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For the love: Larson makes WBCA Hall



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August 31, 2011 | 07:47 AM
Dedicated teacher. Successful coach. Devout father.

Forrest Larson is a man who wears several hats, but a recent accolade ranks him among the state's elite coaches.

The Badger High School teacher, who coached the Badger varsity boys basketball squad from 2003 to 2009, including a Division 1 state tournament appearance in 2008, recently was named to the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.

Larson, 54, Lake Geneva, a Phillips, Wis. native, put together a 28-year high school career at Plum City, Ladysmith and Badger which featured a 2003 state title with Ladysmith and five state appearances overall. Larson was named the 2003 state coach of the year.

"Lake Geneva was fortunate to have such an outstanding coach," Badger Athletic Director Jim Kluge said. "He is one of the hardest working coaches I've ever seen."

A history major and health minor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Larson knew he had to teach in order to coach, which was his ultimate goal. Now entering his eighth year teaching at Badger, Larson still pays attention to the Badger program.

Success wasn't just given to Larson, though. He's had his fair share of ups and downs along the way.

The Regional News met with Larson at his home Aug. 25 to discuss his induction into the Hall of Fame, Badger basketball and motivating high school students.

RN: How much does it mean to you to make the WBCA Hall of Fame?

FL: Jack Bennett said, "Can your program stand the test of time?" I think what we did stands the test of time. It took five or six years to get to state at Ladysmith and Badger. Once we got things in place, we were always successful.

RN: Have you always had coaching success?

FL: My first year coaching, I was 0-17. I thought I was going to get fired. The superintendent told me one more year like that, and you're done. It's a humbling thing. When I graduated from college, I thought I knew a lot about everything. When you go 0-17, you find out you don't. If you're going to be good, it requires a lot more work than you think.

RN: When was your first conference championship?

FL: My first one was in Ladysmith in 1993 after 12 years of coaching. It was fun because it was a great group of kids. We came out of nowhere.

RN: Tell me about your 2003 state title with Ladysmith.

FL: Most years at Ladysmith were pretty good. We won one state title, and we were runners-up twice. We won six conference titles. It was funny in 2003 because we started 1-2. We weren't very good at the beginning of the year. It was a very hard-working group of kids. Those guys all grew up together and were really good friends. Nobody cared who got the credit. We got better and better as the year went on. We beat a really good program out of Minnesota late in the year who had a couple Division 1 players. In the state semifinals, we hit a three-pointer with five seconds to go. We were lucky to be state champs.

RN: How did the Badger job come up?

FL: At Ladysmith, my teaching schedule was changing, and I didn't care for it. I talked to some people who thought it was a really good opportunity. And Jerry (Stelse) did a great job with the program.

RN: Coming off a state title and replacing Stelse, did you feel any pressure when you started at Badger?

FL: It didn't go through my mind. Coming off a state title, I thought I knew a lot again. Then, you're playing Racine St. Cat's and really good programs, and we struggled for a couple years. But the last two were good.

RN: In 2007-08, you took Badger to state but lost to Madison Memorial. How was that experience?

FL: We were down four in the fourth quarter. Jimmy Merritt and Kevin Wieters had great games. We had our chances. It was fun going through the sectional. We hit 17 threes against Janesville Craig and another 17 against Verona the next night. It was exciting.

RN: You brought the dribble-drive offense to Badger. What is it, and how did you find it?

FL: A guy in California invented the dribble drive. I never used it until Badger. A good friend of mine who coaches in college told me about this California guy. I went to California and watched him practice in 2006. I really didn't understand it until the next summer when I met with the Benton, Wis. coach. Then, John Calipari (Memphis coach at time) was using the dribble drive. I went down to a clinic in Memphis in fall 2007, and I put two and two together and figured it out. You really spread the floor and drive the ball as hard as you can into the gap. You're looking to get to the rim or kick it. You are continually driving the ball to the basket. When you get to a certain spot, the other four guys are supposed to move to different spots. You either get a layup, get fouled or shoot a three-pointer. Everybody must be able to shoot the ball. We were built to run it in 2007-08.

RN: Do you plan on coaching again?

FL: Oh, definitely. Right now, I teach AP Psychology and health at Badger High School, and I may have two years left. We'll see what happens. Our son lives in northwestern Wisconsin, and our daughter might live in northwestern Wisconsin. We'll decide in two years. It depends on the coaching opportunities. I don't know if you pick up and move if you're just going to be a head coach.

RN: How supportive has the family been with your coaching career?

FL: Brent is 32, and he played for me in Ladysmith. Taylor, our daughter, is 22. She's going to school for physical therapy at the University of Minnesota. When we moved here, Taylor was an incoming freshman. My wife didn't want to leave Ladysmith, but she's glad she doesn't live there now. In Ladysmith, it's pretty much hunt, fish and drink beer (laughs). You better have a snowmobile. That's what you do in Ladysmith.

RN: Has any place particularly stood out to you?

FL: I've had a good time wherever I've been. Obviously, Ladysmith was special because we had so much success there. Coming here was a really good move. I loved coaching here for six years. This was the first school where nobody put road blocks in your way. The administration said they wanted to be successful and asked what they could do to help. At other schools, you had to knock heads with people to get what you wanted. At Badger, if you needed something, they would help you get it.

RN: What do you remember most about your time at Badger?

FL: Braden Tice, Jimmy Merritt, the Ambroses, Wieters, Jeff Ecklund. Those guys were pumped up about basketball. There's a lot of other really good kids like Chris Lois, Henry Lorenzi and Austin Gaugert. I'm forgetting a lot of others. Jim Kluge is the best AD in the state by far. He does a really good job. (Jim) Gottinger is a great guy. They all want to be successful.

RN: Have you followed Badger basketball since you left?

FL: I haven't gone to a lot of games. I worked some guys out last fall. I helped with the freshman team a little. I've been dabbling in it a little, but I haven't been really involved.

RN: Badger has had a couple down years recently. How do you feel about the state of the varsity program now?

FL: Right now, they have a good core of kids who are basketball guys first. You better have those guys at this level. If you want to compete against Milwaukee teams and Beloit, you better have a core of guys excited about basketball. They have to continue to do a ton of skill work. Badger is never gonna have 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8 guys. To me, if they're going to win, they have to be very dedicated and very skilled. They can't afford to beat themselves.

RN: Was there any big struggle you had to overcome in your career?

FL: Our first three years at Ladysmith, we were 10-12, 3-17 and 7-15. A lot of people were upset. I've never been afraid to take a step back to get two steps ahead. People have looked at the work ethic I demand and wonder if high school kids can do it. I think they can. A lot don't want to, but the ones that did became pretty successful.

RN: Do you have any advice for prospective coaches or ones having a tough time?

FL: Every community is different. You better have a philosophy. And you better be able to sell it to the kids and parents. You have a lot of outside people who want to get involved in your program. They may want to alter your philosophy. You have to get the kids to buy in. X's and O's all work, it's all good. The motivation end is a lot more important than the X's and O's. If you're a kid growing up in Lake Geneva, you have a lot of choices. In Ladysmith, you're either going to wrestle or play basketball. Here, it was a more difficult sell.

RN: Is there anything you'd do different if you could return to Badger?

FL: I would be down at every elementary school selling our program, highlight tape in hand. Second, I would coach the middle school teams. It's hard to do everything, but it was a mistake. If I could do it over, I would be a lot more involved with the youth program. But hindsight is 20-20.

RN: What occupies your free time now?

FL: Basketball. I ran 12 camps last summer in Prairie du Chien, Green Bay, Rice Lake, etc. I do all the teaching and directing. It's more ball-handling and offensive skills.

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