Photo by Shari L. Gross, STAR TRIBUNE

For Gophers, it's a new era as Dawn Plitzuweit's career keeps pointing upward

Dawn Plitzuweit's attention to detail has helped her win at every level of college basketball. Now, she's looking to bring success to the Gophers, who have struggled through three straight losing seasons.

By Kent Youngblood Star Tribune

November 3, 2023
Photo by Shari L. Gross, STAR TRIBUNE

Kevin Borseth knew immediately he was looking at a future coach. It was fall 1990. Borseth was coaching women's basketball at Michigan Tech, and he had a freshman named Dawn Zarling: a point guard who would spend much of her playing career posting up in the paint, where the hits come and the elbows fly.

She was one of the best players at attacking the rim in his 36 years as a coach. She would go on to become Dawn Plitzuweit, the new women's basketball coach at the University of Minnesota.

Raised in West Bend, Wis., where she worked on her family farm, she led Kettle Moraine Lutheran to an undefeated season and a Wisconsin private school championship in high school. As a freshman at Michigan Tech, she was already running the show.

First game of the season, Borseth called a timeout. Sometimes it's a struggle to get everyone in the huddle, everyone focused, listening. But before he could say a word:

"She had all five of 'em in a circle, finger pointing," Borseth said. "I said, 'I've never seen this before. I can just sit down. She has it.' That's when I knew she had something."

More than three decades later, the Gophers hope they have something here, too.

The Gophers went 11-19 last season and have made the NCAA tournament just twice in the past 14 years.

The coach hired to change that has spent a life learning how to win at every level. Plitzuweit was an assistant with Borseth at Michigan Tech, at Wisconsin-Green Bay and at Michigan.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune
Plitzuweit huddled with her team during a preseason practice at Williams Arena on Tuesday.

As a head coach, she won a Division II title at Grand Valley State; dominated the Summit League at South Dakota, taking the Coyotes to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2022; and returned to the tournament in her one season at West Virginia.

And now, the Gophers.

Plitzuweit, 51, returned to her Midwestern roots when she was hired to replace Lindsay Whalen at Minnesota this spring. A Gophers team featuring three homegrown sophomore starters — Mara Braun, Amaya Battle and Mallory Heyer — opens a new season Wednesday, a new era.

'Find a way'

Dues have been paid. Plitzuweit came to the job with nearly three decades of experience and what she calls three pillars of success: toughness, togetherness and another one the players can already explain.

"It's 'find a way,' " said Battle, Plitzuweit's point guard. "It's always, 'find a way.' Literally, to anything."

Plitzuweit is all about preparation, discipline, control. As Braun said, accountability is crucial with Plitzuweit; it doesn't matter who you are or how many points you score — if you're not following the plan, you're not going to play.

One member of that South Dakota Sweet 16 team, Chloe Lamb, remembers her coach being ready for anything. Whatever would come, chances were Plitzuweit would have thought about it a million times. "She has that control," Lamb said, "not only of herself but what goes on around her."

Lamb remembers scouting reports so detailed that the Coyotes knew what was coming before their opponents did it. Before media days this fall, Plitzuweit had a member of the U's communication staff compile a three-page list of notes so she would be prepared for any question.

Hannah Sjerven, a star of that Sweet 16 team, said she doubts Plitzuweit sleeps much.

Erika (Ryskamp) Wallace was the captain of the 2006 Grand Valley team that won the Division II title and is now the athletic director at Wayne State in Michigan.

"She's the hardest worker on her staff," Wallace said of Plitzuweit. "Longer hours than anyone else. She finds a way."

Prepared, Plitzuweit's teams win. Disciplined, her players can handle the unexpected.

Never outworked, Plitzuweit wins. Borseth saw that a long time ago.

"You either have it or you don't," he said. "She has it. I knew it from the first time she played. I knew it when she graduated, started coaching. It's hard to explain. It's not something you can read in a book. People gravitate to her. She brings people with her."

