It wouldn't stun anyone if the next Indiana coach came from the state of Iowa. But it would be a shocker to most if that person came from Cedar Falls and not Iowa City.
Don't rule out that possibility. While seventh-year Iowa Coach Steve Alford is a popular choice among many long-time Hoosier backers, fifth-year Northern Iowa Coach Greg McDermott is one of the hot mid-major coaching commodities these days thanks to the remarkable turnaround he's orchestrated for the Missouri Valley Conference program.
The Cascade, Iowa, native and '88 Northern Iowa grad was hired five years ago by UNI Athletic Director (and Big Ten official) Rick Hartzell to rebuild a program that Hartzell admitted was "in the pits." UNI was coming off a fourth straight losing season, and it had finished in the top half of the MVC just twice in the last ten years.
But that quickly changed with McDermott at the helm. He guided UNI to its first-ever Missouri Valley Conference title in 2004, and the Panthers have earned invitations to the last two NCAA tourneys. With a 22-6 mark this season and a No. 25 ranking in the latest AP poll, UNI is expected to make it three straight trips to the NCAA tourney next month. At the same time, he's re-energized the Panther fan base as well. UNI was struggling to draw 2,500 to its games in the season before McDermott arrived, but is averaging nearly 7,000 fans per game this season at the UNI-Dome. That upswing in support has helped UNI generate the financial backing to build the McLeod Center, a 7,000-seat arena that will open next season.
How did McDermott do it? One of the first things he did was make an effort to reconnect with high school coaches around the state in an effort to give UNI's roster a more local flavor. While it was always going to be difficult for UNI to out-recruit Iowa and Iowa State for the state's best players, McDermott didn't like the idea of players such as former Creighton standout and current Philadelphia 76er Kyle Korver venturing outside the state's boundaries.
"Keeping the in-state kids, I made that a priority," the 41-year-old McDermott told The Daily Item earlier this week. "I had seen too many good high school players leaving the state."
McDermott has compiled an 89-59 record at UNI and a 220-123 record in 12 years as a head coach. Before arriving at UNI, McDermott spent six seasons as the head coach at Wayne State (Neb.) and one season at North Dakota State. He signed a contract extension with UNI last February which run through 2010. The contract pays him approximately $250,000 annually, with a variety of incentive clauses that can up the value as well.
What Makes Him a Viable Candidate: Most suspect IU Athletics Director Rick Greenspan will take a good, hard look at some mid-major coaches, and McDermott is among the best available. That's been a popular route for Big Ten teams to go in recent years, with Illinois and Purdue looking to Southern Illinois for Bruce Weber and Matt Painter, respectively, and Wisconsin turning to former UW-Milwaukee coach Bo Ryan five years ago. McDermott has strong Midwest roots which will also be a big plus in the eyes of Greenspan. McDermott would also come with a much cheaper price tag than a Tom Crean, Rick Barnes or Thad Matta. Like it or not, that's a serious consideration for Greenspan and the IU decision-makers.
What Makes Him a Longshot: While McDermott has elevated the UNI program nationally, he's foreign to the added pressures that go with coaching at a program like Indiana, and he's also never been in situation either as a head coach or as an assistant where he's recruited on a national level. When one looks at the other mid-major level coaches that have come into the Big Ten in recent years and enjoyed success (Ryan and Weber), they were assistants at major conference schools before landing head coaching positions at their respective mid-major programs. McDermott's recruiting has always been localized. That doesn't rule him out by any means, but it's certainly a consideration for Greenspan. McDermott's wife, meanwhile, is also reportedly battling a serious illness. While her prognosis is reportedly good, that could make the timing bad for the family to be uprooted.
HoosierNation.com's Take: If UNI puts together a postseason run, McDermott's stock will explode. That's what happened a year ago to UW-Milwaukee's Bruce Pearl, who became the mid-major coach to get after his team's march to the Sweet 16. McDermott's UNI teams have lost in the first round in each of the past two seasons, falling by five to both Georgia Tech (2004) and Wisconsin (2005). Both of those teams went on to deep runs, with Georgia Tech advancing to the '04 title game against UConn and Wisconsin making it to the Elite Eight in '05 before bowing out. Without some noise in the postseason, though, McDermott might be a bit of a reach for Greenspan at this point. There are also many who suspect that he will be Iowa's No. 1 choice if and when Alford departs. That could happen this off-season if Indiana does in fact welcome the former Hoosier back home, or somewhere down the road if Alford leaves. McDermott is also in a very good situation at UNI, with a third NCAA trip likely next month, coupled with a brand new basketball facility opening up next season.
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