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Back on top: Minot State alum, former NDSU head coach Giacoletti at home at top-ranked Gonzaga

It was the first time Gonzaga assistant Ray Giacoletti was introduced to the ravenous side of collegiate coaching.

And, for those familiar with his embattled stint as the University of Utah head man, it certainly wasn’t his last.

Right out of the chute as a fledgling student-assistant at Minot State University, a gig that followed four years as a Beavers guard, Giacoletti’s thin role on the bench seemingly doubled overnight.

But it wasn’t under the most savory circumstances.

When longtime coach Kenneth Becker – the man who recruited Giacoletti before keeping him on staff – was let go in the middle of a shaky 1984-1985 season, the 22-year-old shouldered an unforeseen level of responsibility.

“When the new coach, Randy Hedberg, took over, I was basically thrown into the fire (as an assistant),” said Giacoletti, who has no shortage of Magic City memories. “I learned a lot that year. It was my start.”

Twenty-eight years later, Giacoletti has helped hoops-rich Gonzaga make an unprecedented climb to No. 1 in the polls. The Zags are widely expected to lock up the school’s first No. 1 seed when the brackets are revealed today.

He’s spent the last six seasons under GU head coach Mark Few, one of the winningest and most coveted coaches in the profession.

It wasn’t too long ago, though, when Giacoletti had a Few-like ascendance of his own.

From a 48-33 record at then-NCAA Division II North Dakota State to leading Eastern Washington to the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament berth, he hastily worked his way up the head coaching food chain.

Giacoletti’s meteoric rise was validated when he landed the head job at Mountain West power and NCAA tournament regular Utah in 2004.

In the boss’ seat, there were more peaks than valleys for Giacoletti. The one hiccup he did have, however, derailed his entire body of work.

Stepping into uber-successful Rick Majerus’ former slot, Giacoletti inherited seven-footer Andrew Bogut – the No. 1 pick of the 2005 draft – and led the Runnin’ Utes to the Sweet 16 in his first year in Salt Lake City.

The next two seasons were a wreck, however, as Giacoletti compiled a 25-32 record, which forced him to step down.

“The first thing I learned was: one, how precious those kind of jobs are; and two, what kind of landscape you’re in,” Giacoletti said. “It didn’t matter that we were on probation (due to violations from Majerus’ regime) and lost some scholarships and recently made the Sweet 16. People weren’t patient.”

Utah has made the NCAA tournament just once since Giacoletti’s departure in March 2007. A few months after his resignation Giacoletti landed at Gonzaga, which has made the last 15 NCAA tourneys.

While he’s enjoyed his time in Spokane with a winner, he’s not coy about what he’d rather be doing if the right opportunity presented itself.

“I want to be a head coach again, no doubt about it,” Giacoletti said. “But in a place where I can be successful. This is my last shot. I don’t care where it’s located or what it pays as long as it’s a place that can be successful.”

During the spring-time coaching carousel, Giacoletti’s name pops up when head jobs become vacant. But the 49-year-old isn’t jumping at the first downtrodden program that calls.

“About 75 percent of the jobs that are open, there’s a reason they’re opening up,” Giacoletti said. “Not that it’s by any means easy to sustain success, but this would be my last shot. It has to be the right fit.”

Big change in N.D.

Giacoletti is aware of the financial gain North Dakota has incurred from the recent oil boom, which has indirectly boosted the state’s athletic resources.

As far as he sees it, though, North Dakota has always been privileged in that regard. At least that’s what he surmised during his time at NDSU in the 1990s.

“Oh, we had a great budget at NDSU, even as a Division II program,” Giacoletti said. “Much better than when I was was at (Division I) Eastern Washington and other Big Sky Conference schools. It was three times the budget in Fargo.”

A Division I school the last five years, NDSU has won back-to-back Football Championship Subdivision national titles and made it to the NCAA basketball tournament in 2009 – feats that come as no surprise to the former Bison coach.

“I’m very happy for NDSU and their successes,” Giacoletti said. “For them to get an NCAA berth their first year was great. I mean, look at Northwestern. They’ve been Division I for 100 years and still haven’t been there.”

Division II ‘great’

for Minot State

When Giacoletti first visited Minot in 1980, the MSU Dome was at the tail end of construction.

The last time he visited Minot, at coach Becker’s funeral in 2007, MSU was discussing a move to NCAA Division II.

Now the school with one of the most popular facilities in the state is a member of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, widely considered one of the top Division II conferences in the country.

“Such a difference from what I went there,” Giacoletti said of MSU. “I think (going Division II) will be great for them. It will take a bit of time having to play at that level and having to recruit that level. Hopefully people in town have patience.”