Lessons learned

Plitzuweit remembers it a little differently. She doesn't remember that timeout story at all. What she does recall is coming to Michigan Tech, being expected to be a leader and resisting until an up-and-down start to that first season.

Whatever. There is no question she was getting ready to be a coach right away. A knee injury relegated her to the bench her second year there, and she spent it sitting next to Borseth, seeing the game in a different way.

Among the things she learned: the value of playing together, the need to play defense and the importance of a work/life balance. Before the Gophers went on their overseas trip to Croatia and Greece, Plitzuweit went to Tanzania with her daughter, Lexi, on a service trip.

Every year Plitzuweit runs a book study with her team, the goal being to bring the players together and instill life lessons. This year's list included "The Precious Present" by Spencer Johnson.

But her actual transition to coaching was serendipitous. After an All-America career as a player — 1,398 points, almost 100 wins — she received an assistant coaching job offer from Borseth in May 1995. She married Jay Plitzuweit that July and was set to play overseas in Copenhagen.

But the world interfered. The war in Bosnia resulted in a flood of refugees to Denmark, especially to Copenhagen, and Plitzuweit was told her husband would not be able to stay with her there. Not wanting to start her marriage apart, Plitzuweit called Borseth at the 11th hour. Is the job still available?


"People always say, 'You chose this profession,' " Plitzuweit said. "It chose me."

The little things

Not surprisingly, Plitzuweit has one non-negotiable. Her teams will play with toughness, play with effort and play defense.

That is the one word you will hear, over and over, when people describe her approach through the years.

"You will see hard-nosed defense," Wallace said. Part of Plitzuweit's first recruiting class at Grand Valley State, Wallace recalls being recruited while Plitzuweit was pregnant with Lexi, who is now a player herself at Grand Valley.

"You will see a team that competes and plays with a high IQ," said Sjerven, who played post on South Dakota's Sweet 16 team. "There will be high intensity, regardless of the opponent."

The reason? Simple.

"That's controlling the controllable, right?" Plitzuweit said. "We always know we can do that. We can get good shots, great shots. But we can't always guarantee they're going to go in. Defensively we can control what our effort looks like, what our understanding looks like."

Her players appear to have listened.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune
Plitzuweit's Gophers team will look to reverse its recent misfortunes this season with a hard-nosed defensive identity.

In their third game this season, the Gophers will play host to North Dakota State, coached by Jory Collins, who started with the Bison in 2019. He inherited a team that had gone 7-22 and led the Bison to a second-place finish in the Summit League last year, which included a home victory vs. the Gophers. His teams went 0-7 vs. Plitzuweit's Coyotes, including an 80-36 loss in his first season that he still remembers.

"In my opinion, she is one of the best coaches in the country," Collins said. "Fiery competitor. Ultimate competitor. The first thing that comes to mind is they were disciplined. They were never going to beat themselves. Very few mistakes, assignments correct. And they played with toughness."

'Every moment matters'

Toughness is not all physical. As Plitzuweit said, it's not all about taking charges, getting on the floor. It's doing little things well.

"That's something I had to learn going into being a head coach," she said. "I thought doing little things well is not that challenging. But then you realize how challenging it really is. Every moment matters."

Sjerven, the Rogers High grad who played briefly in the WNBA for the Lynx, is back in Minnesota. Along with her parents, she plans on attending a bunch of games this season. "I'm excited to be a Gophers fan again," she said. "Get back to the games I grew up watching."

Minnesota's players have talked about finishing in the top half of the Big Ten, making their stay at Target Center for the conference tournament a longer one this time and receiving an NCAA berth. When talking about goals, Plitzuweit is more circumspect. It's a process; her team is talented, but learning.

But the past suggests they will find a way.

"I feel as I've watched her, watched her coach on the sidelines, it's very similar to what I experienced," Wallace said. "The intensity level, how focused she is on the sidelines. It's been cool to see how she's taken that with her every step of the way."

Added Borseth: "She's paid her dues. She earned her way. She earned the privilege of being at the University of Minnesota."