Don Monson’s first head coaching job was taking over an Idaho men’s basketball team coming off a four-win season in 1978.
“I looked around and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I don’t have very many players, but I can tell after one day I’ve got one,’ ” Monson recalled.
That would be Don Newman, a program-altering guard who was as tough and competitive as they come.
Newman set the tone in his two seasons as Idaho won 11 and 17 games, respectively, setting the table for Monson’s squads that won 72 games the ensuing three years.
“We had a couple of practices and all of a sudden I realized I’ve got a guy that’s physical, has the body of a defensive back, has the most energy and was a leader right from the word go,” Monson said.
Newman, who went on to play in the Canadian Football League before a long-time coaching career that included two NBA championship rings as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, died Tuesday night at age 60 after battling brain cancer.
He was inducted into the Vandal Athletics Hall of Fame last weekend but was unable to attend the ceremony because of his failing health.
Newman came to Idaho after playing one season at LSU and stops at a Florida junior college and Grambling. The Vandals had endured a last-place finish in 1978 but Newman’s intensity, energy and talent helped lift the Vandals to second in 1980 and the program’s first berth to the Big Sky Tournament.
Newman was the Big Sky MVP in 1980. His 281 assists rank sixth in school history, despite playing just two seasons.
“He had just raw athletic ability and whatever needed to get done, he became whatever that was,” said Brian Kellerman, who was a freshman guard when Newman was a senior. “As far as tough goes, I’d be challenged to say I played with anybody tougher than him.”
Newman was drafted by the Boston Celtics and nearly made the squad. The New Orleans native played three years with the Montana Golden Nuggets, coached by George Karl, in the Continental Basketball Association and also played wide receiver from 1981-86 in the Canadian Football League, despite not playing the sport in college.
He also spent time in training camps with the Seattle Seahawks and New York Jets.
“His senior year he played baseball at Idaho in the last year of the program. He gets drafted by Boston and he’s the last guy cut when they signed Tiny Archibald,” Kellerman said. “He plays in the CFL for six years. Tell me who’s doing that?”
Newman entered coaching at Lewiston and Moscow high schools before landing a job as an assistant basketball coach at Washington State under Kelvin Sampson. Newman earned his first head coaching job at Sacramento State from 1992-97 before joining Arizona State’s staff as an assistant. When Bill Frieder resigned in 1998, Newman was named interim head coach and led the Sun Devils to an 18-14 record.
Newman broke into the professional coaching ranks when Karl hired him as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks. After four seasons with the Bucks and one with the Nets, Newman spent eight seasons with the Spurs, helping the franchise win NBA titles in 2005 and 2007.
“Coaches equip people to be in touch with their best selves,” former Spur Brent Barry tweeted. “Thank you Coach Don Newman for being one of those that embraced this side of coaching and the example you were as a man, a husband and a father to so many.”
Newman assisted with the Washington Wizards from 2012-16.
“He just had a passion,” Kellerman said. “Forget basketball, as a person he had such an infectious personality. It was great playing beside a guy like that.
“Al Williams (an Idaho teammate and now athletic director at North Idaho College) and I were texting the other day and we said, ‘We lost a good man.’ That’s a good way to put it.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review's sports newsletter
Get the day's top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.