- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Basketball followers in the Hawkeye State (at least the ones who aren't Hawkeyes fans) had been anticipating this one all summer: the Northern Iowa Panthers, corn-fed stars of the Missouri Valley with three straight NCAA appearances, hosting once-mighty Iowa State of the Big 12. Even though the two schools had met 41 times before in battles for the mythical, yet prized, "state title," there was something different about this one.
"Sure it's different," said first-year Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson in the locker room before the game. "Usually, you don't think too much about what's going on on the other sideline, or think what the other coach is going through."
For the MVC, a league that has prided itself in keeping its burgeoning star system of young coaches intact, Greg McDermott was the one who got away. Ten days after the Panthers' loss to Georgetown in the 2006 NCAA Tournament's first round, McDermott left Cedar Falls after five seasons, a period during which he built his alma mater's basketball program into a nationally prominent one. Despite a reported offer from school boosters to raise his salary to $350,000, McDermott was wandering the streets of Indianapolis at the Final Four in a brand-new Iowa State sweatsuit, while Jacobson, his trusted right-hand man for all 90 of those wins and all three NCAA trips at UNI, had already moved into McDermott's old office.
"We're still great friends," said Jacobson, who first met McDermott at North Dakota as a player 17 years ago, when the man he calls "Coach Mac" was serving as an assistant. "We call four or five times a week, and we text message or e-mail at least once a day. This game, this first one, will be the hardest to get out of the way."
Regardless of long-term camaraderie, the two had to spend this cold Iowa evening trying to outwit each other. Ten thousand fans too many to fit in the sparkling new arena made possible in large part by the basketball team's recent run of success paid $30 to file into the venerable all-purpose UNI-Dome on Wednesday night to witness McDermott's homecoming. A crush of popping flashbulbs and TV cameras surrounded McDermott and Jacobson as they met at center court for their pregame handshake. And when Jacobson presented McDermott and the former UNI assistants with their NCAA Tournament watches, the crowd rose to give their old coach a standing ovation.
In other states, especially those 1,000 miles east of here, a seeming betrayal to the Dark Side by a former coach might bring out the worst in fans. But this is Iowa nobody brought batteries to throw or unveiled angry spray-painted banners, and the closest thing to seething rage was three pretty coeds in matching Santa hats with a sign that read, "All I Want For Christmas Is To Beat ISU." While not a single person in the student section wore a "Mac's Maniacs" shirt from previous years (it's "Jake's Jungle" now), Panthers fans and their former leader as well were looking to the future while giving the recent past its proper respect.
"It was emotional, and I appreciated all the hospitality," said McDermott afterwards. "I didn't know they were going to give us the watches, and I really appreciated that. But once the ball went up, I absolutely forgot about the emotions."
McDermott is collecting power conference paychecks now at Iowa State, enough to buy all the timepieces he wants, but he has also inherited power conference problems. When he arrived in Ames, backcourt stars Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock declared early for the NBA draft and four others transferred out, leaving the Cyclones' new coach to embark on a whirlwind recruiting trip, and to spend the early part of the season trying to get his new set of gears to mesh correctly.
And despite the change at the top and the loss of 30 points of offense in Ben Jacobson (for the final time, no relation), Erik Crawford and John Little, Northern Iowa of the present looks a lot like its past.
"Nobody left after the coaching change," said Jacobson. "All four guys we signed stayed. We were really fortunate in that regard."
The Panthers, as they've always been, are a true reflection of the region's character: close-cropped, no-nonsense hair, square-jutting jaws, a team that makes the most of what it has (stoic stick-to-it-iveness) to compensate for what it doesn't (Superman size, speed and skill). For most of the evening, UNI rolled up its figurative sleeves and simply outworked its Big 12 guest, as the undersized frontcourt of Grant Stout and Eric Coleman fought underneath for every loose ball and unclaimed rebound. Returning point guard Brooks McKowen showed previously untapped potential as a shooter, going 6-for-12 and hitting 12 free throws on his way to 27 points as the Panthers pulled away for a 70-57 win.
But even as the battle raged, the new Panthers coach couldn't help being a little bit lost in the past.
"It's really hard to play against your best friend," said Jacobson, who now has as many wins against Iowa State as a Panthers coach as his old mentor did. "There were a couple of times during the game when he flashed a smile at me, or I would at him, when we'd pull a play on each other. I didn't really expect that to be difficult, but it was. But I was able to smile, and he was, and we were able to get through it."
And after his old program dealt McDermott his first loss in seven early-season games, the Cyclones' new head coach acknowledged the difficult work he faces on the career path he chose back in March. Steps away from the court where he had built a program from perennial Valley doormat to perennial NCAA participant, he repeated the words he used so many times as Northern's coach.
"We're a work in progress," said McDermott, minutes after the final buzzer. "But when we win, we're going to win with class, and when we lose, we're going to lose with class. Either way, we're going to simply shake hands, and move on."
The passionate fans of what's now Jake's Jungle stormed the court when the clock struck 0.00, because that's what you do when you beat a larger in-state school for only the eighth time in 42 tries. But just a single minute later, the floor was empty and the cavernous UNI-Dome was filled with a dignified and slightly eerie calm. Perhaps it was the collective realization that outside was another winter night in Iowa, the kind with a howling wind that takes you in its fist and makes you forget you have teeth.
More likely, however, it was the collective lessons of the past five seasons, when a bright and rising coaching star taught them all about the right way to win.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Greg McDermott received a warm welcome in his return to Northern Iowa, but it was the Panthers who got the last laugh, Kyle Whelliston writes.