Last week, Northern State University announced that Saul Phillips as their new men's basketball coach. Phillips has spent twelve seasons as a head coach in division one college hoops. Seven of those years were spent at North Dakota State, while the other five were spent at Ohio University. SDPB's Nate Wek had the chance to chat with Phillips about his new role at Northern State in Aberdeen.
What kind of emotions are you feeling with your new gig?
The biggest thing that I've been feeling thus far is familiarity, in terms of, you know, I spent ten years in Fargo prior to this in North Dakota State. The short term, trying to get your recruiting intact, try to stabilize the roster, I'm dealing with a lot of the same high school and summer coaches that I dealt with. It's rekindling a lot of friendships. But there's an excitement. Any time a change comes there's excitement that comes with it, and we are certainly in the midst of that. I've really enjoyed getting to know the guys on the roster and our recruits coming in, and seems to be a really fun group to work with. Excitement, joy, familiarity, all those things are factoring in right now.
What are some of your expectations at Northern State?
The biggest thing here is that they have an excellent track record of winning. And you know to compete for championships if you win this league, you are a national championship contender, so be for conference and national championships our expectations going in, but sure, more simple than that, expectations are to get this group to understand what it is I'm trying to get them taught and to also meet them half way on some things. They're pretty good before I got here, so I've got to make sure that I'm open to, you know, maybe keeping some things that they do well.
Looking at the legacy that Northern State has to offer with names like Don Meyer having massive footprints there…how does it feel to be apart of a program that has such a rich history?
It’s a tremendous honor you know you talk about Coach Meyer but you also talk about Bob Olsen and the teams that he had, I saw those teams first hand when I was a graduate assistant at Wayne State, Nebraska. Every time I got done playing a Northern State team what I was coaching as an assistant which was four separate times, I walk out of there thinking to myself this is a program, not a great team, not a great, but a great program and that's a pretty big compliment because to go from being a great team to a great program is a huge step and that means you've done things right consistently over time. Certainly this place has proven to be a worthy place for a great program. I'm charged with keeping that going, that's a tremendous honor.
A lot of people in South Dakota know you because of your time spent coaching North Dakota State in the Summit League tournament – is there any one trait you picked up in terms of coaching during your time there that is essential to your success?
It’s so many things. I mean, honestly my first seven as a head coach was at North Dakota State and I can't even quantify the things that I've learned. I mean, boy it's a learning curve in a hurry when you go from being an assistant coach dreaming of about being head coach someday to now it's your first division one basketball game. You look over on the other sideline and Billy Donovan's coaching the Florida Gators again. It's a pretty steep learning curve, but I think specific to this job, things that'll help me, I think understanding the type of young man that can be, that can flourish here. Let's face it, this isn't the easiest place to live December through February and sometimes a couple months on both ends of that, right? To understand the kind of kid that can flourish in that environment, that can...tough kids that don't mind the fact that it might get a few degrees colder here. Kids that blend into the community. One of the things that's really struck me is since I've been at Aberdeen for the past week is again the type of people here and what they want to see out of a basketball program and a basketball player.
I think there are a lot of similarities between Fargo and here that way. I just think you have a prototype for what works here and I think that's probably the most important thing that I learned in Fargo that translates to here, but I learn every day. I try to keep an open mind and I don't think I have all the answers all the time, so again I'm work in progress, but the learning curve as been unbelievable for me in the last fifteen years of life.
In 2014, your final year with NDSU, the Bison won the Summit League tournament and went to the NCAA Tournament where you played No. 5 seeded Oklahoma. You guys beat them as a 12 seed, which is something that only a few Summit League teams have done historically. What was it like to win a game in the NCAA Tournament, Coach?
It was literally, when your wildest dreams start to become reality, it's a different place to live and the biggest thing that I got out of that whole experience was just the sheer joy in watching a group of guys that I care about very deeply to this day. Literally achieved something that they had only dreamed about and to walk off that court and to realize that this group of guys, you are the twelve seed that beat the five seed. You are the guys that screwed everybody's bracket up all over America. That is, [inaudible 00:06:23] this day, just thinking back to that day evokes emotion that just can't ever be put away. When that buzzer went off in overtime and we got the win and just to, you're so wrapped up in the moment just trying to win a basketball game and then you realize, "wait a minute, we just did this and the whole nation just watched it. We are going to be the talking point on Sports Center tonight."
the little known fact about that game is, we shared a hotel that day. We were in the same hotel as Harvard and they were a twelve seed as well. So we had two twelve seeds in the same hotel celebrating an upset that day. That was probably the happiest place on Earth, the Red Lion Inn in Spokane, Washington. For one night, that was the happiest place on Earth. I promise you that. There were about thirty student athletes that had just achieved their wildest dreams and to watch them be able to revel in that and to see our fans and our school president and our athletic director, I'll be like "We just did it." And the other thing about it was when we did that, it was kinda the capstone of, when we won Division One at North Dakota State, there were a lot of people thought that was a bad idea and people in our corner, in our camp that made those decisions.
