Jacobson back at N. Iowa after flirting with A&M

Most figured that if Ben Jacobson was ever going to leave

Northern Iowa, it would have come on the heels of the Panthers’

stirring run to the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 in 2010.

That’s what made his interest in the Texas A&M job last

spring so surprising.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Jacobson was granted permission by

athletic director Troy Dannen in May to talk with the Aggies about

their opening. Nothing came of it, as Texas A&M hired Billy

Kennedy and Jacobson pledged his commitment to Northern Iowa.

Jacobson’s back at the place he never left, trying to build a

team that can contend for the Missouri Valley Conference title

after folding down the stretch in 2010-11.

Jacobson said Tuesday at the team’s annual media day that the

support he has received from the community and the school and the

relationships he has built with his players helped sway his

decision to stay.

”We had some serious discussions about that opportunity,” said

Jacobson, who’s entering his sixth season as Northern Iowa’s head

coach. ”At the end of the day, it ended up being an easier

decision than what I might have thought going into it simply

because we’ve got such a good thing going here.”

It wasn’t such a good thing at the end of last season.

The glow from that memorable NCAA tournament run some 19 months

back faded with a 1-7 stretch to end Missouri Valley play,

culminating in consecutive losses to Creighton.

The Panthers finished 20-14, reaching the 20-win plateau for the

third straight season. But it took a stint in the lower-tier

CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament to do so.

The Aggies came calling two months later, as Mark Turgeon left

to replace the retired Gary Williams at Maryland.

Though Jacobson had been a hot property after leading the

Panthers past top-seeded Kansas in March 2010, he signed a 10-year

contract with Northern Iowa shortly before losing to Michigan State

in the regional semifinals.

Still, Jacobson was intrigued by the opportunity to lead a

high-major program like the Aggies.

”They’ve positioned themselves well as a basketball program, as

an athletic department. They’ve got some things from a resource

standpoint, from a facility standpoint, that are pretty good.

Enough to take a look,” Jacobson said.

But that was all it ended up being.

Now, Jacobson’s challenge will be rebuilding the Panthers after

a troubling finish and the loss of senior point guard Kwadzo

Ahelegbe and frontcourt spark plug Lucas O’Rear.

Ahelegbe was a first-team All-Valley pick and the league’s

defensive player of the year. O’Rear’s presence was highlighted by

the fractured ankle that ended his final season and precipitated

Northern Iowa’s slide from the top of the league standings in early

February.

This season’s team will be built around guard Anthony James, who

averaged 12.4 points as a sophomore in 2010-11, and senior

perimeter threat Johnny Moran, who Jacobson said is fully recovered

from offseason shoulder surgery.

Forward Jake Koch, the team’s top returning post player, is

working his way back from ankle surgery. Jacobson said Monday that

center Austin Pehl will miss the next 5-to-6 weeks with a stress

fracture in his shin.

Northern Iowa likely won’t be picked to win the Valley this

season. But the Panthers have their coach back after a brief look

at what life could be like if he had left.

”This place has been very good to me, and very loyal and very

supportive, and those are things that I do not take lightly in any

way,” Jacobson said. It was ”a combination of factors as to why I

feel like I’m in the right place and continue to really enjoy being

our head coach.”