Ted Riverso was finishing his pep talk to the St. Thomas women’s basketball team earlier this week when he held up a watch.
Not just any watch, but The Watch – the watch that he and members of his 1991 team received when St. Thomas won the NCAA Division III women’s basketball championship.
Riverso called senior captain Carolyn Dienhart to the front of the room, and he placed the watch around her wrist. The watch didn’t fit; in fact, it almost slid off. But that didn’t make any difference. She was wearing The Watch, and he told her that he wanted every player to wear it before Friday’s Final Four semifinal game against Illinois Wesleyan in Holland, Mich.
Dienhart blushed and nodded, and Riverso offered two final thoughts. He implored the players to cherish how “sweet” their moments would be this week and he said, “We’re with you.”
By “we,” he meant the 1991 champions – that they had the Tommies’ backs. And so, for that matter, do all generations of Tommie basketball alumni, men and women.
That Riverso would take time out of a hectic schedule – he is assistant coach of the University of Minnesota women’s team, which plays in the Women’s Basketball Invitational this weekend – says a lot about his character, his affection for St. Thomas hoops and Ruth Sinn’s persuasive powers.
Let’s talk about character. Riverso taught philosophy, served as an assistant or head basketball coach and raised funds for more than 25 years before leaving St. Thomas in 2006 to join the Gophers. He was admired – even revered – by students and players alike for how he taught in the classroom and on the court. He was fair, honest and inspirational.
Let’s talk about Tommie hoops. During Riverso’s 15 years as head coach, his teams had a record of 337-80 (.808). They won more games than anyone else in Division III in the 1990s (247-37, .870). In addition to the 1991 national championship, St. Thomas won MIAC titles in 1991, 1992, 1996, 1997 and 1998, and finished third in the NCAA in 1995 and 1996 (and 2000, the year after he left). He coached All-Americans for eight out of nine years. He is in the St. Thomas and Minnesota Basketball halls of fame.
Let’s talk about Sinn and her ability to reel in Riverso as a speaker. They have another one of those great multi-generational St. Thomas connections. She was a Hall of Fame guard for the Tommies from 1980 to 1984, when Riverso was an assistant coach for first the women's and then the men's teams. He recruited Sinn to come to St. Thomas, and the example that he and head coach Tom Kosel set motivated her to become a coach herself.
Riverso was the last of several coaches to talk to Sinn’s team this playoff season about what it means to be a winner – and a champion. His advice, delivered quietly and succinctly, was built around four points:
• Have the right mindset: Believe that you can win. “That’s not easy,” he said. “It’s going to be hard, so get ready for it.”
• Be ready to do whatever it takes to win.He recalled the second half of the 1991 championship win over Muskingum, played 21 years ago tonight in old Schoenecker Arena (in those years, a Final Four team was host). He had great outside shooters, but his directions were firm: pass the ball inside to Laurie Trow, the All-American center whom he still considers the best woman ever to play DIII basketball. She scored 33 points on 14 of 16 shooting, and the Tommies won 73-55.
• Trust one another and play a team game. Nobody is going to care how many points you scored or minutes you played, he said. They will care that you won a national title.
• Leave it on the floor. Play every possession hard, because games will be decided at some crucial point. You need to ready for that moment.
After Riverso finished his comments, Sinn thanked him again and told her team how she had texted him at 2:15 a.m. Sunday, hours after the Tommies had defeated Calvin to advance to the Final Four. She was still awake, watching game film.
Riverso returned the message, almost immediately. He, too, was watching game film. His text was to the point: “Two more.”
Two more, indeed.
And then maybe, just maybe, there will be championship watches for the 2012 Tommies, and this time, Carolyn Dienhart’s will fit.
Doug Hennes is vice president for university and government relations and will help with coverage of the Final Four this weekend.