Photos by Hillary Ehlen and special to Bison Illustrated
Hoops great Brett Winkelman traveled around the world before returning to Fargo to fulfill his professional goals.
Many people quantify sports through “eras”. They recall a string of events, athletes or coaches that rekindle thoughts of that point in history. An easy example would be recalling Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls or Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant for the Los Angeles Lakers. If you were to speak to fans of those franchises about those eras, their brains would be flooded with memories of dominance on the hardwood.
From the perspective of a North Dakota State hoops fan, those instances are the same. Yet, the Bison basketball era with the most memories tagged to it would be 2004 to 2009, as the program was working their way into Division I competition. For most Bison fans, many will recall the remarkable run in 2008-09. A run that culminated in a Summit League tournament championship, the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth and the match-up with hoops powerhouse Kansas in that tournament.
Names like Woodside and Moormann will be a few of the first athletes mentioned from that era of NDSU basketball. Another will surely be Brett Winkelman, who despite playing alongside fellow Bison greats like Ben Woodside etched his own name in NDSU’s history books. So much so, that Winkelman is long considered to be one of the best to ever lace it up in Fargo. However, you will quickly learn that Brett Winkelman will not be defined by the game of basketball, and that is the way he wants it.
One of the most highly touted prospects out of the state of Minnesota, Winkelman was just one of the vital pieces in an electric recruiting class put together by then head coach Tim Miles. While Miles was the head coach in Fargo for three of Winkelman’s five years on campus, a slight adjustment came when Miles took the head job at Colorado State in 2007. He has since moved to the Big Ten, coaching at Nebraska since 2012. However, thanks to an established coaching staff, Bison basketball was in safe hands with new head coach Saul Phillips, who was Miles’ lead assistant.
“Transitioning coaches from one to another was really quite seamless because each coach worked under the previous coach so they had that system. That’s what they really understood, the game of basketball through that system and each one tweaked that and brought in their own flavor to the mix,” Winkelman said when reflecting on the transition from Miles to Phillips. “It was an easy transition because we had such a close group, a family atmosphere and you see that today because Dave (Richman) really preaches the family, a Bison family. Saul, for us, in our later years in my class, he really understood us well and knew how to coach us and I think that is what Richman took away from his years working with Saul.”
This all came in an era of Bison basketball where the program was just making the transition to Division I competition. Despite the jump up, North Dakota State was able to compete at an extremely high level. In Winkelman’s redshirt freshman season, the Bison traveled to the Kohl Center to face Big Ten opponent Wisconsin. They came out of Madison with a 62-55 win. The Badgers were ranked 15th in the country at the time. The Bison followed that up with a win over Marquette the following year. The Golden Eagles were a top ten team in the country at the time. North Dakota State was also able to bring the Big 12 to the Bison Sports Arena, welcoming Kansas State that same season.
For Winkelman, it was those games that serve as cornerstones of Bison basketball even to this day. “We honestly had nothing to lose, we were a bunch of teenagers going in there playing against a big school like that. Not to say we snuck up on them, but we were playing carefree and having fun with it,” Winkelman said in regards to the Wisconsin game in 2006. “The next year, my sophomore year when we played Marquette, we had Andre Smith, he was a senior and he really played strong and so he was a solid core. But again, it was just a bunch of young guys that didn’t have anything to lose. When we started transitioning forward, we started to realize that we can compete, those two wins specifically, opened up our eyes to say we’re not a mid-major playing against a high major, we’re two basketball teams. We started to realize how special our group was and we were able to start competing at a very high level. So teams that had something to lose started to literally fear coming into Fargo and playing us on our home court. It’s fun because some of those early games set the stage, kind of the cornerstones if you will.”
That 2006-07 season saw the Bison win 20 games. While that was Tim Miles’ final season in Fargo, it laid the groundwork for things to come. In their first season under Saul Phillips in 2007-08, the Bison went a disappointing 16-13 in the win-loss column. However, during that offseason, the now veteran Bison core learned something about themselves. Winkelman believes this is what birthed a now historical run in his senior season.
“The group of guys we played with for four or five years, we really took pride in the fact that we were trailblazers in the Division I basketball program. Not to say we were feeling our way through it the first two years, but we had a younger team and there was a point in time where we started losing a lot of close games,” Winkelman said. “Eventually we looked at each other and said we were better than this and it was really about a confidence level. The word we used was “swagger” so we would go into places and when people would come into our house, we’d play with swagger. People would argue that is borderline arrogant or cocky, but to really play as an athlete with confidence, controlled confidence, that was the key for us turning the corner. We were able to win those close games and we knew we could beat anybody on any given day. When we started playing that way with that confidence, swagger as we called it, we started seeing the results, especially our senior season.”
“We started to realize how special our group was and we were able to start competing at a very high level.”
That swagger led to a 26-7 overall record in 2008-09. Perhaps more importantly, the Bison won the Summit League Tournament over Oakland thanks to a game-winner from Ben Woodside. It would lead the Bison to their first NCAA Tournament berth in school history. While they eventually lost to Kansas in that tournament, many will remember that 2008- 09 team as one of the best NDSU basketball teams ever.
Winkelman was one of the primary reasons the Bison got to where they did that season and in previous seasons. He averaged double figures in each of his four seasons in Fargo. This included an incredible 19.2 and 18.6 points per game in his junior and senior seasons respectively. His 1,962 career points as a Bison is still the second-best mark in school history. He only sits behind teammate Ben Woodside in that category. On top of that, he averaged at least 6.8 rebounds per game, finishing his Bison career with 874 total rebounds, a school record. Perhaps most impressive was the fact that Winkelman finished his NDSU career shooting 51 percent from the field. He attributes that incredible efficiency to the overall talent of the team around him.
