NCAA Tournament: North Dakota State enjoying the journey

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 20, 2009

By Jim Souhan
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Saul Phillips was thrilled to see his North Dakota State men’s basketball team all over ESPN last week.
“Usually, when Fargo makes it on TV,” Phillips said, “it’s on The Weather Channel.”
Phillips was thrilled to see his adoptive city make the national news, too, “for something other than the wood chipper scene in ‘Fargo.”‘
Phillips is the 36-year-old, fast-talking, Mountain Dew-drinking, second-year basketball coach who helped NDSU become the first team since 1970 to qualify for the NCAA tournament in its first year of eligibility. He’ll bring the Bison and a knack for shooting the bull to Minneapolis for a first-round game against Kansas on Friday.
“I’m a little verbal,” he said. “I can’t believe how much I’ve talked, and how many people I’ve talked to, in the last week. I mean, I was on the radio with the Fabulous Sports Babe. What’s next, the San Diego Chicken dropping by?”
The Final Four is traditionally about power programs. Regionals bring us quainter, more charming stories ó guys such as Phillips, who work their whole lives to become overnight successes.
As an assistant coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Phillips found himself assigned to driving head coach Bo Ryan to get his haircuts. Only OPEC holds more oil than Ryan’s hair. “He lays it on thick,” Phillips said.
Ryan eventually became the highly successful coach at the University of Wisconsin. For three years, Phillips was his director of basketball operations. Phillips parlayed Ryan’s tutoring into an assistant coaching job under Tim Miles at NDSU, and when Miles left for Colorado State, Ben Woodside, now the Bison’s career leading scorer and owner of the shot that put NDSU into the tournament in its first year of eligibility, went to the powers that be and lobbied for Phillips.
“I had a great relationship with the players,” Phillips said. “There’s always uncertainty when you’re going for a job, but I felt pretty good about it.”
How do you think he feels now? The Bison won the Summit League regular-season title, then made a dramatic comeback against Oakland in the conference tournament final. With 12 seconds left, Oakland tied the score. Phillips, instead of calling a timeout, let Woodside take the ball the length of the court, where the Bison executed their standard end-of-game, high-ball-screen pick-and-roll, and Woodside buried a leaning 17-foot jumper that incited pandemonium.
You win the Super Bowl, you get to say you’re going to Disney World. You win the Summit League tournament, you go back to the team hotel because a blizzard closed the roads. You bus back to Fargo the next day, get swamped by well-wishers, and start doing interviews all over the country, answering the question, “Who are you guys?”
“I’m on the phone with Bo Ryan after the game, and I’m thanking him for all the things he’s taught me, and we’re bantering back and forth and I stop talking and zone out on the man I respect as much as anyone in this profession,” Phillips said. “I had seen myself on ‘SportsCenter’ for the first time, and it stopped me cold.
“It’s surreal to wake up in the morning and see your kids dancing on the opening montage of ‘SportsCenter.’ For a dad, that’s about as special as it gets. I had to take out a map and show my kids all the places I had been on the radio that day ó Birmingham, Tampa, Seattle. I wake up in the morning and the next thing I know I’m on the air with Dan Patrick, who was probably interviewing A-Rod a week ago.”
Phillips’ enthusiasm has become the Bison’s performance enhancer. As manic as he can be in interviews and celebrations, he’s remarkably calm on the sideline. So when Woodside got the inbound pass for the biggest possession in school history, Phillips did nothing, thereby initiating what he calls his “Give Ben the ball and get out of the way offense.”
Positioned to receive more praise this week than in the rest of his life combined, Phillips has doled out credit to his players, Miles, Ryan, even fans who seem to have lost their bearings in the euphoria of making it to the tournament.
“When we got back from Sioux Falls, one older fan came up to me and said, ‘North Dakota State basketball wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for you,”‘ Phillips said. “I told him I appreciated the kind words, but that, yes, North Dakota State basketball would exist without me.”
Phillips doesn’t spend much time trying to look presidential. He picked up the nickname “Salty Dog” in Platteville. “Now my 3-year-old even calls me that,” he said.
Salty Dog doesn’t mind bringing an underdog to Minneapolis to face the defending national champions. “Kansas travels well,” he told reporters in Fargo. “But we’ll have a head start on them.”