CHAMPAIGN — As a youngster, Matt Bollant’s favorite Minnesota Gophers athlete was basketball sharpshooter Trent Tucker.
He still speaks with great pride of watching older brother Peter compete on the high school hardwood against a towering Gopher-to-be, 7-foot-3 Randy Breuer.
Long before he became the women’s basketball coach at Illinois, Matt Bollant viewed the college sports world through a prism of Maroon and Gold.
“I obviously grew up a Gopher fan and cheering for them and following their program,” the Winona, Minn., native said. “And loving the Big Ten — because of the Gophers — and how great it was.”
On Monday, Bollant will return to the home of Gopher basketball — Williams Arena — to coach against the school he grew up rooting for. These days, however, Bollant’s college allegiance is strictly to the Illini.
‘Excited for the opportunity,” the first-year UI coach said of facing his home-state school. “Obviously, we’ve been good on the road, so (I’m) hoping that we’ll play like we did against Nebraska.”
The last time Illinois traveled, it handled the Cornhuskers 62-52 to improve to 3-0 in Big Ten road games and 4-1 on opponents’ courts. On Monday, something will have to give because Minnesota is 10-2 at home.
“They feel like this is an NCAA tournament team,” Bollant said of the Gophers, “so it will be a great challenge.”
The Minnesota native has been on the opposite bench at Williams Arena as a head coach once before. In his fourth of five seasons at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Bollant took his Phoenix to a tournament hosted by the Gophers in November 2010. That UWGB team would finish the season with a 34-2 record and advance to the NCAA Sweet 16. Among its victims was Minnesota in the title game of the season-opening Best Buy Classic.
Bollant knows that UWGB’s 79-75 victory that day was not what the Gophers had in mind when they extended an invitation to the midmajor Phoenix.
“Teams believe they should win their own tournament,” he said. “When you host a tournament, you’re hosting it to win it. To go beat them on their court in their tournament was a huge win for us.”
Bollant had plenty of family and friends in the Williams Arena stands that day, and he can expect a similar turnout in his return to Minnesota’s campus for the first time as a rival Big Ten head coach. Look for Bollant’s father, Robert, and siblings Joseph, Peter and Mary to be in the visitors’ rooting section.
The drive from Winona to Minneapolis-St. Paul is about two hours, and it’s a trek the Bollant family made each March to attend the boys’ basketball state tournament. For Matt, those trips were particularly exciting when hometown Cotter High School made it to the St Paul Civic Center, where the tournament was then held.
“Thankfully, Winona Cotter played in it quite a bit,” proud alumnus Bollant said. “But if not, we would still go and watch the games.”
From a young age, Bollant followed the athletic fortunes of the state’s lone Division I college program, too, “watching them on TV every chance I’d get.” Of course, when you grow up in The North Star State, such interest pretty much goes without saying.
“Really, everybody follows the Gophers,” Bollant said. “Pretty much everybody’s a Gopher fan. ... And when they’re good, it’s special for the state.”
Bollant did not attend Minnesota because he was intent on continuing his own athletic career. Instead, he initially enrolled at Rochester (Minn.) Community College before transferring after one year to Winona State.
“I wanted to play sports in college,” said Bollant, who competed in tennis for four seasons and in basketball for one.
By 1994, Bollant had begun a coaching journey that one day would lead him to Illinois. He could not have known it at the time, but as a high school senior, Bollant witnessed first-hand a historic athletic moment for his future employer.
The father of Bollant’s best friend had tickets to the NCAA men’s basketball regional tournament at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Bollant was invited along and saw Lou Henson’s No. 3 Flyin’ Illini knock off No. 12 Louisville and No. 7 Syracuse. The team’s reward? A trip to the Final Four.
“That was really fun, to be up in the Metrodome and see all the fans and see the excitement,” Bollant recalled. “We were a ways up, so it wasn’t great seats, but just the chance to be there was really exciting.
“I remember the Illini cutting down the nets to go to the Final Four. It was pretty neat to see. It was kind of my first recollection of the Illini and (of) following the program.”