Jess Settles: For McDermott family, timing is everything

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March 3, 2010 was supposed to be one of Coach Greg McDermott’s most memorable nights.

The scene was the Iowa Boys’ State Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. Ames High School was looking to cement its legacy as one of the best Iowa boys’ basketball teams of all time. My wife and I were there watching Harrison Barnes, the number one high school player in America, dominate. Doug McDermott, Coach McDermott’s son, was playing forward for the Little Cyclones. The Northern Iowa signee shot 8-10 from the floor and buried four three pointers in the victory, but all eyes were on the future lottery pick Barnes.

Four years earlier, after orchestrating a brilliant resurrection of the University of Northern Iowa men’s basketball team, Cascade native Greg McDermott and his wife Theresa moved their kids Nick, Doug and Sydney to Ames to take over the head job at Iowa State University. The timing couldn’t have been better for the McDermotts.

Coach McDermott was one of college basketball’s best young coaches and had reached the highest level of his profession coaching in the Big 12. Doug and his brother Nick fit in well in Ames. Calling his time in Ames the “best time of his life,” Doug would learn from Barnes the focus and preparation it took to get better on and off the court. Together they would win two state championships and garner unprecedented attention for an Iowa high school team.

It all started for Coach McDermott and his young family in 1996 at Division II Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska. The first-year head coach watched his new team scrimmage early in the semester. He saw them turn the ball over repeatedly and realized there was no way they could compete with a reckless style of play.

“We had a team at Wayne State that needed some structure,” said Coach McDermott. “For us to change the culture of the program we had to reign ‘em in, so to speak.”

He had to put his stamp on every possession, so Coach McDermott became best friends with his white board, drawing up play after play, counter after counter, until the ink ran dry.

The system worked. His players guarded and scored. After recruiting some of his own players, Wayne State became one of the top scoring teams in the country. Coach McDermott led his team to four straight 20-win seasons and a conference championship during his six years there.

McDermott’s success led him to North Dakota State for one season and then to UNI, his alma mater, where his philosophy thrived and “Coach Mac” became one of the most recognized mid-major coaches in college basketball. He made offers to high school kids no one else was sure of. He wanted players with guts and high basketball IQ. He knew that players who could read screens could get open, regardless of their position, and would thrive executing his sets. He gambled and offered scholarships to young players.

“Some of recruiting is a guess,” he explained. “Jordan Eglseder committed to us before he played a high school game. He was 6’8 and no one thought he would grow to 7’1. We had several guys we were able to get on early. We didn’t have the resources to travel the country, so we were trying to do the best job we could in our own back yard.”

Eglseder helped UNI sweep regular and MVC tournament titles in 2009.

By the time juniors or seniors had been through Coach Mac’s system, many had almost become coaches on the floor. UNI danced in three NCAA tournaments in a row. Coach McDermott was enjoying raising his family in Cedar Falls while at the same time leaving a deep footprint on the way basketball was played in the state of Iowa. High school coaches all over the state were copying his sets to create open shots for their players.

When Coach McDermott took over at Iowa State in the spring of 2006, he was dealt a tough hand.

“We lost a lot of players in the weeks after I took the job. We had eleven scholarship players and by April 15 we were down to four,” he said. Top players continued to vacate Ames. “All left for different reasons. Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock declared for the draft. We tried to plug holes. To my staff’s credit, Wesley Johnson and Mike Taylor both signed with ISU, and both went on to the NBA.”

He didn’t expect the job to involve so much rebuilding, but he did believe one of his son Doug’s High School classmates could help him accomplish his mission. His name was Harrison Barnes.

Coach McDermott offered Barnes a scholarship when he was a freshman in high school and was optimistic Barnes would stay home and help him return Hilton Magic to its once fever pitch celebrated under Johnny Orr.

“It was obvious at a young age Harrison was a special, special talent,” said Coach. Doug McDermott remembers the day well. “I was sitting in a Spanish class and Harrison walks in and says that my dad had just offered him a scholarship. I was very happy for him.”

