Women's Basketball
Divilbiss Helps Bring 'Buzz' to Illini Basketball

Mike Divilbiss is in his fifth year under Matt Bollant.
Mike Divilbiss is in his fifth year under Matt Bollant.

by Mike Koon, Illinois Sports Information


"Oh that you would bless me and enlarge by territory! Let your hand be with me and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain." -- Prayer of Jabez.

That prayer from the book of I Chronicles is something that Illinois associate head coach Mike Divilbiss recites and lives by every day. One can easily see that Divilbiss' road through his life and career has not happened by mere chance. There have been many hands that have guided him through his journey which has brought him back to his home state of Illinois. Along the way, Divilbiss has developed a high reputation from his peers in the world of coaching.

"I've been around women's basketball for 15 years and I believe he's as good of a teacher of the game as there is in the entire country," head coach Matt Bollant said of his colleague.

As passionate as he is about basketball, Divilbiss sees his role as a higher calling.

"I got into this profession because I wanted to be a role model for kids," Divilbiss said. " Some of the best role models for me were coaches."

His ties to Bollant and to the state of Illinois are at the least ironic and at best prophetic. Divilbiss was born in Springfield and lived a short time in Champaign, where he remembers hearing as a kid about the death of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. His family settled in Dundee, Ill., where former Illini great Paul Judson taught drivers' education at his school.

Divilbiss coaching influence has come a lot from reading John Wooden, but it was partially because of another coaching legend that in seventh grade he knew he could make a profession out of coaching college basketball.

"There was no such thing as cable TV back then," Divilbiss recalled. "You got two Big Ten games of the week on Saturday afternoon. I remember everyone making a big deal about this new coach with the plaid sport coat at Indiana. That's when I first realized and I could make a living in the sport besides just playing."


Divilbiss graduated from Winona State University in 1981 and taught three years of elementary school P.E. in Winona. He also helped coach Winona Senior High, which included a player by the name of Joe Bollant (the brother of Matt Bollant). The aspiring coach realized that the road up the ladder, like it is in many professions, was through internships and grad assistants. That's why he worked camps for Jim Dutcher and Kevin McHale at Minnesota.

His break into the profession required a twist of fate. While in college, his family moved to Spokane, Wash., and it was on a trip to the area for his sister's wedding that he noticed an ad for an assistant women's coach at Eastern Washington University.

Although head coach Bill Smithpeters, already had chosen his man, Divilbiss made such an impression on Smithpeters, that the Hall of Fame coach and native of Mt. Vernon, Ill., hired him as a graduate assistant.

"Bill was a strong Christian man and a great role model for me," Divilbiss said. "He also gave me a lot of insight into how to coach women."

With just one full-time and one graduate assistant, Smithpeters gave Divilbiss a lot of responsibility, and the threesome led Eastern to back-to-back appearances in the Mountain West Conference title game, including a victory over Montana in 1987 to earn the program's first NCAA Tournament bid.

Divilbiss was like a sponge, learning not only live lessons from Smithpeters, but from the likes Eastern men's coaches Jerry Krause and Joe Folda and Fred Liztenberger, the long-time assistant at Oregon, whose coaching lineage includes Lipscomb coach Don Meyer, who had a huge influence on a coach by the name of Pat Summit.


From Eastern Washington, Divilbiss was handed the keys to women's program and Lewis-Clark State in Lewiston, Idaho, where the Warriors had just a handful of all-conference players. With a salary of $20,000 and budget of another $20,000, Divilbiss set out to build a winning program.

By the end of his 14 years there, the program not only was a player on the NAIA national scene, but also had a huge following locally. Among the strategies to help build his program, Divilbiss established a scholarship club. The idea was having professional women helping support women. The families that chose to buy in for $250 or $500 would become host families for that player. Divilbiss put their pictures outside his office next to the picture of the player they were sponsoring as a member of the club.

"I was just trying to get them to give money for scholarships," Divilbiss explained. "I didn't think about them coming to games."

While Divilbiss had more money for his program, in the end each kid had five or six host families, which translated to about 75 families. Those families and their friends came out in droves and helped fill the gym. The crowds and the program grew at a rapid rate. Divilbiss had a 310-122 record, advanced to six straight national tournaments and three Elite Eights.

To get his team over the top, Divilbiss soon realized he would have to adopt a growing defensive philosophy called the "Buzz," which had beat his team in the NAIA Tournament.

