NATCHITOCHES, La. -- Last week, when I talked to Northwestern State assistant coach Mark Slessinger about my visit to Natchitoches for the Demons' game against Houston Baptist, one of the first questions he asked me was, "Where do you want to sit?"
I spent considerable time around the Northwestern State program in 2008-09, working on a you-are-there book about three mid-major schools, a project that ultimately failed when each had horrible seasons. The Demons went 11-20, including a 3-13 record in the Southland Conference. I sat in a lot of places during my visits there: press row, the bleachers, and for one game against Southern-New Orleans
, right on the bench.
"You want to be 'Coach Kyle' again?" he asked.
"But Houston Baptist is a Division I team, Sless," I replied. "This isn't a NAIA team like last time. I'm not sure Coach Mike would go for that."
"Oh c'mon, you know he will."
Mike McConathy was last seen in the national spotlight four seasons ago, when No. 14-seed Northwestern State knocked off third-seeded Iowa in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament. After that last-second shot in Auburn Hills, Michigan, the Demons had two good days of wide-angle media coverage, and the nation was introduced to a head coach with an easy Southern drawl and a full quiver of one-liners.
McConathy did things a little differently than most coaches -- he subbed his players five-in, five-out, ran an offense that was almost as old as the NCAA Tournament itself
. He often allowed coaching friends and local children into the locker room at halftime, even for big games. He let national journalists give pregame pep talks
. And for the middle part of this decade, his unconventional ways were paying off. The Demons had a long string of 20-win seasons, and made four consecutive Southland title games.
But now, the program was coming off one of the toughest seasons in its history, and there were even whispers around town that his job was on the line. But McConathy didn't change. He still subs in five at a time, he hasn't closed the locker room, and he'll let Coach Kyle reprise his role -- even against a Division I team.
It's a new trend among D-I coaches to put journalists through a "boot camp" -- the same training regimen and practice schedule as their players. But I know sadism when I see it, and I don't want any part of that. I had a perfect 1-0 record as an assistant coach, and it was time to put it on the line.
Being an assistant coach means wrangling game film over the vast underground coaching network, studying tape for hours, and putting together the pamphlet that details tendencies of opposing teams and their players players' tendencies. It means running practices and shootarounds and team meetings, running the "scout" session, and organizing team schedules. For home games, it means negotiating with the visiting team for their practice time.
I didn't have to do any of that. I just watched and learned, and asked one fewer question than the number that would have made me an annoyance.
My favorite part about being an assistant coach was the pregame meal. At 3 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, four and a half hours before tipoff, the Demons met at a Subway in Natchitoches, all dressed in their black warmups.
"Remember to get the Fresh Value Meal," shouted Slessinger over the din of chatter, while clutching a vinyl cache that bore the logo of a local bank. "That's sandwich, chips and a drink. No cookies, no cup of soup!"
At a fast food restaurant, at home or on the road, the players always go first. The ones who will actually be on the floor playing, the ones who need the energy, are at the front of the line as the staff struggles to deal with the onslaught. The coaching staff waits for all 15 to move through the line to order. Then the managers and towel boys and trainers shuffle into line; one of the first things you learn about being around a team is that they always come last.
Then, after a short nap and a suit-up, it was game time. Slessinger let me borrow a Demon-purple tie, and drove me through the dark streets of Natchitoches in his old Cadillac. As we approached Prather Coliseum, he reflected on the importance of this game; Northwestern State was 1-1 to start the season, after a home opener victory over a D-II team and a money-game loss out in Lubbock to Texas Tech.
"I hope we have a good crowd tonight," he said. "I always worry about that. I hope they get excited. We played well for a half out in Lubbock before they ran away on us. But in that first game against East Texas Baptist, there was a glimpse of that old spirit we used to have. They played hard and they had fun. I just hope the townsfolk remember that, and come out to watch us tonight."
Then there was a pause. "I can't believe that pregame meal only cost $169," said Slessinger, eyes on the road. "All those five-dollar footlongs. Pizza is always cheaper, of course, but we can't let them eat pizza before a game. I think we're going to eat at Subway more often..."
We arrived at the arena at 6:30, at halftime of the women's game against LSU-Shreveport. There was an energetic crowd of about 1,000 (including a guy who bellowed "Pressuuuuure!"
on every defensive possession), mostly thanks to an NSU marketing concept called "The Core," which bundles men's and women's season tickets and encourages local folks to follow both teams closely.
As the women put the last touches on a blowout win over a lower-division opponent, the coaching staff and players gathered in a locker room recently remodeled with Iowa 2006 money. Under a giant mural of Demon stars of the past and present, Coach McConathy stood up and addressed the team.
"We're coming off a tough loss," he said. "We all face adversity in our lives, in whatever we do. We're judged on how we respond to adversity. Texas Tech is in the past. All of you have the opportunity to use this game tonight as your response. How will you respond? Will you dive for a loose ball, will you communicate with each other on defense? Will you finish a play? Will you cheer for your teammate when he does? Let's respond in those ways. Now let's go out there and play basketball and have fun."
The players huddled together. "Demons on three!" One... two... three... Demons!
