ATHENS, Ohio – It was only about five minutes after I walked into Saul Phillips’ new office at Ohio University when I knew I was going to really, really enjoy my time with Phillips, the up-and-coming 42-year-old who provided one of the most memorable moments of last year’s NCAA tournament.
Because five minutes is about how long it took for the ex-North Dakota State coach to start telling me about his vasectomy.
Here it is, a vintage Saul Phillips story: It was March 2009, and Phillips, who already had two children with his wife, Nicole, had a vasectomy scheduled for later that month. Life was good. They were happy. Two kids were plenty.
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Problem was, the team Phillips was coaching, the North Dakota State Bison, was in the final of the Summit League tournament. Win that game and Phillips would be the first head coach in nearly 40 years to take a team to the NCAA tournament in its first year of Division I eligibility.
But that would mean rescheduling his vasectomy, which he’d had the folly of scheduling during the first week of the NCAA tournament.
Phillips’ Bison were playing Oakland. With 12 seconds left, Oakland tied it up.
Phillips didn’t call a timeout. As he often does, he went with his gut. Ben Woodside, Phillips’ star player, took the ball upcourt. With 3.3 seconds left, he pulled up, popped a 17-foot jumper near the elbow and made the first game-winning shot of his career.
North Dakota State got its first NCAA tournament appearance. Phillips got his vasectomy postponed – then postponed a bit longer when a massive March flood in Fargo closed the hospital after Phillips’ team returned from the NCAA tournament.
And you know how postponed vasectomies can go: Less than a year later, the Phillips family welcomed their third child.
They named the son Ben, after the guard who hit the shot that took Phillips to the tournament and, by extension, brought another life into the world.
“He just doesn’t know how close he came to not existing,” Phillips said, tapping the DVD of that game, which he keeps on his desk for when he wants to pump up his guards.
It’s a great Saul Phillips story. And I’m pretty sure it’s true. That’s the thing with this wacky coach and all his too-good-to-be-true stories: You’re pretty sure they’re all true and that he’s simply that rare college coach who’ll say exactly what’s on his mind, no filter whatsoever. But sometimes his stories are so ridiculous that … well … you can’t help but wonder.
Like on this late-summer morning, when, in the middle of talking about his own failed vasectomy, he mentioned the younger of the family’s two goldendoodles, who was at the vet getting fixed that very moment. “The young one’s nuts,” Phillips said. “That’ll be changed when I get home!”
Or like the stories he tells about life at North Dakota State’s aged, soon-to-be-replaced arena: the squirrel that lived in there for a while. Or the homeless guy who lived there for a while. Or the Siberian husky that once came charging down a dark hall, straight past Phillips. Or the 15-minute delay during one game when the scorer’s table caught fire.
Or the best story, about the weight room a floor above the basketball offices. When the football team would do dead lifts up there, chunks of the ceiling would rain down on the coaches. It was awkward when recruits visited.
All true stories, his assistants have assured me.
Truth be told, one year ago I wouldn’t have given a hoot whether Saul Phillips had any stories to tell or whether any of those stories were true.
Before last March, I knew next to nothing about North Dakota State hoops and absolutely nothing about Saul Phillips. I knew one of the best FCS football programs in the country was there in Fargo, and I knew the basketball program was new to Division I and in 2009 became the first team in nearly 40 years to advance to the NCAA tournament in its first season of Division I eligibility. I knew it was a place where young coaches developed and moved on to bigger jobs: Ray Giacoletti, who later coached at Utah and is now at Drake; Greg McDermott, now at Creighton; and Tim Miles, now at Nebraska.
I knew pretty much nothing else.
That changed when Saul Phillips took the podium this spring when his team lost to San Diego State after upsetting 5-seed Oklahoma two days before.
A Fargo reporter asked him: “What memories will you take from not only this season, but this week?”
Phillips paused. He was choking back tears. A full 20 seconds of silence passed before he could speak, and when he did, his voice shook. He knew this was the last college basketball game for the six seniors on his team. He also knew there was a chance – a very good chance, given the buzz around his Cinderella team and all the job openings in college hoops – that this was the last time he’d coach any of the players on his roster.
He regained his voice.
“It’s only the greatest professional week of my life,” Phillips said. “I got to watch a group of guys that deserved it, who wanted it so bad and made it a priority in their life and did everything I asked them to do. This season? Wow. Let’s just say this: It’s why I do what I do.”
I remember watching Phillips’ answer from the green room at FOX Sports 1 studios. The NCAA tournament is special, but still, as so often happens in the world of big-time college sports, it can be easy to become jaded. To think these coaches are all about themselves. To think that they’re all about the money and not about the kids. To think it’s all a bit of a charade.
I remember thinking about my own cynicism when Phillips was speaking at that news conference. I remember hearing the authenticity of his words. It was one of those moments that hit home with me, where the things that big-time college coaches often tell me – that they are in this for the kids, not for the millions – rang so perfectly true. This was a man who had known he wanted to be a basketball coach as long as he could remember – who went to D-III Wisconsin-Platteville not because he was a good basketball player (he was known as the “Human Victory Cigar” because he only played at the end of blowout victories), but because he wanted to learn coaching from one of the best, then-Platteville coach Bo Ryan.
