Peter Bollant remembers sitting in the bleachers of a Winona, Minn., gym, watching his little brother Matt drop 37 points against a bunch of 9-year-olds. He recalls the chatter around him proclaiming the diminutive Matt Bollant as destined for greatness.
"It's funny because everyone in the gym thought he was 5 years old," Peter Bollant said. "Their jaws all dropped because they thought they were watching this 5-year-old dominate against 9-year-olds."
Matt Bollant wasn't a basketball prodigy like those folks in the stands thought. He was 9 years old, just like the rest of the boys. He was just small.
His size was the result of being born two months premature. Doctors feared Bollant might not survive. His twin brother didn't make it.
"Matt was always small, but he loved to work," Peter said.
It's his work ethic that's turned Matt Bollant into one of the hottest up-and-coming coaches in women's basketball. And when his seventh-seeded Wisconsin-Green Bay team's run comes to an end in the NCAA tournament (udpate: the Phoenix lost in the second round) it's certain the 41-year-old will field calls from athletic directors at major conference programs with openings.
Illinois, which fired Jolette Law on March 2, is one of them.
Bollant is the Shaka Smart of women's basketball. His Phoenix ended the regular season ranked 10th in the country after posting a 31-1 record, winning the Horizon League regular season and tournament championships. The Phoenix has won five straight conference titles and has reached the NCAA tournament each of the last four years. The program is 148-19 under Bollant, 85-5 in the Horizon League.
"Even if you don't know much about him, you've heard his name," BTN analyst and former Indiana coach Vera Jones said. "There are two openings in the Big Ten (Illinois, Indiana), and he's going to be high on a lot of lists."
Just a few years ago, few knew much about Bollant. A former assistant at Evansville and later at Indiana under Kathi Bennett, Bollant got his first head coaching gig at Bryan College, an NAIA school in eastern Tennessee with about 750 students on campus.
A program with limited tradition when he arrived, Bryan went 134-38 from 2002 to '07, Bollant directing the Lions to the NAIA tournament each of the last four years he was there, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2006.
Bollant is remembered at the Christian school for the success on the basketball court, but even more so for the way he dealt with people.
"When we met him and brought him on campus we knew he had a good background in coaching, but what stood out was that this was a man of integrity and that really grabbed our attention across the board with myself and the search committee. Guys who are good with the X's and O's, they're a dime a dozen, there's a lot of them out there. Guys with character and integrity, that's a whole other matter," Bryan athletic director Sandy Zensen said. "One of the things that attracted me to him is that I really felt like this guy didn't come to Bryan College with the intent to use it in an effort to move on to bigger and better things. He was here, rolled up his sleeves, jumped into the trenches and got the job done. There was no sense from any of us that he was looking over his shoulder, looking beyond the bench for something bigger and grander. He was quite content here. I don't believe he was out making great searches to try to move beyond Bryan."
Overlooked for openings last year, most notably at Wisconsin, Bollant will have his choice of jobs this spring. Green Bay recognized it had a hot commodity on its hands last year and gave Bollant a five-year contract extension that pays him $150,000 annually. His current deal runs through 2016.
"I don't know why Matt Bollant didn't get a job last year, but he should get a shot somewhere. He's a guy, I would compare him to when Scott Rueck took over at Oregon State. He was a Division III coach before he got the job," said Chris Hansen of ESPN HoopGurlz. "He's a guy who knows what his identity is and he recruits to that instead of just trying to add a bunch of talented pieces. Because if the pieces don't fit, the puzzle never comes together."
By all accounts, Bollant and his family — wife Kari and daughters Abi and Regan — are happy in Green Bay. But as dominant as Bollant's program has been during his tenure, the Phoenix has not been able to break through on the national stage. A jump to a power conference would provide that opportunity.
"I think he has the ability to be a national champion some day. I think that's what he's looking for, at some point, possibly," said Peter Bollant, who is also the golf coach at Bryan. "He has that rare ability. I look at myself, I'm an athlete, I played a certain level of sports and very competitive, but as a coach I don't even begin to hold a candle to him."
Zensen has been the athletic director at Bryan for 22 years, and Bollant is the first coach in any sport to move on to the Division I level. He's a Phoenix fan, and if Bollant moves on, he'll be a fan of that team. Perhaps some orange and blue could creep into his wardrobe.
"Whoever gets him, they're going to get themselves a gem. I'm not one who gives recommendations lightly; if the guy's a bonehead, I'll tell you," Zensen said. "I would stake my reputation on this guy."