Athletics: Rolling with the Raiders head man

Jim Russell coaches during a men's basketball game this season at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Jim Russell is synonymous with Central Lakes College men’s basketball.

For more than 20 years, he’s walked the sidelines at the junior college located in Brainerd.

When he’s not coaching he and his wife Nancy are likely traveling to watch or visit one of their three children, who all had an impact on Brainerd Warrior High School athletics.

Russell took time away from coaching up his Raiders, who are undefeated in Northern Division play, to talk about what makes him tick as a coach.


Q: Let’s start with your family first of all. With all your children graduated from Brainerd High School and two competing in college athletics, how difficult has this year been as far as travel and time management in order to see them?

JR: It’s been good – I’m very lucky and thankful that my administration has been working with me. They gave some of my load as an athletic director to Brian (Voigt) – site manager so that I can work on my schedule to be able to visit my kids.

Q: Michael is at Black Hills State University how is he doing there?

JR: Michael is doing well in school and basketball. He’s learning a lot about the basketball program from inside and out. His team is in first place in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Michael Hasn’t been able to play as much as he likes. He’s been sick and injured all year.


Q: Courtney is playing volleyball at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. How was her first year?

JR: She seems to enjoy school and volleyball. As a freshman she was able to participate with the team more then we expected. Her team was very good and had the best year in volleyball in school history with 20-plus wins. It was a great learning experience.

Q: What’s your oldest son Jacob up to these days?

JR: Jacob is busy finishing up school at Minnesota State University, Mankato with a math education major.


Q: Let’s talk about basketball. How is this year’s Central Lakes College Raiders men’s basketball team looking right now?

JR: Well, we won 12 in a row, so far so good. It’s a team I believe can put together a good run in the postseason. It all starts with my three captains. They believe in hard work and winning, but the most important thing for them is it’s not about stats.

Q: After a bit of an inconsistent start, the team has rattled off 12 straight wins and reached 100 points five times total this year. Is the hardest thing about coaching at two-year colleges creating that continuity between the players and also between you and the players?

JR: Yes, but I believe it happens at a two-year school and at the four-year school when you are consistently adding new players because you want to be competitive. Also, there is so much transferring happening at all levels of college athletics. I actually enjoy the beginning stages of every year. It’s a challenge, but a huge learning curve for me and everybody else.


Q: How long does it take on average to really create and build that team aspect would you say?

JR: We all wish it could happen very quickly, but it doesn’t and it most likely continues all season. My wish is we would continue to grow together, but have the core of the team’s identity like work ethic and chemistry early on for us to be successful.

Q: What are the strengths of this year’s team? You’re scoring a lot of points, but you’re also holding teams to low point totals as well?

JR: Our biggest strength is our leadership. We’re not afraid of hard work and willing to play for each other.


Q: As crazy as this sounds, you’re less than a month away from the postseason. At this point in the season, what are you working on in practice?

JR: Things that make us uncomfortable – try to prepare for every situation. Also, continue to work on what we are good at – Defense!

Q: You advanced to the NJCAA Division III National Tournament last year. What’s it going to take for this year’s team to get back?

JR: To believe. We feel like we have all the pieces to make a serious run in the postseason. We must continue to work hard and work together.


Q: Last year’s national tournament run was exciting and then throw in knocking off the No. 1 seed in the opening round and it was a pretty memorable season. Could you tell you had the makings of something special or did you guys just get hot at the right time?

JR: I really think we got hot at the right time and we had some guys that could make plays on the spot.

Q: It had to make recruiting a little bit easier, but with many high schools now offering post-secondary or advanced placement classes many high school students are graduating with their Associate of Arts degree along with their high school diploma. How difficult has that made recruiting?

JR: Recruiting is always difficult and it’s getting more and more difficult because of CIS or post-secondary. It’s just forcing us to go out farther than we really want to instead of all local areas.

Q: For all the young hoopsters out there, what do you look for in a recruit? How do you know if a player is a right fit for what you like to do on the court?

JR: Work Ethic. Seems like everybody gets a chance to play nowadays -- AAU, fall league, spring and summer league. What are kids willing to do for their team. I enjoy going to the games early and watch warmups. You can really tell about a player’s mental attitude and how he prepares himself to play during warmups. Does he appreciate his opportunity? Stats are all online or on recruiting servers – so what is he really about?

Q: What’s a common trend you’re seeing that most high school players aren’t good at and then struggle with when they get to college?

JR: The value of playing time – work for it. Working hard. The college game is fast and physical. Kids do not like to work or they don’t do the little things that make a team better or themselves better. Kids give up a lot easier now. They think the grass is always greener on the other side.

Q: I know you love defense. You love coaching it. You love all that it entails. What attributes make a good defensive basketball player?

JR: Mental attitude and the heart. Defense is hard and if you are willing to play it right then you are most likely not afraid of hard work and the challenges that come before you.

Q: Is being Vietnamese an asset on the recruiting trail as in you’re probably easy to remember as one of the few if only Vietnamese coaches in the world or is it something you have to overcome?

JR: One of the best parts about my job that I truly enjoy is recruiting and there are pros and cons about recruiting and does being Vietnamese help or hinder my job? Not if I let it!

Q: You’ve been coaching for more than 20 years, I know you’ve looked into coaching at four-year colleges, but never pulled the trigger. What is it about CLC that has kept you there for so long?

JR: First it’s my family. We wanted to be here to raise our kids and we enjoy the area. For CLC and me it’s all about fit. I feel like it’s one place that I can make a huge impact on our student-athletes and it’s where I truly believe the Lord has lead me.

Jim Russell coaches during a men's basketball game this season at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Covering the Brainerd lakes area sports scene for the past 23 years.
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