Loyalty lesson from Northern Iowa basketball coach
Last month giant-killer University of Northern Iowa shocked the sporting world when they ousted the overall top seed and perennial powerhouse Kansas in the NCAA Tournament. Head coach Ben Jacobson prowled the sideline during the game, young, full of energy, and confident in his team's chances.
It was clear to those watching that Jacobson was a special coach -- and we all know that special coaches don't stay with smaller programs. They prove themselves by winning with underdog squads and then leave for bigger schools, more established teams, and fatter paychecks.
The news that Jacobson signed with Northern Iowa for 10 years, then, came as a shock, especially for Gen X and Y sports fans who have come of age watching the coaching carousel spin. Could Jacobson be a new kind of sports leader, the kind who puts team loyalty ahead of his own career?
In the past year, we have seen coaches leave their teams in the lurch as they sought bigger contracts elsewhere. Brian Kelly abandoned his Cincinnati Bearcats -- prior to their bowl game -- for the head football job at Notre Dame; Lane Kiffin deserted the Tennessee Volunteers after one mediocre season for the sunny skies of USC; and, John Calipari signed a lucrative deal with Kentucky five days after Memphis got bumped by Missouri in the NCAA tournament. From Rich Rodriguez leaving West Virginia before the team's Sugar Bowl appearance to Bobby Petrino's team-hopping antics throughout his career, we've grown accustomed to watching coaches come and go.
When these coaches jump from one school to another, they rarely come clean about their motivations. As in politics, the "family guy excuse" is a big favorite. Just this past week, Marshall University head coach, Donnie Jones, told his team that he was leaving for the head coaching position at University of Central Florida "for his family." Really? His family was struggling to make it on his $400,000 annual salary along with additional contractual incentives? Perhaps the coach would be better served with a financial planner than a new job.
Yeah, we get it. There are a lot of reasons the family could be a valid excuse, and there have always been coaching changes. And to be fair, today's athletic departments are much quicker to fire a coach who doesn't win. But now, more than ever, coaches seem to lack loyalty to the universities that hire them. Sadly, the ones hurt most by this process are the increasingly skeptical student-athletes who are left behind. The athletes' worlds are turned upside down when a new coach introduces a new system, new rules, and assigns new roles.
Yet, while coaches ask their players to commit to the team and sacrifice individual accomplishments for team goals, they may not be walking the talk. How can a coach be fully committed to his program when searching for coaching vacancies elsewhere or negotiating his salary at the next stop?
In making his decision to stick with Northern Iowa, Jacobson might be setting a new standard. He reupped with Northern Iowa at a fraction of the salary he could have collected at a larger school. While the university is located in rural Cedar Falls and is neither an established basketball program nor part of a power conference, Jacobson didn't use these as excuses to bolt. He didn't tell his players he was staying while taking phone calls about the next "dream job," but instead committed to the university and the players who had committed to him. He can look his players in the eye when he demands more from them, knowing he has given more of himself.
The University of Northern Iowa's Cinderella story ended abruptly when they were defeated by Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen. Northern Iowa players were obviously disappointed, but they have every reason to be hopeful -- they have a coach who is sticking around for the long haul.
Jacobson's dedication is an inspiration to the Northern Iowa basketball program, its fan base, and its players. And, just maybe, Jacobson can inspire other leaders to examine their own commitment to followers and stay in it for the long term.
Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl
April 5, 2010; 6:36 AM ET |
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