FARGO — It was about the wins and losses more than the defections. Maren Walseth didn't win enough games as the head coach of the North Dakota State women's basketball team and so she no longer has the job.
Walseth and the Bison "mutually agreed to part ways," according to a press release sent out by the NDSU athletic department Monday, March 11, two days after NDSU's season ended with a 71-54 loss to South Dakota in the first round of the Summit League tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D.
It was another inglorious and all too common end to a Bison season in their NCAA Division I era and during Walseth's five years as head coach. She was 40-106 at NDSU, including 19-59 in the Summit League. Her best season came in 2014-15, her first year replacing the fired Carolyn DeHoff, when the Bison went 11-18 and placed sixth in the Summit League.
The Bison, once the gold standard in Division II women's basketball with five national championships in the 1990s, went 7-22 this season, their fourth straight year of 20 or more losses.
"In Division I athletics, the scoreboard matters," NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen said. "And I think Maren would be the first to tell you we need to be better. We need to be better. We need to be more competitive."
In addition to a lack of on-court success, Walseth's program was marked by players leaving the program the last few years. Most notably, last year's leading scorer Reilly Jacobson transferred to Western Michigan this season and former Fargo Shanley standout and North Dakota "Miss Basketball" Sarah Jacobson was dismissed from the team recently.
But Larsen said player defections and dismissals shouldn't be looked at cumulatively and instead need to be analyzed individually.
"Each one had very different circumstances," Larsen said. "It wasn't the defining decision-maker."
Walseth has one year remaining on her contract. Larsen said Walseth and the school are working on a separation agreement.
"I am extremely thankful for the opportunity Lynn Dorn and Gene Taylor afforded me five years ago," Walseth said. "Although I am disappointed with our lack of on-court success, the Bison women's basketball has grown and thrived in ways the general public does not always witness. For that I am extremely proud. Matt Larsen and his staff's guidance and leadership is some of the best I have been a part of. I wish nothing but the best to the NDSU athletic department and specifically the members of the women's basketball team."
Larsen said a national search will begin immediately for a new head coach. He envisions a larger committee and longer timeline than what NDSU used when it hired Matt Entz to replace Chris Klieman as its head football coach in December. Larsen said there are no parameters set on who might be the new coach. He's open to hiring the best candidate for the job, whether that person is male, female, a Division I assistant or comes from Division II.
"It's wide open," Larsen said.
Walseth's struggles are not unique since NDSU moved up to Division I. Since becoming eligible in 2009 to qualify for the NCAA tournament, the Bison have had just two winning seasons and have lost 20 or more games six times. They've won just one game in the Summit League tournament. DeHoff, who was hired in 2008 to replace the legendary Amy Ruley, went 72-105 in six seasons.
Walseth's winning percentage of .274 ranks third-worst among NDSU's 10 women's basketball head coaches.
NDSU had high expectations for women's basketball after going Division I. Under Ruley, the Bison dominated Division II in the 1990s by winning national titles in 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996. Ruley was 671-198 in 29 years and regularly drew big crowds to the Bison Sports Arena, including sellouts when NDSU hosted the Elite Eight five times.
But NDSU's move to Division I coincided with the meteoric rise of South Dakota State and South Dakota in the Summit League. Both have been regular qualifiers for the NCAA and NIT women's tournaments and have dominated the Bison.
Larsen said the goal is to lift NDSU to the top of the conference with SDSU and USD.
"I think NDSU women's basketball is a really good job from a resources standpoint, from a facilities standpoint, cost of attendance. You go down the list," he said. "I think we're poised to be really good in the Summit League, but it's going to take the right coach and staff to come in and recruit athletes who can compete against the South Dakotas and South Dakota States."
Walseth was hired by former women's athletic director Lynn Dorn. At the time of her hire, Walseth was the candidate that Dorn was looking for.
“She met all of our expectations,” Dorn said at the time.
Walseth had Division I experience as a player and assistant coach at Penn State, she had ties to the Twin Cities being a graduate of Bloomington Jefferson High School — and therefore assumed recruiting ties — and she had general name recognition in the game. She’s considered one of the greatest players to ever come out of Minnesota.
She was taken in the third round in the 2001 WNBA draft by the Sacramento Monarchs and had connections to NDSU with her younger sister, Annika Walseth, having played for the Bison for one year.
NDSU President Dean Bresciani was also sold on Walseth’s coaching capabilities during their interview. Bresciani, in a 2014 Forum story, said he asked a question of Walseth: What does it take to win?
“I got an impromptu dissertation exactly what it takes to win in Division I women’s college basketball,” Bresciani said.
It never came to fruition.
NDSU went 11-18 in her first season, but the Bison were 7-5 at home and finished 7-9 in the Summit League. Those would turn out to be her best marks in all three categories.
The program won its first game ever in the Summit tournament, beating Western Illinois in the 2009 first round — the first year NDSU was Division I eligible after completing its Division II transition. Since then, however, the Bison have gone 0-11 including this year’s loss to the Coyotes.
NDSU was 47-13 in 18 national tournament appearances under Ruley. The Bison finished runner-up three times.