CEDAR FALLS — Deep in thought during a moment alone in late July, Seth Tuttle can recall a major decision about his basketball future becoming crystal clear.
The University of Northern Iowa’s first NCAA Division I second team All-American had the most lucrative offer of his career on the table to join a team in Italy for a fourth season of professional basketball. His other option was to begin chasing a dream of becoming a collegiate head coach by accepting a graduate assistant position at his alma mater.
Tuttle had talked with UNI head coach Ben Jacobson over the past three years about one day joining the Panthers’ staff. It finally got to the point where he could no longer wait.
“I just knew that it’s time,” Tuttle said, after a Wednesday practice during his first season as UNI’s graduate manager. “I couldn’t imagine myself getting on a plane to go back for my fourth year overseas and saying goodbye to my family and friends and loved ones for another 10 months. It was a great experience, I learned a lot about basketball, a lot about myself, and it was just time.”
One of Northern Iowa’s all-time basketball greats admits growing up he never thought he’d be among those talented enough to play the game for a living. Yet, through an investment of countless hours in the gym, life took him there.
The 6-foot-8 forward, who finished his career fourth on UNI’s all-time scoring chart, found success through one season in Germany and two more in Belgium’s highest professional league. He shot 59.6 percent over 30 games and averaged 10.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists during his final season at Spirou Charleroi, and led the team with average of 13.5 points per game during the FIBA Europe Cup.
While Tuttle is confident he had some years left in the tank, he also points out that he has a lot to look forward to back in Cedar Falls.
“I’ve always wanted to get into coaching,” Tuttle said. “I have a passion about that. ... I have an amazing girlfriend in my life that I’ve only gotten to see six months out of 36. That’s tough to do. There were a lot of pros and cons that weighed into the decision. I was blessed to have two great opportunities. I just had to pick one.”
While Jacobson was the first to bring up the sharp pay cut Tuttle would be taking to work as a grad assistant, he also told his former player to prioritize what’s most important right now.
“I give him a lot of credit for being able to make a decision like that at his age and come to grips with what’s most important,” Jacobson said. “I think he made a great decision and made the right one.
“My advice was pretty simple for him, ‘Just get in here, and the same passion that you played with, approach coaching the same way. You’re going to be a great coach. The money will be there at some point. Just get in here and work hard.’”
Tuttle follows in a footsteps of multiple players who have returned to Cedar Falls to start their coaching journey. Jake Koch has recently accepted a director of basketball operations job at Omaha after three years on UNI’s staff as a film assistant. John Little returned from a 10-year pro career in Europe to work as a video coordinator at UNI beginning last season, and his former teammate from three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, Erik Crawford, is in his eighth season as an assistant on Jacobson’s staff.
“It’s easy for players to want to be in the NCAA Tournament,” Jacobson said. “We’ve got three guys in the office right now that understand what it takes on a daily basis.”
Tuttle says his experience of playing for a paycheck helped raise the stakes of the lifestyle and effort during practice and game reps that it takes to succeed.
“All the coaches like to remind me I was a pain in the butt,” Tuttle said. “Sometimes I needed a push just like everybody else. Now when I’m sitting here trying to get a guy going, the coaches walk over, ‘Remember this was you.’ I’ve been through it. I see it from a different perspective now. I know what it took for me to change, and I can help those kids understand it to the best of my ability.”
UNI redshirt senior Wyatt Lohaus is the only former teammate of Tuttle’s on the Panthers’ current roster.
“His overall feel for what the team needed at the time, and then doing whatever it took in that situation to be successful are two things I can take from him,” Lohaus said. “His knowledge for the game is off the charts. The way he is able to relate to players having just finished his pro career, and then being able to transfer the knowledge he has, has been great so far.”
UNI junior Isaiah Brown points out Tuttle has brought a new dimension to 5-on-5 scrimmages.
“Our forwards when he’s telling them to play with pace and they’re constantly picking up their speed, it’s hard to guard,” Brown said. “He’s the type of player who makes the other players around him better no matter who is on the team with him.”
As UNI shifts from working the ball through a 5 like Bennett Koch to more of a guard-driven offense built around ball movement and screens, Tuttle feels he has some ideas to offer from the European game.
“Basketball has changed,” Tuttle said. “It’s not so much throw it to the wing and throw it inside anywhere — NBA, college, teams in Europe — it’s ball screen and ball movement.
“We’re going to implement that a little bit with our guys. It’s going to be new. They’ve done a really good job of picking up what we’ve tried to teach them already. We’re hoping that we can get this thing popping around and we can have a lot of fun this year on the offensive end.”
In some ways Tuttle has never left UNI’s program.
He’s spent the last three summers working out with the team, in addition to running a basketball camp in his hometown of Sheffield. When he was in Europe, he’d routinely wake up neighbors in his apartment complex as he’d jump up and down in the living room while watching UNI games past 3 a.m.
The first-year coach with UNI purple in his blood is determined to see how far up the ranks he can progress.
“I want to be a Division I basketball coach,” Tuttle said. “If this journey leads me somewhere else, that’s OK. I’ve learned quite a bit through my journeys over the last couple years.”
PRACTICE UPDATE: While Jacobson likes the work ethic and competitive side this year’s team has shown through the first nine practices, he still sees plenty of room for growth with technique and the mentality it takes to succeed.
Three key returning players have missed practice time.
Last year’s top rebounder Tywhon Pickford remains out until the first week of November as he recovers from a stress fracture in his foot. Jacobson noted Pickford will be able to get some lighter workouts in between now and November, and once he’s cleared for full practice he’ll also be cleared for game action.
UNI guard Spencer Haldeman made his practice debut Wednesday after dealing with a back that tightened up on him, and center Austin Phyfe has been in and out of practice for the last four to five weeks.
Jacobson points out the attention to details from on-ball defense to rebounding remains a work in progress for this year’s team.
“That’ll be a real key for us,” Jacobson said. “How soon can those little parts of being a championship team become real important? The guys got a feel for them and they’re starting to learn more about them.
“Technique will get better. From a mentality standpoint we’re a ways away from everyone understanding how important each little part is to a possession.”