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Berry Tramel

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Oklahoma basketball: North Dakota State's Saul Phillips is a keeper

by Berry Tramel Modified: March 20, 2014 at 5:20 pm •  Published: March 20, 2014

North Dakota head basketball coach Saul Phillips watches practice for the NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Spokane Arena in Spokane, Wash., Wednesday, March 19, 2014.Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman
North Dakota head basketball coach Saul Phillips watches practice for the NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Spokane Arena in Spokane, Wash., Wednesday, March 19, 2014.Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman

Lon Kruger said something great Wednesday at his press conference in Spokane’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Great and profound and wise.

Kruger was asked about his open-practice policy, inviting not just media but fans, too, to watch any and all OU practices. Kruger’s response? “I kind of feel like it’s not our program, it’s the community’s program and it’s the university’s program,” Kruger said.

I love that attitude. And it’s so rare in college athletics. Oh, coaches might say it, but they don’t believe it. They certainly don’t show it. They believe it’s their program, to do with as they please, and the paying public be damned.

So Kruger was a total breath of fresh air, and an hour later on the Spokane dais, here came another. North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips, whose team plays the Sooners on Thursday night, was incredibly charming and engaging. Witty and funny and self-deprecating and just thrilled to have his Bison on such a stage. Our man Ryan Aber blogged about Phillips. You can read that here.

Late in Phillips’ press conference, the moderator asked if there were any more questions. No one seemed to have one.

And Phillips took over. “If you run out of questions before I run out of answers, that doesn’t bode well for you,” Phillips admonished, which is 100 percent truth. “Hop in here.  What have you got?  What did you have for dinner last night?  Anything. There’s no way I let this press conference die before my allotted time.  It’s just not my nature.  Anybody that follows us knows that.”

So I raised my hand. “Man, oh man,” Phillips said. “OK, thank you brother. I owe you a soda after this, baby.”

Here was my question: “We love most of our coaches in Oklahoma, but if we ever have a job opening, would you please apply?”

Phillips answered, “I just don’t stop talking, do I?  That’s it, I’m out of here. No, anybody else?  I’m sorry.”

No reason to apologize, and he wasn’t finished. Someone else asked about Phillips’ open nature.

“Listen, we get (only) so many chances to have this stage, right?” Phillips said. “I mean, let’s face it, we do.  I’m going to enjoy it.  This is great.  And I think that again those around me a little more probably realize that I don’t have a lot of bad days.  I’ve known since I was very, very young, third, fourth (grade), I’ve always known since I have ever thought about what I was going to do for a living, I knew this is what I wanted to do.  And are you kidding me?  Here I sit with all you guys sitting there listening to me.  This is stupid.  I don’t know how this worked out.  But, yeah, I’m going to enjoy it.”

That’s what I mean about Phillips. Yes, he’s entertaining. But he’s also like Kruger was. Insightful and wise. Heck yes, coaches ought to enjoy the moment. Ought to enjoy the journey. Ought to remember that they are incredibly lucky to be doing what they’re doing. Same with us sitting out there listening to the press conferences. There are a whole lot of great coaches who never make the NCAA Tournament. A whole lot of great coaches who never coach past the high school level. There are a whole lot of great sportswriters who never get a chance to cover major events or work at a major newspaper or media outlet.

Those of us lucky enough to do it ought to enjoy it. That should be the minimum requirement of the job. Enjoy it.

That’s what I loved about Phillips. He said funny stuff. He also made great points while he was being funny. His answers showed me he had thought about things. Important things.

Phillips is 41. Born in Reedsburg, Wis. Graduated from Wisconsin-Platteville, came to North Dakota State as an assistant in 2004 and became head coach in 2007. And he’s got a good head on his shoulders.

When someone asked Phillips what a victory over the Sooners would mean for the basketball program at North Dakota State and the entire university, Phillips said, “It means we get to play together again, honestly.”

I know what the question meant. A victory would be fabulous for the Bison and their future and the school and the whole danged state of North Dakota. But I loved Phillips’ answer. Because at the heart of the matter, this stuff is about team. About playing together.

I’ve always said, the least important game of any playoff run is the final. Because it’s the end of the road, win or lose. People who say they’d lose in the quarterfinals than the final? They’re nuts. Winning early means advancement, which means you get to stay together. In some ways, the final is sad, win or lose. The team is broken up. I love it when a coach recognizes that.

“That’s all you can think about,” Phillips said. “You can’t get crazy with what could come next. It’s as simple as this: I love this group of young men.  They are a blast to coach.” Phillips was talking directly to a North Dakota reporter. “You’ve been there every step of the way,” Phillips said. “You know how I get along with these guys.  And you know how much I love revel, absolutely love, coaching.  I get to keep coaching them as a group.  That’s it.  To me, I’ll think about the possibilities of what it means long‑term for our program, after this is over.  But for right now, I want to keep coaching these guys, I’m having a blast.”

I just think it’s an indication that Phillips has considered such things. He’s thought about things outside of winning and losing. Of how the world doesn’t revolve around him and his situation.

He seems to see the world as it is. Which is a wonderful gift. Phillips said he didn’t even mind when his name got bantered about for others jobs. Not because he’s looking, but because of what that represents.

“You got to understand, we’re up in Fargo,” Phillips said. “To see some national people talking about us, that’s fun.  And they’re not just talking about me, (but) that, our team did this. As far as when we went in 2009 (the NCAA Tournament), a lot of people, ‘This is (former coach Tim) Miles’ team. You’re winning with Miles’ team.’ Great, great, great.  You know what?  This is (associate head coach) Dave Richman’s team, it is my team just as much as it was my team back then as it was Miles’ team.  We’re a group.  You can’t do it alone.”

And Phillips was very insightful when talking about pressure, how North Dakota State could play free now that it won the Summit League Tournament and qualified for the NCAAs.

“For us, in a lot of ways — and this is going to sound silly to people in this room — but when you’re a mid-major and you’re in a one-bid league, in a lot of ways that conference tournament presents more pressure than the next step.  I know we were a lot looser when we played in Minneapolis (the NCAA Tournament) with the 2009 group than we were prior in Sioux Falls (S.D., for the conference tournament). We tried to stay loose both times, we did.

“But I’m telling you … everybody wants to make the big dance.  This is the show.  This is where you want to be. When you’re dealing with that, and when you’re dealing with the singular goal of these guys for four or five years has been to make it here, yeah, I was feeling tight.  But that seems to kind of the weight’s come off the shoulders a little bit.  I just like this opportunity.  This is fun.”

I’m not sure I had ever thought about it like that. The self-induced pressure in conference tournaments like the Summit and the Horizon and the Southland and a dozen others, is much more than any first-round NCAA Tournament game. Maybe any NCAA Tournament game.

I just appreciated the way Phillips expressed himself. Not a lot of ego. Not a lot of pomp. Just some good common sense and a clear understanding that the NCAA Tournament, and college basketball, and working at something you love, is a blessing, not a burden. I was serious. If one of our schools ever needs a basketball coach, sign me up for Saul Phillips.

by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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