"The concepts of 'The Buzz' are to guard the passing lanes first and you try to force lobs which gives your defense time to shift," Divilbiss said. "That is different than a conventional zone where you allow them to throw it on a straight line from one side of the floor to the next. Eventually people move the ball quick enough that the zone breaks down and someone is open. We don't run it like everyone else runs it. It's more aggressive and way less like a 2-3 zone than what most people play."

Much of the credit of its inception comes from Dave Olmstead, the coach at the University of Portland in the mid 1980s.

"I coached against it and clearly wasn't prepared," Divilbiss said. "That got my attention."

Jerry Finkbeiner, the coach at Oral Roberts for nearly two decades and now the head man at Utah State, was having success running the "The Buzz," so Divilbiss called Finkbeiner to find out what it was all about.

"Jerry told me a couple of things and sent me a couple of hand-outs. but I sat on it for a year and didn't want to use it. Then we lost again to it in the national tournament (in 1999). I decided if we were going to win a national championship, we're going to have to play against this thing."

The following year in 2000, with "The Buzz" in place, the Warriors finished the regular season 26-0 and reached No. 1 in the polls. The following year, LCSC won 33 games overall and reached the NAIA Final Four.


Having built a successful program at Lewis-Clark State, Divilibiss had the chance to move into the Division I ranks at the University of Idaho. Divilbiss had some success there, advancing to the Big West Conference title game in 2004 and 2005 and earning conference Coach of the Year honors in '04. But tough times followed, and Divilbiss was searching for his next move.

"Something happened to me when I left LCSC," Divilbiss said. "I had won and won and I thought a lot of it was about me. There's a concept in leadership that the heart has to stay in the middle. My heart got out of the middle."

Enter Emily Bauer. Divilbiss had helped Bauer in her first job at Rocky Mountain College and the became good friends in the coaching profession. The coaching road eventually took Bauer to Green Bay, where she served under head coach Carol Hammerle. Bauer followed Hammerle to Northern Illinois and eventually to the head job at North Central College, but Bauer had maintained ties to several people in Green Bay. So in 2008, when Matt Bollant was looking for a top assistant, Bauer played the role of making the match.

"Emily was familiar with my situation and what Matt was going through in Green Bay," Divilbiss said. "My first reaction was God, do you really want me to go back to the Midwest? I'm wasn't really excited about going to Green Bay."

The plan was for the Bollant and Divilbiss to meet at the Final Four in Tampa, but as fate would have it, the two were in line together at check-in for the Women's Basketball Coaches Association Convention.

"We talked for an hour-and-a-half there and for three-and-half hours the next day," Divilbiss recalls. "It was very clear that this was the place for me. It helped me heal. Matt in turn, let me use my gifts and didn't have an ego about things."

The partnership has blended two sets of styles.

"Matt is an extremely humble person that has a heart for people," Divilbiss explained. "I have more of an edge. I learned a long time ago that the line between our shadow and our gift is very fine. Matt's gifts are loving people and nurturing. He's a peacemaker. I'm a confronter. I challenge everything."

Together they helped Green Bay to four straight NCAA Tournaments, including the 2011 Sweet 16. In 2012, the Phoenix defensive pressure, which included "The Buzz," forced 34 Kentucky turnovers in a near comeback and upset of the No. 2 seed Wildcats in the NCAA Second Round.


Bollant and Divilbiss now face the challenge of building another winner at Illinois. They've been joined by Tianna Kirkland and LaKale Malone as full-time assistants and Jessica Abitz and Celeste Ratka as Green Bay connections on staff. Divilbiss sees the talent at Illinois and is encouraged by how the players have bought in.

In explaining how quickly the players have responded, Divilbiss said. "The players see the balance between Matt and I, our heart and our ability to teach. They also see how we developed Celeste into an All-American at Green Bay."

The coaches have demonstrated they care. For instance, Bollant told senior Adrienne GodBold, "It's doesn't matter if you ever score a point or play a minute in this program, we're going to love you and care about you."

GodBold responded, "I have felt that since the day you got here."

Divilbiss has his faith and his family (which includes his wife, Judy, and children, Zachary and Chantel) for giving him his inner peace.

"I had lost my balance," he said. "I got too much too young. God does things to get your attention, then pulls you back out of it if you trust him. It's all part of the healing process. I am getting back in balance and putting that heart for people first. I pray the Prayer of Jabez every day for me my family. I believe this is where I'm supposed to be and am excited about continuing that journey at Illinois."