and nephews to the local Fond du Lac gym more than a quarter-century ago and says the opportunity to coach a team with Drew has been indescribable. And not to mention productive.
“Drew grew up around me and basketball, and the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree in terms of philosophy of the game,” Dick says. “We very seldom disagree.”
At that, though, he made sure to mention their differing schools of thought on what to do when a player gets two fouls in a half, or – as Drew was quick to shout out – how to use their timeouts.
“I don’t know if he thinks [timeouts] carry over to the next game,” Dick says with a laugh about his high-energy, roll-the-dice son.
Drew says the Stritch games have become a “family affair,” with his dad on the bench, his mom usually in attendance and his wife and young son in tow, even to the far-away championship.
Apparently, few Dieners have to endure long roads to success. Winning on the basketball court, it seems, comes as easily to them as pasta to the Bartolottas or surely/Shirley jokes to the Zucker bros. And it comes quickly, too. After Drew’s 3-pointer-filled playing career at Saint Louis, which included an NCAA appearance his freshman year, ended in 2003, it took only six years of apprenticing before he was named Stritch’s head coach in 2009. In his tenure, the Wolves have gone 113-28, including a 35-3 record this season, gaining national recognition.
And, speaking of long roads traversed quickly, Drew makes sure even the ride home from tiny, rural Point Lookout, Mo., where the Wolves won the title inside cozy Keeter Gymasium, is speedy. It’s supposed to be almost a 10-hour bus ride back to Stritch, but, Drew says, “we’ve got a good driver,” so they made it back in less than nine. They arrived about 20 hours later than a student and fan bus that had journeyed all the way back, and the team entered its home arena to a spotlighted and Queen-blaring championship rally Wednesday evening. The field house was filled and frenzied with avid Wolves fans. One, a little girl no older than 5, held up a sign that read, “Welcome Back Wolves!”
After the second playing of “We Are the Champions,” the rally wrapped up and one player ventured up into the stands to hug his parents and exuberantly celebrate the homemade box of M&M cookies his mom had brought him.
I was seated nearby witnessing it and registered a nice memory, one almost as cherished as when I attended a Rick Majerus basketball camp in the same gym and had the 350-pound college coaching legend sit on me while attempting to do fingertip pushups.
Unlike his players, who can forever bask in the nostalgic warmth of a national championship, Drew Diener has only a couple of days for revelry. Wednesday night is one of those rare times, and he takes the microphone at the rally to genuinely thank the fans, commend his team and make a few jokes.
Without the mic, though, he’s not joking when he says the national championship and television coverage are his best recruiting tools moving forward. He chose college over high school coaching because he enjoys selling the program and controlling his own collection of talent. Next year, he’s got a few core players returning, but the life of a college basketball coach – at any level – is one played without the luxury of timeouts, so next season is now.
Drew’s been getting texts and calls from friends and family saying that, with a national college championship, he’s now upped the ante and is on the same level or has even surpassed titanic Wisconsin high school coaching family members Dick and Tom. But he maintains that’s “jumping the gun.”
Back in the day, Dick Diener once coached a Fond du Lac team that had four Dieners on the floor at once – two sons and two nephews. Now he’s assisting one of them and insists that two of the others – Italian pros Travis and Drake – will make great coaches when their playing careers end, though he laughs and says it’s not a prerequisite for staying in the clan’s good graces.
’Tis a family affair, indeed.