Butch Raymond wasn't shocked that Brad Bigler returned to the court to preside over practice just two months after he laid his youngest son, Drake, to rest.
When it comes to labels, "Dad" carries more weight than "Coach" does, and anyone who knows him will tell you Bigler is a family man in every sense of the word. Still, Raymond knows Bigler and he knows that coaches are a different breed. And for Bigler, getting back on that court, giving direction to his players, put him a step closer to the normalcy he craved.
"Obviously, it was extremely difficult for him and his family, we all understand that, but what Brad did this year - that's Brad," Raymond said. "He's been that way ever since he stepped foot on campus. He's always been an integral part of the basketball team."
Drake was killed on July 28 when a drunk driver smashed his truck into the vehicle carrying his parents, Brad and Heather, and Heather's grandmother, Sharon Schuler. Drake died less than an hour after the crash.
Surely no one would've blamed Bigler for taking a year off. No one would've blamed him for stepping aside for a time in 2011, either, after his mother died in a kayaking accident on the Minnesota River.
But he came back both times.
We should all be so strong.
"He's a much stronger person than I am," said Upper Iowa University Coach Brian Dolan. "I couldn't have done what he did, I know that."
Dolan's son, Major, and Drake were born 11 days apart, so when Dolan tries to put himself in Bigler's shoes, it just doesn't work.
"I don't know how he did it," Dolan said. "It speaks volumes about his character and how he was raised."
Dolan's Peacocks lost to Bigler's Mustangs twice this season, the second coming on Friday, Jan. 25 - the day that drunk driver was sentenced. To this day, Dolan said, he doesn't know how Bigler kept it together to coach, let alone lead his team to a 19-point blowout on what was a very trying day.
"I know that was emotional for Brad," Dolan said. "How Brad could focus that night is beyond me. He and his team did a very good job that night."
Raymond, commissioner of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, was SMSU's athletic director from 1997-2004, so he knows Bigler as a player and head coach. He said Bigler's return to the court last fall and the leadership he showed this season is a testament to his character and the attributes that make him who he is.
"To go through that it just says so much about him that he was able to come back," Raymond said. "And it shows how his team feels about him - how they responded in trying to help him get through it by the way they hung together."
Earlier this week, Bigler was named the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Coach of the Year by his peers. He didn't earn the award for winning the conference - the Mustangs were only two games over .500 and finished in a tie for seventh place in the 16-team conference. They did have a tough schedule, but ask Bigler, and he and his team surely had loftier goals than 16-14. No, Bigler won the award because he won the unforgiving fight any parent who loses a child has to fight. Of course, that fight is not over yet; his physical wounds have healed, but the emotional ones are continuously mending a day at a time.
As Bigler humbly put it, there were other coaches in the NSIC more deserving of the annual honor. He's probably right - if you go by wins and losses. The NSIC coaches outclassed themselves by not doing that.
"Obviously, they realized the challenges my family faced outside of basketball," Bigler said. "I don't really know how to respond to it; there are certainly more deserving coaches in our league. But I think it shows the high character we have in our league more than anything. It shows they also understand the big picture, that our jobs are more than just winning basketball games. The coaches in this league are good people."
Bigler said the coaches in the NSIC are passionate competitors, on the court and on the recruiting trail. But each realize the game of life is more important than the game of hoops.
"This shows you how special of a league it truly is, and I'm very thankful to be a part of it," he said. "We all hate to lose, but off the court we have a true respect for every other coach in the league. They know it has to be more than basketball."
Not voting for Bigler for coach of the year wasn't an option for Dolan.
"My assistant walked in and asked a question about Defensive Player of the Year and then about Coach of the Year and I said, 'Brad.' No hesitation in my mind," he said.
Bigler's award is a classy salute from his competitors, who, like the rest of us, can only imagine how tough this season was for him. And he admits there were challenging times. He can't pinpoint those times when sadness crept in, but inner battles don't go on hiatus just because it's game time.
"There were reminders of Drake all over the place," he said. "Whether it was a weekend in January, whether it was leaving home after playing with the kids and going to the game. I found myself emotionally distracted on many occasions like anyone would when they try to focus and make sure they're doing the right things for the people in the program. Without question, it has and continues to be a challenge."
On paper, the Mustangs had an average season. They barely finished in the upper half of the NSIC, and they got knocked out of the conference tournament after one game. But forget wins and losses. This season was about a coach proving that the courage of a man can't and shouldn't be judged by what kind of play he draws up with his team down by one with 6 seconds left.
This year's NSIC Coach of the Year displayed a different kind of courage this season. He was an underdog all year and finished a champion.