On the court, the Big 12 was unforgiving. Iowa State struggled to win games the first few seasons of the McDermott era. Attendance at games dwindled. ISU fans weren’t convinced he was the right guy for the job. Barnes had matured into an elite college prospect, and McDermott couldn’t get a verbal commitment from him to ease the criticism. People began to question his offense. Critics thought McDermott was a good mid-major coach who belonged at that level.

“There were a lot of deflections when he took the job,” said Theresa McDermott. “He couldn’t get going. Just when we thought we were going to have a great year in 2008, Wesley Johnson transferred [to Syracuse].”

As Coach McDermott worked relentlessly to turn around the Iowa State program, dreams of coaching his son Doug at ISU never crossed his mind.

“Doug was the sixth or seventh best player on his sophomore team, so there was never any thought of him playing at Iowa State. I told Doug not to worry about a level or playing at a BCS school but to pick a school where he would have a chance to play and where he would have a good college experience. His goal was to try to be a mid-major level player,” said Coach McDermott.

Doug himself didn’t think he would be good enough to play at Iowa State and always dreamed of the mid-major level. Doug didn’t start varsity until his junior year at Ames. He credits Barnes with pushing him and being a great role model.

“Harrison was so focused on basketball and studies and his goals. He didn’t have time for anything else,” said Doug. “We are better friends now than we were in high school.”

Through repetition and determination, Doug improved exponentially over two years and accomplished his mid-major dream, signing with Coach McDermott’s former assistant and friend Ben Jacobson at UNI. “Coach Jake is like family to us,” said Doug. Even though Doug had potential, no BCS colleges had offered him a scholarship. Doug didn’t mind. He was excited to compete at UNI.

Things couldn’t have been better for Doug, but they couldn’t have been more dispiriting for Coach McDermott.

“Those were great times but tough times in our house,” said Doug. “Ames High School was winning and playing great, and yet my dad’s team was struggling. He never stopped working hard. Every night I would come home from my practice and he would be studying tape.”

The night of the Ames title game in 2010, I briefly talked to Coach Mac before tip off and he wasn’t himself. Doug was playing a starring role in the game, yet something was missing from the vibrant personality Coach McDermott typically displays. The night with so much promise and hope had been hijacked by every Iowan’s recruiting nemesis: North Carolina’s Roy Williams. Harrison Barnes would not be attending Iowa State. Like former Iowa high school All-American natives Raef LaFrentz, Nick Collison, and Kirk Heinrich (all signed with Kansas), Barnes would be taking his talents to play for Roy Williams. Coach Mac had lost the most important recruiting battle of his life. Anyone would have. If Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski sits in your living room and mentions you in the same breath as Grant Hill, and Roy Williams compares your determination to Michael Jordan’s, chances are you are headed to Tobacco Road.

Adding salt to the wound, the Cyclones were now at the end of their fourth losing season in a row under Coach McDermott. Cyclone Nation hated watching their homegrown savior Barnes celebrate with Roy Williams while McDermott looked on.

“I was in a good place that night. I have a lot of respect for Roy Williams and what he has accomplished. Harrison Barnes is an outstanding guy. The reality was Harrison had already made the decision, and Harrison and I had a great relationship. I saw him all the time. His mom worked at ISU. We were parents of players more so than a college coach recruiting her son. I was happy for them. My son just won back-to-back state championships. I was in a good place and wasn’t thinking about the struggles I was having with our team at that particular time. That night was about Doug and his team, and I was good with it,” said Coach Mac.

Theresa McDermott revealed what every coaching family goes through when losing seasons mount. “I’m just a regular mom,” she said. “I was so focused on Doug that night that I didn’t notice my husband being discouraged. But I know those were difficult times for him as well as me. Things weren’t going well at Iowa State. It took a toll on our family.”

The next season Coach Mac would not be coaching Harrison. He would be coaching for his job.

