NDSU Magazine logo - Spring 2009

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Vol. 9, No. 2


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Saul Phillips is only 36, one of the youngest head basketball coaches in NCAA Division I - but he's got a lot of gifts, including a great sense of perspective. A couple of weeks after his basketball team went to The Dance, as the NCAA tournament is known, in its first year eligible for the tournament, he talks about the experience with an appreciation of the rarity and romance of it all. He's humble, articulate, energetic and approachable. People stop him to tell him where they were when they heard NDSU defeated Wisconsin on January 21, 2006, when this year's seniors were mere freshmen, and Wisconsin was ranked 13th in the nation. These days, people hug him in the grocery store.

In this excerpt, he talks about the NCAA tournament game versus defending national champion Kansas at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, the season, the team, the flooding that threatened the Red River Valley starting the day the team returned home from the NCAA, and his ties.

Because I am here in America, I can eat what I want because I have money and I have access to health care.

The senior class literally prepared for five years for one opportunity. To talk about it for four years is one thing, but to actually pull it off when this is your one opportunity to do it is storybook.

Until the very end of the Kansas game I was convinced we were going to win.

I really thought that when we went to the Metrodome to practice the day before in front of an empty dome that just the venue itself and the enormity of everything that was going on might have had our guys a little bit wide-eyed.

I knew we wouldn't be intimidated by the opponent because we played a really grueling schedule over the past four years, but I didn't know how we'd react to that stage. I can tell you I don't think we could have reacted much better, and that's a testament to the poise of our young men.

It was loud on our bench. It was the kind of noise we wanted. And it made a difference. There is no question it made a difference in a positive way for us.

I can't get fired, I don't have anything else I can do. This is it. Please keep me.

The hour before the game, there's a lot of dead time sitting alone in a room and that is absolute hell on earth for any coach. You just can't wait for it to start.

A lot of great coaches have scraped and clawed and never gotten to a program as good as the one I'm fortunate to be the head of. I've had some terrific breaks. I've worked for some great people.

We're going to write a whole new chapter next year.

I don't know if people understand how storybook this year was. Everybody stayed healthy. We started the same five players for a four and a half month season. That's pretty remarkable.

I'd like to think I'm more of a teacher than a screamer.

I think all of us were emotionally drained after the Kansas game. I mean literally, we've got nothing more to feel.

I wish everybody in their profession could feel what we felt during that stretch.

The challenge is to work hard so we can re-create those moments over and over again.

I think we were good enough to continue to win in the tournament.

The thing that was amazing about our crowd was they were there at 11:30 on a Friday morning. Think if it was Sunday. You can't tell me there'd have been anyone left in the state.

They just came off the greatest event of their lives to this point and without question they're picking up shovels and getting to work. I think it speaks volumes to their character. When the river goes down for good and we can all give each other high fives, I think it is a story that dwarfs anything we've done on the basketball court so far.

Dan Patrick, a prominent national radio host, somehow talked me into, on national radio, giving him my tie after the game. He collects ties from sports figures, so that affected my decision. I didn't want to go with a brand new one because I didn't want it to be a one and done, so I had taken a tie - I'm not all that superstitious, but it was a tie that several noteworthy things had happened in - and it had little sharks on it. So the shark tie was retired in grand fashion.

The highlight for me with my kids was waking up the morning after we beat Oakland and seeing my son and my daughter dancing on the opening montage on SportsCenter. To wake up in the morning and turn on ESPN - that's sort of a morning ritual of mine - and to see my kids on it, it was pretty cool.

I like doing other things, but I love basketball.

I'm proud of the work we did, I can't help but think the lessons I learned from the people I worked for, the lessons that my assistants have learned from the people they've worked for, combined with a group of kids that were just special in every way to make this work. Very proud that I could be sitting where I am at this moment in North Dakota State basketball and North Dakota State University.

It still doesn't seem real.

If the next step is anywhere near as fun as this one was, I want to be part of it, I know that.

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.