Saul Phillips is different.
“I’ve always been an underdog myself,” the North Dakota State men’s basketball coach said in a telephone interview. “I don’t really look like the typical college basketball coach. I don’t talk like the typical basketball coach. I don’t act like the typical basketball coach. I’m looser than most in my attitude toward the game.”
After the Fargo, N.D., school won the Summit League tournament Tuesday to advance to the NCAA tournament for the second time since 2009, sleep eluded their coach. Enthusiasm, after all, isn’t a problem for the 41-year-old.
“This is absolute bliss,” Phillips said. “The satisfaction of seeing a group of guys that you really love accomplish their wildest dreams is about as fulfilling as it gets as a basketball coach, no matter the level.”
Since third grade, coaching basketball is the only job he ever wanted. He followed a circuitous path that included playing Division III basketball for Bo Ryan, then following the coach to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin. Ryan reminded Phillips to coach to his personality, to be true to himself.
So Phillips doesn’t pretend to be another buttoned-down cliche machine. Instead, you hear about the time he beat Doug McDermott, Creighton University’s do-everything star, in a game of one-on-one.
“I’m probably the only guy in the [NCAA] tournament who has beaten him one-on-one,” Phillips said.
McDermott, however, was 5 years old at the time. Phillips, then a graduate assistant for McDermott’s father, Greg, at Wayne (Neb.) State College, handled babysitting duties. Those primarily consisted of handing the youngster a basketball.
Phillips, who took over as North Dakota State’s coach in 2007, sees himself in the veteran roster that includes six seniors. They were overlooked by larger schools. They’re eager to demonstrate that shouldn’t have been the case. And their coach loves every minute.
“I am how I look like I am,” Phillips said. “I’m really enjoying myself.”