Few people realize how Coach Dana Altman’s career moves have changed the landscape of college basketball over the last four years. On May 28th, 2007, the talented coach of the Creighton Bluejays was introduced as the new coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. Coach Altman had interviewed over the years at many high majors but kept coming back to Omaha. After spending only a day in his new office in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Altman, citing family reasons, pulled out and returned to coach at Creighton. Athletic director Bruce Rasmussen wisely welcomed Altman back with open arms.

At Creighton, Coach Altman had gone head to head with Coach McDermott at UNI in the Missouri Valley. It was a great rivalry before McDermott moved on to Iowa State. Coach Altman, like Coach McDermott, had a knack for finding and developing under-the-radar recruits, including current NBA shooting star Kyle Korver. Though not heavily recruited, Doug McDermott once visited Creighton and was offered a scholarship from Altman. He accepted one from UNI instead.

In April of 2010, with graduation around the corner, Harrison Barnes and Doug McDermott prepared for their paths to diverge. Barnes was excited to head to North Carolina for the summer to begin training with the Tar Heels. Doug was anticipating his move to Cedar Falls. Coach McDermott had just finished his third straight 4-12 conference season at Iowa State. The losing continued to weigh on him.

The Oregon Ducks, bank-rolled by Nike chairman Phil Knight, had a new arena, needed a new coach and wanted to make headlines. They went after Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and a few other big name coaches. All declined. Finally they called Dana Altman, and he accepted. This time there would be no second guessing.

Creighton athletic director Rasmussen had watched Coach McDermott’s UNI teams battle his Creighton Bluejays for years. The top program in the Valley needed a proven winner, so he called Coach McDermott. It was the best get-out-of-jail card Coach McDermott could have drawn. The McDermott family didn’t hesitate. Their time in Ames was over. “I was never able to get the culture established at ISU the way we did at Northern Iowa and the way we did here [at Creighton],” Coach McDermott admitted. “One hundred percent my fault. You can’t sacrifice culture. I learned my lesson. I moved on and have been better because of it.”

Theresa McDermott was ready to move. “I love Ames and its people, but I didn’t like what the losing was doing to my husband. Things just didn’t go his way. I was absolutely ready for a change. If someone wanted to bail him out of that situation, I was 100 percent in.”

They sat down as a family, and the first thing Doug said was that if his dad was going to Creighton, he wanted to play for him. That was icing on the cake for Coach McDermott. “And even if I didn’t want the job,” Coach McDermott laughed, “my wife was telling me I was taking it, given the scenario that she could have both Doug and me on the floor at the same time.”

Doug added, “To be able to play for my dad at a mid-major was too good to be true.”

After a call to UNI’s Coach Jacobson, Doug was released from his scholarship and joined his dad in Omaha. The McDermotts would get a fresh start. Together.

College basketball would never be the same.

Standing in the hallway at the 2011 Junior College National Championships in Hutchinson, Kansas, I congratulated Coach McDermott on Doug having such an impactful freshman year. I was a volunteer assistant coach for the SCC Blackhawks, the nation’s winningest junior college, who finished fourth in the nation that week. McDermott, wearing his Bluejay blue pullover, had recently finished a liberating first year in Omaha and was recruiting point guards. “Thanks,” he said humbly. “It’s tough coaching your son, but it helps when he is the best player on your team.”

Coach McDermott had his swagger back.

Doug’s first year at Creighton had almost started with a red shirt. Instead it started with a bang. He was named MVC Freshman of the Year and First Team All-Conference. All of the sets Coach McDermott had perfected in his early coaching years were now firing on all cylinders with Doug being the first option.

“The coaching staff thought I should probably red shirt that first season, so I used that as motivation all summer,” Doug reflected. “We scrimmaged at Colorado early in the season and I scored something like 16 points. My confidence was at an all-time high as I was scoring against seniors. We had some guys injured, and I ended up playing instead of red shirting.”

