ST. LOUIS — Greg McDermott is a big-time Cubs fan, and like most big-time Cubs fans, he takes his superstitions seriously. To wit, his Creighton team recently tried out a set of swanky new jerseys that featured the players’ last names across the backs. The Bluejays wore them twice and lost twice. The next week, the names were gone.
“He’s superstitious. He’s crazy superstitious,” McDermott’s son, Doug, chuckled. “We have to wear the same travel suits on the road if we’re winning.”
His dad likes to wear the same suits, too, once the Jays are on a roll. The brown one was 2-0 in St. Louis. On Sunday morning at the team hotel, a few hours before the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship, he reached for it again. Then his wife, Theresa, walked in the room.
“The navy one,” she said.
The elder McDermott hemmed. Then he hawed.
His wife pleaded her case. “It’s not the suit,” she said. “Trust your team.”
Creighton 83, Illinois State 79. Mother knows best.
“We mixed it up a little, decided to go with the blue one,” McDermott said after piloting the Jays to their first MVC tourney title — and NCAA Tournament berth — since 2007. “A little Bluejay blue. I don’t keep a (track record), but I’ve got bad memories of the ones that don’t work. You won’t see black in the NCAA Tournament. You’ll see blue or brown.”
And for the first time since 2006, you’ll see McDermott. As he stepped onto a makeshift stage at Scottrade Center and held aloft a sign that read MISSOURI VALLEY CHAMPS, it was as if his career had come full-circle.
“It’s been a roller-coaster ride,” offered the son, who dropped 33 points on the Redbirds en route to being named the tourney’s Most Valuable Player. “It’s really cool to see him being able to hold that thing up, to be Missouri Valley champions once again. It feels so good — everything we’ve gone through as a family, from my mom’s cancer to my dad’s struggles at Iowa State — it just feels so good to be here, winning.”
His dad had last cut the nets here in 2004, at the tail end of his third season at Northern Iowa, where he’d built up the Panthers, his alma mater, from table scraps to MVC Tournament champions and Bracketville gate-crashers. McDermott took them to two more Big Dances, which in turn, got him on the radar of nearby Iowa and Iowa State. When the Cyclones snapped up the big guy from the little eastern Iowa town of Cascade, it seemed, on paper, like an ideal marriage.
Except it wasn’t. Not professionally, anyway. Suddenly, Coach McDermott found himself juggling egos and entourages on one hand while wrestling with injuries and transfers on the other. Just when it looked as if a corner would be turned, someone would leave, and Iowa State basketball would stall, like an engine that refuses to turn over on a February night. Over four seasons, McDermott’s Cyclones never won more than 15 games in a season and never finished higher than seventh in the Big 12.
“I’m a firm believer that things happen in your life for a reason,” said McDermott, who was 59-68 with the Cyclones and 18-46 in Big 12 play. “If you spend too much time trying to figure out why things go good or why things go bad, I think you’re asking for it.
“But you know, I made some mistakes as a head coach at Iowa State, some decisions I made with our program and maybe how I ran our program, (it) probably wasn’t who I was. And I think in my last year, in particular, I was probably coaching to save my job more than I was coaching to win. And as soon you get away from who you are, you’ve got no chance to be successful.”
The rest of the story, you know: Dana Altman said “yes” to Oregon, Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen came calling with a golden parachute, and McDermott found himself back in a comfort zone at one of the premier mid-majors in the country. He also snagged his most important recruit — his son who’d blossomed from a skinny sixth man at Ames High School into a double-double machine on arguably the best prep team in Iowa history.
“You don’t know how it would’ve worked out had he stayed (at Iowa State),” Rasmussen said Sunday. “Again, the game is fragile. He had kids leave. I look at what you do with what you have, and he did a great job there. I think he feels (comfortable). I think he likes it at our place. He didn’t need this (title) to validate his status as a coach.”
Rather than exhort his kids with fire and brimstone, McDermott’s pregame message was more of a subtle attack. As the players sat in front of their locker stalls, he brought out two championship rings — one from Creighton’s 2003 MVC tourney winners and one from the Jays’ 2011 MVC baseball tourney champs — and had them passed around, a reminder of the stakes.
“He said, ‘The next time you’ll be holding one of these, you’ll be able to put it in your pocket and keep it for yourself,’ ” his son recalled. “I think that (image) was in the back of our minds.”
So, too, was the journey. That 2004 Valley crown, that 2012 Valley title and all the peaks and valleys in between.
“I guess it’s supposed to be character-building,” Mrs. McDermott reflected. “I don’t know why, (but) I guess sometimes I think the reason we were in Ames was not necessarily for (Greg’s) career . . . I think now, when I look back on it, that’s how I think of it, is that it wasn’t really about Greg. It was more about Doug getting onto that really good team. And because of that, he is where he is today.
“So we’ll never regret that move. We love the Iowa State fans. We love (Fred Hoiberg and his wife) and how successful they are. Everybody’s happy now.”
The Cyclones are dancing. The McDermotts are, too. It’s not the suit. But it sure feels like the perfect fit.