By Bruce Wood

Assistant basketball coach Mark Graupe found his way to Hanover one year too late. Or maybe three years too early.

Don't get the wrong idea. Graupe is thrilled to have joined Terry Dunn's staff this year after working last season at Colorado State. You don't have to talk to him long to appreciate how genuinely excited he is to be coaching some of the brightest student-athletes in the nation. That comes across loud and clear.

It's just that when he's not on the court or in the office watching film or making recruiting calls, he has this other jones, and there's hardly a better way to keep it fed than being in New Hampshire every four years.

"I'm single so I don't have a family to come home to every night," the 46-year-old native of Crosby, N.D., explained. "Family would be important if I had that, but I don't. So I have two things in my life. I have basketball, and I am really into sports memorabilia and presidential autographs."

One of the favorite items in his wide-ranging memorabilia collection actually combines sports and chief executives: a baseball that bore Richard Nixon's signature when it was given to him, but that today features the John Hancocks of no fewer than five former presidents.

"It was really well known that Gerald Ford would sign autographs through the mail so I sent him the ball and a check to donate to his favorite charity," Graupe said. "He signed it and I got an endorsed check back also. Jimmy Carter I got at Habitat for Humanity in South Dakota when he was coming out of a bathroom. He signed the ball and we had a great conversation. That was back when you could approach them. The Secret Service guy was just standing back, so it was just me with Jimmy Carter.

"George Bush I got in Fargo, N.D., when he was campaigning for a senate hopeful," Graupe continued, "and Bill Clinton I got in South Dakota. They were dedicating a library for George McGovern in Mitchell, S.D. Bill Clinton showed up and signed."

To be sure, there are a great many more Ivy League-qualified basketball players in the country than there are former presidents, but the the thrill of the hunt to find players who will help the Big Green challenge in the Ancient Eight is also part of Graupe's basketball jones.

"It's like Terry Dunn says, you have to turn over every rock," he said. "You've got to look all across the nation to find players. It's a whole new world for me."

And in more ways than one.

Graupe, who graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1987 with a dual major of math and physical education, cut his coaching teeth in Petersburg, N.D., which in the 2000 census had a population of 195.

"I lucked out," he said. "One week before school started I got my first job and it included head boys' basketball coach. So I was living my dream. I was a head basketball coach at 22 years old. I got to teach a little math and 'phys ed,' because in a small school you have to do different things. It went from kindergarten 'phys ed,' down on my knees, all the way up. There were only 36 kids in the high school."

Thirty-six kids and, after his first winter in town, just one very busy basketball coach.

"In North Dakota girls were in the fall, boys in winter," he said. "I took over the girls the second fall. So for three years I did fall and winter basketball with no assistant. I would sit there and have a 4 p.m. game in girls' basketball. I'd have 7th and 8th grade girls. Then I'd hustle down and talk to the jayvee, and out we'd come. Then at 5:45 I had jayvee basketball. And I had the varsity. Those years I was coaching over 100 games a year."

Graupe went on to coach boys' varsity for four years at Devils Lake High School and a couple of years at Williston High School, two of the larger high schools in the state.

Like Dunn and Dartmouth women's coach Chris Wielgus, he's a strong believer that teaching and coaching at the high school level hones skills that are invaluable at the college level.

"No question about it," Graupe said. "At the larger schools you not only have control over your jayvee coach, your sophomore coach and your freshman coaches, but also your feeder program. You have to give the junior high direction, so I'd go around watching them when I had some off time. It's great experience.

"And being a teacher for 21 years has helped my coaching. You have to learn and understand how students learn. You are constantly going to workshops because all kids learn differently. You are getting ideas to be a better teacher. And coaching is teaching."

After making his way from one of the tiniest schools in North Dakota to a couple of the largest, Graupe made the leap to college head coach at Lake Region State in Devil's Lake in 2001. Over his seven seasons at the Division I junior college school he posted a fine 126-95 overall record, winning National Junior College Athletic Association Regional 13 titles his final two years. He was recognized as the regional coach of the year both times. A holder of a master's in kinesiology, he also taught classes throughout his tenure at Devil's Lake.

Long interested in being a Division I assistant, Graupe realized that dream last year when he moved on to Colorado State. He was involved in video, recruiting and academic support along with on-court coaching for a year before joining one-time Colorado State assistant Dunn at Dartmouth.

The journey from longtime junior college coach to the Ivy League (by way of Fort Collins) has been an eye-opener for Graupe.

"It's one of those deals, and I don't mean to be mean about it, but when I saw a (potential recruit), before it was, 'I hope he doesn't get 18, the magic ACT number to be an NCAA qualifier,' because then I would have a chance at him," he said. "I've gone from where you are almost hoping they don't get it, to now where the academics have to be so high."

Finding high school seniors who are academically and athletically qualified for the Ivy League is a challenge. Not that it was easy to find "bigs" to play in Devil's Lake, a city of 7,222 in northern North Dakota. (In the Points of Interest/Attractions module on the front page of its official web site, Devil's Lake proudly invites visitors to, "Visit our Lemna Wastewater Treatment Facility just one mile West on Highway 19.")

"I always had trouble getting size," Graupe said. "If there's any size at all, I couldn't touch them. I had to go overseas for my big kids. In seven years I had 25 international players at Lake Region."

That won't be the case as a Dartmouth assistant, but coming to Hanover was culture shock enough for Graupe, whose long "O's" give away his Upper Midwest roots.

"I've never even been to New England before and it's very different than where I'm from," he said with a laugh. "People who haven't been to North Dakota don't understand how flat it is, and that there are no trees. So six miles away you can see the next town. Or you can see the lights 10 miles away.

"When I got here looking for a place to live I looked out the windows and I couldn't see a thing because the trees were right there. There was one place I really liked. It was beautiful, but I got claustrophobic because I couldn't see. Where I live now sits way up in the air and that was part of the deal. I had to have a great view."

The view he'd like to see in the not-too-distant future is from the top of the Ivy League standings. And the guy who has come such a long way since teaching physical education to kindergarteners in North Dakota can't wait to get there. Just don't expect him to be empty handed when he does. The sports memorabilia side of him wouldn't allow it.

If he ever hears Fran Tarkenton is in town you can bet he'll have that football with him that already has autographs on it from Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Bart Starr and Joe Montana. And you can bet that presidential baseball will always be close at hand.

"I just went on a recruiting trip to Texas," Graupe said with a smile. "You know who is in Dallas. George W. And I don't have George W. Chances are slim. But I brought that baseball with me just in case I read in the paper that he was going to make an appearance. People think that's getting a little extreme, but you just never know."