While Barnes struggled to live up to impossible expectations at UNC, McDermott began stuffing the stat sheet with mind-boggling consistency. He could run, rebound and score from anywhere on the court. Suddenly coaches around the country began scolding their assistants for letting Doug get away.

“I knew he had a chance, but we didn’t pull the trigger,” one Big Ten assistant told me after Doug’s freshman year. “He is the biggest mistake I have ever made recruiting.”

By the end of his sophomore campaign in 2012, Doug was a First-Team All-American. Barnes was not.

“At that time [during high school], Doug was being recruited at the mid-major level,” said Coach McDermott. “I thought that was a good level for him. Obviously he has proved us all wrong. He can play anywhere in the country. His body has developed and he has worked extremely hard at the game.”

Led by Doug McDermott, the Creighton Bluejays swept the MVC regular season and tournament titles last season. They won NCAA tournament games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history. Again Doug was named first team All-American.

Entering the 2013-2014 campaign, critics speculated that the McDermotts and Creighton would be humbled when they joined the new Big East conference. Instead they flourished.

“Doug made a mature decision to come back to school for his senior year,” said his dad. “I gave him two charges. Number one, if you come back, we are going to enjoy this. There will be a lot of pressure and false expectations. Your game is going to be dissected like never before. Enjoy teammates, your family and your university. Second, let’s get better. Let’s add to your game and prove to people that you can do what you do against longer, better competition in the Big East. To Doug’s credit, he has done both. He has enjoyed this experience. Both as his coach and his father, I couldn’t be more proud.”

Creighton finished second in both the Big East regular season and tournament. They enter the NCAA tournament as a #3 seed in the West Regional. Coach McDermott and his staff have scaled back the play sets and have allowed their veteran team to read screens and get open on their own. The result has been an offensive explosion, including scorching the nets with twenty-one three pointers in a blowout win over #4 Villanova in January.

Coach Mac and his son will go down as the most prolific coach-son combo since Press Maravich and “Pistol Pete” Maravich. Doug McDermott is now college basketball royalty and will finish as one of the top five scorers in the history of college basketball, ahead of Larry Bird and Oscar Robinson. He will soon be named a three-time First Team All-American and is a lock to win the Wooden Award, college basketball’s most prestigious award. He will have accomplished all of this playing for the man he loves more than anyone else, his father,  whom he always calls “Coach.” In Doug’s last home game he blew through 3000 career points with a career-high 45 points. Coach and Doug embraced after the milestone while an overjoyed Theresa, Nick, and Sydney looked on.

All of the losses, criticism and struggles Coach McDermott experienced at Iowa State resulted in a father and son soaring together in Omaha.

Theresa McDermott reflects, “All of the bad luck we had in Ames has turned into good luck in Omaha.” She now realizes that the timing had everything to do with her kids’ happiness. “Many of our moves have been about Greg’s profession. And when I look back now, that move had little to do with Greg and everything to do with our kids. Doug landed on a great high school team and learned from Harrison, which made Doug better. My older son, Nick, was able to go to state in golf. When I think of Ames, I try not to remember Greg’s record and all that. I try to remember Doug’s back-to-backs [state championships] and the good times. That moment in our life was all for our kids.”

Ames native Fred “the Mayor” Hoiberg, who was born to coach at ISU, replaced Greg McDermott and has led the Cyclones back to national prominence and the 2014 Big 12 Tournament Championship. Dana Altman continues to excel at Oregon, having recently defeated #1 ranked Arizona. Ben Jacobson is now the winningest coach in UNI history and led the Panthers to the Sweet 16 in 2010 after upsetting the #1 ranked Kansas Jayhawks. Wesley Johnson excelled at Syracuse and is currently in the NBA. And Harrison Barnes is playing solid basketball for the Golden State Warriors.

On the night of the state championship in Iowa back in 2010, not one person in the Wells Fargo Arena could have predicted this Cinderella story. The glass slipper fit everyone involved, most of all the McDermott family. Timing is everything.  

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