Most assistant coaches have clearly defined gameday duties. Some count fouls, keep track of runs, or work the refs so that the head coach doesn't have to. But I was the lowest assistant on the totem pole, below 10-year NSU veteran Coach Sless and four-year assistant Jeff Moore and even Luke Rogers, the first-year assistant who was a star for the 2006 team. There was only one job for me, as Northwestern State radio man Patrick Netherton duly noted. There's always the assistant who stands under the basket during warmups and claps.Let's go, Will, c'mon baby! Go get it, Damon, this one's yours! Big game tonight, Shamir, big game!
After the disastrous 2008-09 season, the staff brought in an influx of new players, including two jucos orginally from New York City. The 2006 team that shocked Iowa was full of players from tiny Louisiana towns who got after it on every possession, loved the game with ever fiber of their souls, who thought it was odd when people from out of town told them they weren't any good. This team is importing its swagger and attitude now -- it's just a different way of achieving the same goal.
When the game against Houston Baptist began, I took my seat at the end of the bench closest to the scorer's table. I held in my hands the basketball-grain binder (the one I got at the Mock Selection last February
) so I'd blend in well and easily pass for a Division I assistant coach.
It's a much different view of the game than the one just a couple of seats over on "the row."
On the bench, you're flecked with sweat by the players coming out of the game. That close, in actual real-life Super HD, you can hear all the muttered curses, the yelling, all the stuff that the coaches don't say when they know they're not "ESPNWired." You're exposed to deep psychology, as the empty chair unused by the head coach as he paces the sidelines acts as the "hot seat" for underperforming players who need a little extra coaching. You hear all the excuses and self-doubt, the "I don't have it today, Coach, why can't I get it going?" 'Cause you're not playing hard enough!! Get back to your seat!
You can feel the heat of battle, you can read all the fine print on the tattoos, and you can see that the coach's hands are shaking when he's diagramming a play on the whiteboard. All the coaches' hands are shaking, for two straight hours.
The Demons jumped out to a double-digit lead, but the coaching staff wasn't looking at the scoreboard. They were barking at players for being out of position, and making notes about what they'd have to deal with in practice. Fans, broadcasters, and we writers generally judge play based on expected end results, which are scores and runs and wins. On the bench, they measure performance against the plans they've written up -- it's an important and simple difference that's nearly always forgotten here on the outside. If their blueprints fail, it's a matter of accountability, and it's a question of whether failure was a result of poor planning or bad execution. They live with the consequences on a 24/7 basis, while we have the luxury of disengaged and detached judgment.
At halftime, with the Demons up 41-33, the mood in the locker room was somber. It wasn't that the coaches were unhappy with a 12-point lead; the team wasn't executing well enough.
"Remember that this is a struggling team that's opened up 0-4," Coach McConathy said to the team after a five-minute coaches' huddle in an adjoining room. "And remember the letdown we had in the second half against Texas Tech. I don't want to see that tonight. Finish your plays. Rebound. If a guy bumps you, spin around him."
And the players responded well, putting the hammer down on Houston Baptist with a sustained display of solid play. The team still employs the five-in, five-out system, and the first unit was clicking extraordinarily well. At the final media time out, at 3:30 of the second half, the coaching staff approached a group of second and third team members with a challenge. "I want you to run back on defense," Coach Moore yelled. "All stops. All stops!
Houston Baptist scored just two points for the rest of the game, and Northwestern State won 92-61.
In the postgame handshake line, there's a standard basketball grip that everybody learns and uses. It's four fingers, grip with the thumb, and release. The line moves so fast that anything more tangles everyone up, and this practice is so ingrained in the culture of Our Game that anything other than that specific grip style means something
. And it's usually too subtle for the cameras to catch.
Some of the members of the Houston Baptist staff only managed a slap, or withdrew quickly. The message was clear. They felt that the Demons had run up the score, the most ungentlemanly thing to do in basketball.
"We took the press off with five minutes to go," McConathy remarked to me after the buzzer. "I put nearly all freshmen out there at the end. I hope they realize on the other side that those guys want to play.
I can't tell a guy who hardly gets any playing time to ease up, you know?"
I nodded in agreement. A year ago, the Demons weren't blowing anybody out.
"So what do you think of the team, Coach Kyle?"
"It's better than last year's, that's for sure," I replied. "This team even has a shot at beating Indiana this time."
Houston Baptist served as a tuneup for this weekend's game at Assembly Hall up in Bloomington. It's another money game, but this one seems somewhat winnable after the Hoosiers' recent losses to mid-major teams Boston University and George Mason. With a big victory in the books and a big game coming up for the real coaching staff, it was time for a celebration.
For me, I was 2-0 as a Division I assistant, and I was still hungry. A few of us made plans to meet at the local Chili's, but the late start meant that it was 11:30 p.m. by the time we packed up, so it was closed. Our only option was the late-night McDonald's on Keyser Avenue. Slessinger and Netherton and I sat around a table in an otherwise empty restaurants, ESPNews playing on a TV in the background.
"Big win, followed by a Filet O Fish," Netherton noted. "That's about as mid-major as you can get."