CROOKSTON, Minn. — The Minnesota Crookston men's basketball program has had quite the journey over the course of the last 40 years.
The school went from affiliation as a junior college to a four-year NAIA to the NCAA Division II. Along the way, the school changed its nickname from the Trojans to the Golden Eagles.
Coach Gary Senske, head men's basketball coach from 1981-2002, navigated the program through every change.
On Monday, UMC announced it would honor Senske's time at the school by naming the court at Lysaker Gymnasium in his honor.
"I am very humbled," Senske said. "When I was coaching, I was going to different gyms and coaches had their names on the floor, and that was pretty cool. When I was told my name would be on the floor, I was totally humbled by the whole works."
Lysaker Gymnasium was completed in 1981 and named in honor of former UMC athletic director and coach Hersch Lysaker. A court renovation project was completed this past spring. The floor was sanded and repainted for the first time since prior to the 2007-08 season.
The gym also received new bleachers, sound system and instant replay system in 2019.
"Very deserving," said Mark Bagaason, Senske's first recruit at UMC in 1981. "I'm proud of coach. He's been a rock in my life and so many others."
The longest-tenured coach in program history, Senske won 176 games in his career and, at one point, had 12-consecutive winning seasons.
"(He was good at) taking local guys with good work ethics and building a team culture," said Bagaason, a former Bemidji State women's basketball assistant and current girls basketball coach at Red Lake County Central. "He's very good at knowing what you're good at and taking advantage of it. He's just a really good guy. That's the bottom line. He worked so hard ... at that time, (UMC) was a two-year school ... he worked hard to make contacts and get you to the next step."
Bagaason, who went on to play at what was then known as Jamestown College, was first a regular student at Bemidji State right out of high school and thought his college basketball dreams were gone. But then Senske came calling to ask him to come to Crookston.
"I don't know how he found my number but that call changed my life, and I'm thankful," said Bagaason, who later coached Senske's granddaughter, Sierra Senske, at Bemidji State.
Senske was inducted into the UMC Athletics Hall of Fame in 2004. His son, Steele Senske, who played for his father from 1988-90, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007.
"Gary's passion for the University of Minnesota Crookston is unmatched," UMC athletic director Stephanie Helgeson said. "His presence was very noticeable not only in the region but also state-wide with coaches, recruits, parents and friends of the university. I see no one more deserving of this honor than Gary Senske."
Senske's coaching career started with high school stints in the Minnesota towns of Underwood (1967-72) and Eveleth (1972-81) before staying in Crookston for more than 20 years.
"I like the people," said Senske, now 75, said of Crookston. "There's something about that campus that draws you in, and it's the people themselves. You go to work and find people that you enjoy being with and talking to and that's really what kept me there that period of time. It was tough to leave."
Senske retired in 2002 and currently resides on a family farm near Perham, Minn.
"Coaching was a very good profession," Senske said. "I think you can get involved in students' lives and influence it. That kept me in it. It gets in your blood. I'm not the smartest man in the world, but I know how to blend people together in the making of a team. That was the piece that kept me there, because I was good at it. You don't always have to recruit the best talent; you recruit the best people."
During his final season at Crookston, Senske discovered he had cancer and diabetes. He worried he wouldn't have the energy to fill his role like he once did.
"I had to take a period of time to get to the other side and enjoy life again," Senske said. "That was a difficult time. I didn't plan on quitting coaching."
Now clear of cancer for 15 years, Senske is enjoying retirement with his wife of 56 years, Carol, and their three children.
"I enjoy fishing and gardening," he said. "I enjoy just being around the family and grandkids."
When Bagaason was inducted into the UMC Athletics Hall of Fame in 2002, he wanted Senske to introduce him.
"I was leery of asking because it was during his prostate cancer," Bagaason said. "He was still in that stage after surgery, where you're not supposed to be doing much. He came anyway."