He’s someone who speaks fondly of the Division III days: “pregame meals at Hardee’s, postgame meals at Domino’s.” Whenever you look at the scrappy, no-talent kid at the end of the bench – the kid who hears the crowd chant his name when his team is up 20 with 2 minutes left – you should think of Saul Phillips.
Because that’s someone who understands how special college basketball is and because that kid can someday become a Saul Phillips.
As I was writing this, I watched the podium video again. You should, too (11 minutes in). It nearly brought tears to my eyes.
“Hey, I love these guys,” Phillips said from that podium. He was thinking of the senior who used to come to his office as a freshman and cry because he was homesick, and the player who Phillips counseled through a tough time when the player’s girlfriend got pregnant and the freshman who tore a ligament in his second practice then hit three of the biggest shots in school history in the NCAA tournament.
“Absolutely love them. Love them.”
He paused and looked up.
“I hope that comes close to answering it.”
Saul Phillips is married to a former Miss Wisconsin.
One of his assistant coaches is married to a former Miss Wisconsin, too.
The three of us were walking to lunch on State Street on Ohio University’s campus this summer when the assistant told me this. I looked at Phillips and the assistant, Jason Kemp. True?
I swear, I Forrest Gumped my way through this entire deal. To have it work out like it did – I’m playing with house money here, brother.
- Saul Phillips on his coaching career path
Yep. Another bit of truthful ridiculousness in the life of Saul Phillips.
“I swear, I Forrest Gumped my way through this entire deal,” Phillips told me of his career. “To have it work out like it did – I’m playing with house money here, brother.”
After former Ohio University coach Jim Christian took the open Boston College job this spring, Phillips was at the Final Four in Dallas. He brings a group of high school and college friends to every Final Four, and it’s always a frat house atmosphere.
Phillips was having a beer in the lobby of the Hilton when he got a call at 4 p.m. Could he come over to the Sheraton in two hours to interview for the Ohio job?
Phillips went up to the hotel room, where his buddies were lying on the floor, watching sports on TV. He put on a suit but didn’t tell his buddies where he was going. The interview went well.
The next day his old boss, Wisconsin’s Ryan, was coaching in his first Division I Final Four. At JerryWorld, during the Wisconsin game, the Ohio athletic director showed him the contract.
“What do you think?” the athletic director said.
“Get me a pen,” Saul said, then signed it right there, on a disabled beer tap near one of the end zones.
While all this was happening, CBS interviewed Phillips during its telecast. Then SNL ran a skit titled “NCAA Tournament: Best of the White Guys,” which prominently featured Phillips. The no-talent kid at the end of the bench had never had so much attention in his life. For hours, his cellphone didn’t stop buzzing. Then it hit Twitter that Phillips got the Ohio job.
No joke: The cellphone, an old Motorola that was on its last legs anyway, blew up. He used a friend’s phone to call one of his North Dakota State assistants, Bo Ryan’s son Will Ryan, and offer him a job at Ohio.
For a second, as Phillips was telling me about his phone fizzling out during one of the biggest days of his basketball life, I didn’t believe it. It felt like a bit of embellishment. Then Phillips pulled the old dead phone out of his desk, a memento of that crazy day.
SaulBall is a perfect extension of this coach’s personality and his storytelling: His infectious enthusiasm for the game feeds into his players, and his wacky side keeps them all loose.
“He’s everything as a coach – one moment really intense, the next moment really relaxed,” Lawrence Alexander, Phillips’ point guard at North Dakota State, told me. “He’s a crazy guy to be around. Sometimes on the road trips I didn’t know who is more immature, Saul or the players.”
“Saul is just one of those optimistic guys: ‘Don’t worry about it!’ ” Tim Miles, the Nebraska coach and Phillips’ former boss, told me. “Our goal is to retire and do a radio show together. I think it would have to be Sirius because no AM or FM station would take us.”
“It’s about knowing what’s important and not stressing out to the point you don’t want to do it anymore,” Kemp said. “You’re always having fun. You’re dealing with two very similar personalities with Saul and Coach Miles and how they want to be day to day. They don’t want to look like they’re pulling their hair out on the sidelines, and their players echo that. Saul can make a group believe they can do anything.”
One thing Kemp said about their approach to basketball struck me as what’s missing in big-time college athletics these days.
“The notion that basketball is life or death, we’re out to prove that wrong,” Kemp said. “We’re out to prove you can be a fun program and still win big.”
I love that. It’s authentic and grounded, a philosophy with big aspirations but rooted in a real-life realization that, hey, it’s all just still a game, and games should be fun.
It’s that depth of feeling and authenticity – of loyalty and integrity – that shot through the television screen this March, when Saul Phillips reminded us that it’s not the wins and losses that make March so special, but the joy and the energy that’s unique to college sports. These are the things that get lost in big-time college hoops in the midst of all the talk about job changes and big contracts, of NCAA tournament successes and NBA draft prospects.
As I was getting ready to leave the Ohio University basketball arena on the recent summer evening, Phillips told me about the new house his family bought in Athens. In the house’s foyer, he installed a giant bronze sculpture of himself in the foyer. Greek-style. Naked.
I looked at him, and he was laughing. I was pretty sure he was joking this time. But I couldn’t tell for sure.