The athletic director at the time Gene Taylor, they took a lot of grief for going to Division One. "Who do you think you are? This is going to fail miserably. This will never work." And to watch them be able to say "All right, we just did it." That was the culmination of a lot and it was again to this day, I get goosebumps thinking about it. It was unbelievable.
I remember when you guys won and the TV cameras caught you on the court saying “We’re Staying Here!” And then of course you were making the Bison sign with your hands as well in front of the NDSU fans.
Little things from the whole situation like for example, we were a pretty good team. We had beaten Notre Dame that year. We knew we were pretty good as a group. But you're also tucked in an area in the country where you don't get a lot of national exposure. We beat Oklahoma and the CBS Sports crew that was, there were following like a reality show. They were following Oklahoma around and it was Buddy Hield and that crew and a couple years later, they went on to win a national championship, national championship game. But anyway, the TV crew comes up after the game and goes, "we're supposed to be following Oklahoma around. We don't have anybody to follow around. Can we follow you?" So we literally had reality show going on around us. Two days where you got a camera crew following, you got microphones. Our guys who were just so unspoiled by the whole process, this was really really cool stuff for them and I absolutely said "We need to embrace all this. We need to enjoy all this because this is a once in a lifetime experience." Every little thing about it was extremely special and I'll always look back on that as something that was pretty neat in my life.
Moving back to your current job that was announced last week during a press conference in Aberdeen… I’m assuming the community up there is pretty excited for you to be there, is that correct?
Yeah, it's such an inviting area of the country, it's such an inviting community. You know, any time change happens, Paul Sather, last year was a pristine record and he left as a very popular coach. So anytime there's a transition its not ideal for anybody, but the way I've been welcomed here, the amount of people from the community that have opened up and embraced us then, just reaffirming us this was a terrific decision just coming here and you know, I think the other thing that makes this a terrific decision is they've proven they can have success here. I'm not walking into something where. . .
When we did everything that we did in North Dakota State, it was the first time it had been done because we had never been division one before. Here they have been successful in division two, they went to National Championship couple years ago. They won back to back league titles and you know, you go back through the Olsen years, the Wachs years, the Swisher years, consistently competing for championships here. I have to keep that up. I have to keep that going. But it's a little different vibe than it was in North Dakota State where it was the first time for everything. Cause the traditions here run very very deep.
Weather shouldn’t be a factor for you either, considering you spent so much time living in Fargo.
Aberdeen is where people from Fargo go for spring break, I'm pretty sure. So yeah, we're in great shape that way (laughing).
Do you have any hobbies? What sorts of things dictate your time when you’re not on the basketball court?
Well, I've got a wonderful wife and three children and they are more than hobbies but that takes up a good chunk of my time between youth baseball games and cross country meets and my golf game has gotten exponentially worse as I've added children to my life. And that's good, but I like golf, my wife is a speaker and an author. She actually has a column that runs in the Fargo forum and a couple other papers, I think the Lucene, whatever the Fargo family of paper is. So she does that, so we both work and its with three children between the ages of nine and fourteen, there's not a lot of time for, I don't get into ceramics or anything like that, there isn't time for that. No, I spend a lot of time with my family and I coach basketball.
I truthfully consider my job a hobby in terms of, it's what I love to do and it's what I do. If I have spare time, I like to watch Fillmore basketball, I like to think of new ways that we can beat other teams, I think of new ways I can get guys better and so when your job is your hobby it makes life pretty good and I'm a pretty civil guy that way. I will have to eke out some extra time here to reconnect with a bunch of my former players and friends in Fargo, and even in the South Dakota, I've got couple former players living in Sioux Falls. So yeah, we'll do all that stuff too but for the most part, I'm a pretty basic guy, if your looking for complex, you are going to the wrong area.