By LOU BABIARZ
Tribune Sports Editor
After four seasons as an assistant coach in the D-League, Nate Bjorkgren felt he was ready to be a head coach.
At least two teams agreed with him.
But the Iowa Energy doesn’t have an opening yet, so the Dakota Wizards snapped up their rival’s assistant on Wednesday, hiring Bjorkgren to become their new head coach.
Earlier this year the Energy — anticipating coach Nick Nurse getting a shot at the NBA — promoted Bjorkgren to associate head coach with the idea he would be Iowa’s coach in waiting.
“I’m 90 percent Nick Nurse will land an NBA job this year,” Bjorkgren said. “But it hasn’t happened yet. If it doesn’t happen this year, and he was to return, I just felt ready to be a head coach.”
Bjorkgren is the ninth coach in Wizards’ history. He replaces Rory White, who was let go after posting a 19-31 record last year, just the second losing season in the last dozen for the Wizards.
The hiring of Bjorkgren is the first big move made by the Golden State Warriors since they purchased the Wizards in late June. Warriors general manager Larry Riley is confident it’s a good one.
“We were impressed with his basketball knowledge and his experience within the D-League,” Riley said. “... We think he can develop players and assistant coaches, and we see this as a development process.”
The 36-year-old Bjorkgren joined the Energy staff at the team’s inception in 2007. In four seasons he helped the Energy compile a 124-76 record. That includes back-to-back 37-13 records the past two years and a D-League championship in 2011.
Riley said several members of the Warriors staff had input into the decision, including new coach Mark Jackson, assistant general manager Bob Myers, director of player personnel Travis Schlenk and director of basketball operations Kirk Lacob.
“We were all on board,” Riley said. “It was a unanimous decision. It was close, and we all knew it was close ... but we’re very happy with the decision.”
Bjorkgren, a native of Storm Lake, Iowa, split his collegiate career between the University of South Dakota and Buena Vista (Iowa) University, where he graduated in 1998 with a degree in exercise science.
Bjorkgren began his career as a high school coach, first at Sioux Central (Iowa), then at Cave Creek (Ariz.) Cactus Shadows for three seasons. He led Cactus Shadows to state each year, earning Arizona state coach of the year honors in 2005-06. From there, Bjorkgren moved on to the Energy.
“He spent his life trying to become a coach,” Riley said. “He earned his stripes.”
Lacob said that he felt that Bjorkgren was a perfect fit for the Wizards.
“He’s a really smart, really talented guy,” Lacob said. “He’s very impressive with a lot of upside. ... He’s going to be a really great asset. The fans are going to really like him.”
Bjorkgren is familiar with Bismarck from all the trips the Energy made to North Dakota the last several seasons.
“I’m excited to be a part of the Dakota Wizards,” Bjorkgren said. “They have great fans and a good tradition of basketball.”
Bjorkgren’s first order of business will be to find an assistant coach, which Riley said will be an organizational decision.
The Warriors have already hired Kris Weems, a former Stanford standout to serve as assistant coach/player development. Weems will split time between the Warriors and Wizards and serve as a liaison between the two teams.
Riley said the Warriors talked to a number of candidates for the Wizards’ head coaching position and interviewed four, but declined to name them.
Scott Schroeder of www.ridiculousupside.com said the others were Joel Abelson, associate head coach of the Idaho Stampede; Kevin Young, head coach of the Utah Flash last season; and Bob MacKinnon, former head coach of the Colorado 14ers and Idaho Stampede.
The Wizards had approached MacKinnon in 2009 after Duane Ticknor stepped down, but fresh off winning a title with the 14ers, MacKinnon declined the position.