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September 15, 2010
McDermott is back in the Valley at Creighton
Nor did McDermott himself have any inkling about the remarkable turn of events that eventually would bring him back to Omaha, Neb.
"It was the furthest thing from my mind at that point in time," McDermott said. "We were just trying to help him navigate through the [recruiting] process and find a place that he felt was best for him."
After all, McDermott already had a job as the coach at Iowa State. He wasn't looking around. And it turned out his son, 6-foot-7 forward Doug McDermott, would sign with Northern Iowa instead of Creighton.
All those plans changed in April.
When Dana Altman ended his 16-year tenure at Creighton to take over at Oregon, Bluejays administrators immediately approached McDermott, 45, a former Northern Iowa coach who decided to return to the Missouri Valley Conference.
He won't be the only McDermott on the roster. Doug McDermott was granted a release from his Northern Iowa letter of intent and will join his father at Creighton.
McDermott's move seems odd on the surface because he voluntarily left a Big 12 program to return to the Missouri Valley Conference. A closer look at the details makes the switch easier to understand.
For one thing, Iowa State had gone a combined 59-68 under McDermott and posted a losing record in each of his four seasons. The trend was unlikely to change anytime soon, as this year's Iowa State team returns only two players (senior guard Diante Garrett and junior guard Scott Christopherson) who averaged as many as 15 minutes per game last season.
For another, Creighton isn't a typical mid-major program. The Bluejays have ranked among the nation's top 15 teams in attendance in each of the past four seasons; in each of the past two seasons, Creighton has outdrawn three teams that went on to reach the Final Four. Creighton has attracted an average attendance of 14,327 since moving its home games to the Qwest Center in downtown Omaha during the 2003-04 season.
"There are a lot of teams in the Big 12 that would love to play in our arena and average 15,000 a game," McDermott said. "I don't see this as a mid-major job at all. It's one of the premier jobs in the country of this type. We're fortunate to have such a loyal fan following."
Before he took the job, McDermott already had plenty of familiarity with Creighton. He coached at Valley rival Northern Iowa from 2001-06 before heading to Iowa State. Northern Iowa went 90-63 during McDermott's five-year tenure and reached the NCAA tournament in each of his last three seasons. McDermott also played at Northern Iowa from 1984-88, before the school joined the Valley.
McDermott's previous success with a conference foe made him appealing to Creighton. He also has Nebraska roots, as he began his head-coaching career at Division II Wayne State (1994-2000).
Creighton announced his hiring less than an hour after Altman held his introductory news conference at Oregon.
"I first watched him coach when he was the head coach at Wayne State in Nebraska," Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen said when McDermott's hiring was announced. "[He] very successfully ran that program. … I watched him develop a very strong program at Northern Iowa, a very successful program at Northern Iowa, and I watched how he conducted himself and how he dealt with players … And then I've watched him work very hard to develop a successful program at Iowa State.
"So even though it appears that this has been a quick process, in reality Coach McDermott has been interviewing for this job for the last 20 years."
McDermott has a hard act to follow. Creighton made seven trips to the NCAA tournament and five NIT appearances in Altman's 16 seasons. Creighton's 18-16 mark last season ended a string of 11 consecutive seasons with at least 20 wins.
The good news for McDermott is that he inherits a program in much better shape than Iowa State was when he took that job.
"When we started at Iowa State, we had four scholarship players left," McDermott said. "There was certainly an element of rebuilding to that situation. Coach Altman has left this program in tremendous shape."
It's a program that arguably had grown a little stale in recent seasons. Creighton made four consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament from 2000-03, but the Bluejays have earned just two NCAA bids in the seven seasons since. Picked before last season to finish second in the Valley, Creighton instead finished fourth, and the Bluejays were 3-14 away from home last season.
"We've got to be tougher down the stretch," senior center Kenny Lawson Jr. said. "There were a lot of games that were close. Those usually come down to who's going to be the tougher team, who's going to get the last stop. It wasn't us last year. That's something we've got to change."
Creighton has enough experience to bounce back. The Bluejays return four starters and will get a big boost when Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique becomes eligible at the end of the fall semester. Echenique, a 6-9 center, averaged 12.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 2008-09 before a detached retina in his left eye limited him to seven games last season.
"Kenny Lawson is one of the premier post players in the MVC," McDermott said. "Gregory Echenique, when he becomes eligible, has the size and strength to do some very special things in this league before his eligibility is finished. The pieces are in place here. … I'll be disappointed if we aren't a team that's at least in the conversation for the conference title in February."
Even if Creighton fails to compete for the conference title, McDermott's first season should prove eventful. Creighton's schedule offers a few noteworthy matchups from a personal perspective. McDermott will match up against his former team Nov. 21 when Creighton faces Iowa State in the Global Sports Hy-Vee Challenge in Des Moines, Iowa.
McDermott has mixed emotions about his Iowa State experience.
"There are some things I'm very proud of," he said. "We were in a situation where we had to clean up a serious APR problem, and we were able to accomplish that. Obviously as a competitor, the fact we never quite turned the corner from a competitive standpoint and moved up the ladder in the Big 12 standings will always be disappointing."
McDermott also now will have an annual home-and-home series with defending Valley champion Northern Iowa, which means he will have to face his alma mater and compete with one of his closest friends twice each season.
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson played at North Dakota when McDermott was working as an assistant there. He served as an assistant on McDermott's staffs at North Dakota State and Northern Iowa before succeeding him as Northern Iowa's coach.
Then again, this won't be the first time McDermott has matched up against his good friend; Iowa State played Northern Iowa each season. The difference is now they will be conference rivals.
"Obviously, it's not easy," McDermott said. "You don't like having to compete against one of your best friends, but it's part of the job. For those 40 minutes, you go at each other. We're both very competitive people. We both want to win. When the game is over, we'll shake hands and go back to being good friends again."
In some respects, McDermott's attempts to knock Northern Iowa will seem like trying to beat a family member; Jacobson is the godfather of McDermott's 9-year-old daughter, Sydney. But McDermott has a much closer family connection on his side now that his son is going to be playing for him. McDermott is savoring an opportunity other fathers might take for granted.
"My guess is I'll like it more than he will," McDermott quipped. "Seriously, I think we're both very excited about it. As most coaches will tell you, because of our schedule and travel, it isn't very often we have an opportunity to coach our own children in AAU basketball or summer basketball because our schedules won't allow it.
"This is really the first time in my life I've had an opportunity to coach one of my kids."
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.