After more than two decades of a life so deeply ingrained in the game of basketball that Gatorade practically coursed through his veins, Kurt Paulson was ready for something a little different, so the freshly graduated 23-year-old did what so many of his ilk do and hit the road to find his true calling.
Paulson had the keys to the Great Falls C.M. Russell High School gym as a kid while his dad, Kent, was a basketball coach there, and in the proceeding years he moved with his family to Troy and later Whitefish, where Kent would conclude a long career in education as the high school’s principal.
Kurt, the youngest of three Paulson children, was a sports star at Whitefish High School, earning all-state accolades in both football and basketball, a career that would land him in the Bulldogs Hall of Fame in 2011. After high school, Paulson went east to join the hoops team at Carroll College and quickly carved out a role as a floor-burn enthusiast and natural born leader, playing point guard on teams that made deep runs in the NAIA national tournament under legendary head coach Gary Turcott.
But following his senior season, Paulson was done. Basketball had brought him adulation, success and a college scholarship, but it had also taken a toll.
“I had just put everything into my career at Carroll; I was physically beat up and mentally drained,” Paulson said. “I wanted to see what was next.”
The journey to find the next phase of his life, as it turned out, would last only one year before bringing him right back to the basketball court, back to high school and back, as of this year, to Carroll College as the head coach of the undefeated, 22nd-ranked Saints.
“I think others recognized Kurt’s ability before Kurt recognized it himself,” Paulson’s friend and former teammate Ross Gustafson said. “Playing with him, we knew he was intelligent, we knew he was a great leader, we knew he’d be a great coach.”
Paulson could not even stay away completely from basketball during his one-year sabbatical, doing a little training on the side and helping a friend who was coaching high school ball. Then one day in 2007, Turcott picked up the phone and called his former point guard to let him know a spot had come open on his coaching staff. Paulson couldn’t say no.
“I did (miss it),” Paulson admitted. “I knew I had the knowledge to pass on to kids, but it’s a big commitment to coach at any level.”
Part of the pull that brought Paulson to the sidelines was Turcott, who led the Saints for 19 years and boasts a coaching tree filled with former players. The five-man senior class that left Carroll in 2006 includes four current head coaches: Paulson, Gustafson at Flathead High School, Jeff Hays at Missoula Hellgate and Travis Williams at Wenatchee (Washington) High. The fifth senior, Sinan Guler, is playing professionally in Europe.
“He was an educator,” Paulson said of Turcott. “He wasn’t a college coach his whole career; he was a high school coach and a teacher and a counselor, and I think that translates to teaching the game the right way and from the foundation up. He treated it like he was a teacher so you really learned the game and the angles and the terminology and the concepts … you spend four or five years around him each day you’re going to soak up a lot of that.”
Of course, the foundation for Paulson’s basketball acumen had been built before he even arrived Carroll, starting with his dad and continuing under accomplished Whitefish coaches Julio Delgado and Tom Bertelsen. Then, just two years after returning to his alma mater as an assistant, Paulson left Carroll and took a job as a graduate assistant under Wayne Tinkle at the University of Montana.
“I’m lucky, I’ve had really good mentors,” Paulson said. “They’re all different, which is way cool. You learn different styles and terminology and different angles … But the one common denominator is a passion and a competitiveness to win. All those guys I’ve worked for or been coached by, they all have similar but different styles and I’ve been able to find what I like and kind of make it my own.”
It was not clear in the beginning, though, that Paulson’s college coaching career would extend much beyond the end of his GA tenure at Montana in 2011. Tinkle had an opening on his coaching staff that offseason but told Paulson he needed a little more seasoning before he was ready for the Division I college level.
Paulson, though, was undeterred. Then just 29 years old, he discovered an opening at Bigfork High School and tossed an application at the Vikings and Activities Director Matt Porrovecchio.
“I had no connection to (Paulson); hadn’t heard of him as a player at Whitefish,” Porrovecchio said last week, reminiscing on the hiring process. “Jackie Fuller was the (activities director) at Whitefish, and she called up and said ‘you guys better hire this guy.’”
So Porrovecchio did hire Paulson, and the young coach immediately won over his colleagues, diving head first into the job and the new administrative responsibilities that came with working full-time at the high school.
“He’s just a sharp, put-together, passionate guy,” Porrovecchio said. “He loves sports, he loves working with kids, just passionate with a lot of energy. He was fun to work with.”
On the court, the Vikings would win 39 games in the next two seasons and reached the semifinals of the state tournament in 2013. Paulson thought he had found a place to settle down and raise his young family.
“I really loved that job,” Paulson said. “There were two jobs I would leave for — a full-time position at Montana or the head coach at Carroll.”
Then Wayne Tinkle called, offering that full-time job with the Griz.
“It’s just that once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Paulson said. “That doesn’t happen often, coaches from high school jumping back into college at Division I, it just happened that I had already put in two years there … I wasn’t looking to leave.”
Paulson still talks glowingly about his time at Bigfork and the connection he built with his players, who would win a state championship the year after he left. But the tug back to college from Tinkle would, eventually, get Paulson that other dream job. Tinkle was hired as Oregon State University’s head coach in 2014 and brought Paulson with him as an assistant. Four years later, when Carson Cunningham stepped down as Carroll’s head coach to take a Division I job in Texas, the Saints brought Kurt Paulson back home.
When Carroll College Athletic Director Charlie Gross introduced Paulson as the school’s 27th men’s basketball coach in April, he handed him his old No. 22 jersey. And when he coached his first game at the helm of the Saints, his former teammates, Gustafson and Hays, were there to watch it.
“We sat right behind the bench,” Gustafson said. “Heckled him a little bit.”
Ribbing aside, Gustafson and his classmates have remained extremely close since college, standing up in each others’ weddings, and the Flathead coach has no doubt his alma mater has hired the right man to lead the program.
“He’s a winner,” Gustafson said. “Whether it was a national tournament game or an open gym, he was going to play all out … He wasn’t necessarily the quickest guy or (had) the natural scoring ability, but he really outworked everyone, came to play every day and all the teammates fed off of that. He was the emotional leader of our team.”
The results so far have been glowing. Paulson has the Saints at 9-0 despite needing to replace NAIA National Player of the Year Ryan Imhoff from a team that advanced to the round of 16 in last year’s national tournament. Paulson said he’s tried not to disrupt the good thing his predecessor had built.
“It’s been exciting,” Paulson said of the quick start. “I’m just trying to stay out of the kids’ way.”
Paulson has made the adjustment back to the NAIA level smoothly, and that should not be surprising for a man who in just over 10 years as a coach has worked at just about every level of the sport, from high school to the NAIA to mid-major Division I to a Power 5 program at Oregon State.
“Obviously some of the dimensions of the guys are different at the Pac 12 level,” Pauslon said. “But you’re still teaching them and you’re still working with them daily in trying to instill some good habits … I’ve gotten to see a lot, compare and contrast, and instill a culture of winning.”
Turcott, meanwhile, remains a part of the Carroll College family as an assistant with the women’s basketball team, and Paulson said he gets to chat for a few minutes every morning with his former coach, a perk of finding his way back to a place that means a lot to him, and to his ex-teammates.
“It’s really special that he’s back at Carroll,” Gustafson said. “It’s a special place for me and I’m just really proud that my teammate and my friend is running that program. I know he does things the right way and I know he’s going to do great things there and make the Carroll College community very proud.”