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Eric Peterson, Published January 19 2011

Peterson: MSUM football needs to find its own Walthall

It’s early, but 15 games into his tenure as Minnesota State Moorhead head men’s basketball coach, Chad Walthall looks like the right guy for the job.

The Dragons have been more competitive with victories against top-tier teams in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. They have beaten a Top 25 team on the road. And, they haven’t been swept in a two-game NSIC weekend to this point.

MSUM (9-6, 6-5 NSIC) has a chance to post its first winning conference season in men’s basketball since 2002-03.

Athletic director Doug Peters got that one right. Peters has to get it right again in the next week or so when he names a head football coach. MSUM started on-campus finalist interviews Tuesday. The fourth and last finalist is set to interview Friday.

The Dragons have had just one winning football season since 1999. They have been 2-9 in each of the previous three seasons for a program that has lacked stability. The new hire will be the Dragons fifth head football coach since 2004.

So is there another Walthall in this group for Peters? On paper, there is no “knock-you-over-the-head” experience like Walthall had. He was a Big Ten assistant at Iowa and was interim head coach for a handful of games for the Hawkeyes last season.

The other issue is that football is more difficult to fix than the men’s basketball program. In basketball, MSUM offers around 6½ scholarships, while the NSIC limit is 10.

In contrast, football offers around 9½ scholarships in a sport where the league limit will be 27 next fall.

Let’s break that down: Basketball is roughly 65 percent funded versus football, which is about 33 percent funded.

That inherently makes the basketball job a more attractive position.

Basketball is a sport where a star player or two can turn a program around if surrounded by a solid cast of role players.

Football is a different animal. You need more than a stud here or there to build a successful program. In a sport where depth is critical, the next football coach faces a tough task of building a winner, with the Dragons offering far less funding that the NSIC allows.

Peters said the school has a strategic plan in place to increase those scholarship levels. However, in a tough economy, is it realistic that those funding levels jump significantly anytime soon?

That’s what makes this hire important. The next football coach needs to show progress in the short term, despite the funding challenges. On top of that, the new coach is going to have to be a key figure in increasing the fundraising. He is going to have to be a character the community and MSUM alumni can buy into and will want to give their money to.

So the choices are Steve Laqua, Russ Martin, Tyler Fenwick and Aaron Vlcko.

Can Peters find a Walthall in this group?

Readers can reach Forum reporter Eric Peterson at (701) 241-5513.

Peterson’s blog can be found at peterson.areavoices.com