“We had such a capable team, there were so many threats to a defense, you can’t key off any one or two or three or even four players. There are five players on the court and a solid bench that comes in and even the bench players they have to respect,” he said. “When you’re a defender playing against us, looking over your shoulder literally and figuratively, you get those opportunities. We moved the ball so well and the coaches gave our group a long leash to let the game come to us and we were able to react and we really keyed off each other well. We really knew what each other was thinking before we did it, so it’s really about having such a good team across the board.”
After graduating, Winkelman began his career in professional basketball. While he knew it would not last a lifetime, he was happy to travel the world for a few years. He played for professional teams in Italy, Poland and Brazil. “I was excited for the opportunity to play overseas and see the world. Italy was the first place I went to and that was fun just because Italy has such a cultural history that was very fun to immerse myself in,” he said. “From there, I transitioned up to Poland not really sure what to expect, but the team up there in Poland had such a solid team and they had a state of the art stadium to play in, we went to the championship game and so it was very fun. They also didn’t have soccer there and so we were the big ticket in town. It was a smaller city, similar to Fargo so it had that mentality from the fanbase. I then moved down to Brazil, I had gotten married over that summer so I brought my wife with me to Brazil.”
It was that season in Brazil that Winkelman and his wife figured would be his last. He had a multitude of reasons to continue playing, but it just did not sit right after agreeing to play for a fourth season. “I thought I would wait to hear what offers I would get and then make the decision. Honestly, I made the decision to play another year, I picked up the phone, dialed my agent and I just had this sinking feeling. I told my wife I didn’t have peace about this, so it was really just a feel,” he said. “I really didn’t have the passion anymore and I knew once I lost the passion, then it’s not worth putting so much effort and putting the rest of my life on hold. At some point, I wanted to start a family, but I didn’t necessarily think that was the reason, it was just a sense of peace, making the decision not to. I didn’t want to start my career later in my life because I knew that I would have a promising career, so I wanted to start pursuing those options and then they started to fall into place. It started to make more sense to step into a role here in the working world.”
That new passion for Winkelman would be finding something in industrial engineering. He had majored in that at North Dakota State and was eager to set basketball aside for a new career. Luckily, the city of Fargo was waiting for Winkelman and his wife. “Dorothy said it best ‘There is no place like home.’ I’ve spoken to a lot of teammates and friends who have played overseas and almost all of them have the same feeling, it’s fun for a time, but it’s not home,” he said. “The feeling I had when I came back home to Fargo was just one of content and it’s really a great place to live. It’s great to be somewhere, but when you’re living out of a suitcase for month after month, you’re ready to come home to family and what you’re used to. Coming back to Fargo just felt great.”
After returning to Fargo, Winkelman decided to go back to school to receive his MBA at NDSU. On top of that, he landed in a fantastic career position at Fargo Assembly Company. “When I came back from overseas I had industrial engineering, so I had stepped into a management in training role and I was trained into a plant manager role,” he said. “Fargo Assembly Company was expanding, we built a new plant and I was a plant manager there for three and a half years and then from there, the previous owner had said he was ready to retire.”
Given the circumstances, Fargo Assembly Company was sold to a global company, ECI. However, Winkelman was made President of Fargo Assembly Company. He now oversees the operation in Fargo and reports to the larger company, ECI.
“The feeling I had when I came back home to Fargo was just one of content and it’s a really great place to live.”
Winkelman and his wife also started a family when they returned to Fargo. They are parents to two boys. While Winkelman would like to see them play basketball, he knows that may not be the case in the end. “I will put the opportunity in front of them, but I won’t push them towards it. Truthfully, if either one of my sons said they have a different interest, I just want them to be passionate about something,” he said. “That is something I have learned along the journey is if you don’t have the passion, you need to be ready to find something else. Basketball, I was passionate about it for so long, I started to lose that passion, so I wanted to leave with a little bit of that desire and want to compete. I started to lose that, so I transitioned away. If my two sons do not have that passion for basketball, I’ll just help them find what they are passionate about. That being said, it would be fun to see them in a Bison uniform some day.”
In his new role at Fargo Assembly Company, Winkelman finds common ground with basketball of all things. He credits his experiences overseas in helping him identify with employees, many of which are new Americans. “Basketball, the success at NDSU set up my professional career overseas. Opening up my eyes culturally to the world was such an invaluable lesson that I took away from the game of basketball. Not just seeing that there is a bigger world out there, but when I came back too. Now I lead a company of 950 people and there is a very diverse background of people,” he said. “A lot of people are refugees, new Americans coming from overseas. To be honest, I relate very much to a lot of these people coming over here. It’s their first time in the United States, they can’t speak English and it’s the first time maybe they’ve worked in their lives, it can be intimidating. I recognize that because when I went grocery shopping in Poland, I had to point and cross my fingers I was eating something I should be eating. To be able to understand and relate culturally, everybody tends to view the world through their eyes and to be able to step back and see that there are different perspectives to the world, has really set me up to appreciate the differences. It’s helped me to be able to work in a global world.”
In that sense, the game of basketball has come full circle for Brett Winkelman. He was a phenomenal player, to the point that it brought him around the world. However, the points he scored at NDSU and beyond pale in comparison to the things he learned about the world overseas. In turn, those lessons have made him better at his true passion and have made him a better man. Brett Winkelman is not defined by basketball, but by the experiences basketball provided him. Those life lessons overseas have shaped him into who he is today.