Chris Carlson once helped North Idaho College claim the Scenic West Athletic Conference’s first and only national women’s basketball title.
Hanging the 2011 banner with a team largely comprised of North Idaho high school products added more sparkle to the crown jewel of Carlson’s successful coaching career.
It didn’t happen by accident.
The Cardinals’ 16-year head coach has averaged 22 wins a season, earning three SWAC titles, four national tournament appearances, several NJCAA Top 25 finishes and, most recently, three straight berths to the only postseason tournament of its new affiliation: The Northwest Athletic Conference.
Carlson has sent over 60 players to four-year schools in that span, 18 to the NCAA Division I level.
His time with the Coeur d’Alene school ends next week, the conclusion of the Cardinals’ appearance at the NWAC Tournament at Everett Community College.
Carlson recently opted to retire from NIC, and will coach his last home game Wednesday when the Cardinals (16-10, 10-5 East Region) host Columbia Basin (8-19, 5-10).
His final time on the bench at Rolly Williams Court falls on his 60th birthday, an age that rendered him eligible to take an early buyout from his contract.
“I have watched maybe 30 percent of my daughter’s games,” said Carlson, a three-time NJCAA District M Coach of the Year. “She is going to be a senior next season and I’d like to watch her play.”
His daughter is Nina Carlson, a junior forward at Idaho and former Lake City standout. His son, former Lake City standout James Carlson, is a sophomore forward on the NIC men’s team.
Carlson hasn’t ruled out a return to coaching once Nina and James have exhausted their college eligibility.
“I don’t feel like I’m retired,” said Carlson, a three-time NJCAA District M Coach the Year. “In two years, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m coaching somewhere.”
Carlson said he’ll help coach his 11-year-old son, Jordan, in the interim.
After spending three seasons as an assistant in Cheney under current Eastern Washington women’s coach Wendy Schuller, Carlson accepted the job at NIC in 2004.
Alongside his wife – former longtime NIC assistant Carey Carlson – the Carlsons helped make the Cardinals annually competitive in the SWAC against the likes of the College of Southern Idaho, Salt Lake Community College, Snow (Utah) College and others.
As a member of the NJCAA, the Cardinals were allotted 15 full tuition waivers, which boosted their national and international recruiting efforts.
But when NIC basketball left the NJCAA for the more local, cost-friendly NWAC, it was allowed eight partial tuition waivers.
It wasn’t a seamless transition for Carlson, whose head coaching career started at NWAC member Big Bend (1992-2000).
After missing the NWAC tournament its first year in the tradition-rich East Region with such local schools as Community College of Spokane (2017 NWAC Tournament champ), Walla Walla (2018 NWAC Tournament champion) and Wenatchee Valley (2019 NWAC Tournament champion), NIC has earned a postseason berth for three straight seasons.
Carlson pointed to the cohesiveness of the 2011 national championship squad that featured Division I recruits Kama Griffits (Arizona), Kiki-Edwards-Teasley (Oregon State), Tugce Canitez (DePaul) and Camille Reynolds (South Alabama).
Seven of the eight players who signed with four-year schools that year were from the area, including Griffits (Coeur d’Alene), Reynolds (Lakeland) and Edwards-Teasley (Lewiston).
“Winning a (NJCAA national title) is tough because there’s so many teams,” Carlson said. “And to do it with a group of local players made it more special. They were beating tough teams from Florida and Texas.”
Carlson had the résumé to make the jump to a bigger school when NIC was regularly ranked in the top 10, but he said he wasn’t interested in uprooting his family from a community they loved.
The Carlsons were also long invested in their local AAU program, North Idaho Elite, that’s helped develop some of North Idaho’s top youth players.
“We raised a family here in Coeur d’Alene, coached together as a husband and wife, and got to be a part of NIC’s great school,” said Carlson, who has 471 career wins as a head coach.
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