As UNI rises, Jacobson stays grounded
ST. LOUIS -- Ask Ben Jacobson's family whether the Northern Iowa basketball coach gets his preternatural poise from his father, and the laughter commences.
No, you are assured. It's not from Doug Jacobson.
"He's a little out there," said Doug's wife, Chris Jacobson.Doug Jacobson is the superintendent of the Barnes County North school system in North Dakota -- not a terribly "out there" profession. But then there's his night job: At age 62, he moonlights as a rock-and-roll singer, belting out classic rock tunes for the Front Fenders -- coming to a Fargo-area bar whenever Northern Iowa ends its remarkable run in this NCAA tournament. At a typical Front Fenders gig, you can hear Doug Jacobson croon "Old Time Rock & Roll," "Rock This Town," "Roadhouse Blues" and "Brown Eyed Girl." Give the man a hand -- then give the man a break. "I sing three or four rock-and-roll songs; then I've got to sit down for half an hour," Doug Jacobson said with a laugh. "I've been doing it about 15 years. I started late because I didn't realize I was incredibly talented until I got older." The incredible coaching talent of his son has become readily apparent at an earlier age. He became the coach at Northern Iowa at age 35 and now has the Panthers in the Sweet 16 before turning 40 -- a fitting fast track for a kid who slept with a basketball at age 1 and would walk a block from the family home to the Bismarck, N.D., YMCA by 6 a.m. to shoot by himself at age 6. Along the way, a personality gap between father and son has grown wider than the Red River that runs between North Dakota and Minnesota. It's easier to envision Mike Krzyzewski coaching North Carolina than Ben Jacobson as a lead singer in a rock band. "He's the only singer in the family," Ben Jacobson said of his father. "And he loves it. He's got a passion for it, now, and he can entertain. But he kept all those [extrovert qualities] to himself." Ben Jacobson's personality hews more closely to that of his mother. If his dad is "out there," he is the personification of right here -- in a word, grounded. In a profession full of sideline screamers and gesticulators, he's the guy with his arms folded across his chest. He rarely goes after the officials and is even more reticent to rip his players during a game. After big victories, he will allow himself a smile and a fist pump in the direction of the Northern Iowa fans before lapsing back into his poker face. If central casting needed someone to play the North Dakota Stoic, this would be your guy -- the former valedictorian in a graduating class of 36 in Mayville, N.D. "Coach Jacobson," center Jordan Eglseder said in the argot of today, "is pretty chill." He's grounded in ways beyond his phlegmatic personality, though. Just this week, Jacobson agreed to a 10-year deal to stay at Northern Iowa for $450,000 a year. While that triples his salary and makes him quite rich by normal American standards, he probably short-changed himself compared to what he might have gotten from a high-major school as a shooting star on the open market. College basketball is full of opportunistic coaches who fled their first job the minute someone offered bigger dollars somewhere else. Jacobson isn't one of those guys. "That whole scenario is an indication how he feels about his family, his friends, the university and the community there," Doug Jacobson said. "He's a down-home guy. Loyalty is a big deal for him. Everyone [at Northern Iowa] has been incredibly loyal and supported him so completely.
"You can do a lot of things in your life, and if money is going to direct your biggest decisions, you could end up being disappointed. I think he's really happy where he's at."Things can change, of course. Contracts are made to be broken in college basketball. Life in Mid-Major Land -- stressing in a one-bid league, fighting for recruits, enduring low-budget facilities and travel -- can eventually wear on even the most loyal coaches. But if he stays true to his small-town roots, Ben Jacobson could be -- could be -- the basketball version of Boise State's Chris Petersen. The father of two young boys could be content to build a powerhouse at an out-of-the-way location. "Ben and I love Cedar Falls," said his wife, Dawn Jacobson. "Personality-wise, we're a great fit for Cedar Falls. We're so happy where we're at. He can recruit these Midwestern, quality kids. We've got a lot of family within a six-hour radius." This week, they've got a lot of family in St. Louis. His parents are happy to be there in person instead of pacing in the basement at home, listening to the radio play-by-play of the games. Also on the Jacobson ticket list are Ben's brothers, sisters, friends and grandfather Henry Labore -- a 91-year-old with a firm handshake, clear eyes and strong voice, who has been known to call into Ben's weekly radio show on occasion. Ask Labore about his grandson's new contract, and he shakes his head. "I can't believe it," he said. "That kind of money -- growing up in the Depression, it's mind boggling." When the season is over, Labore will take his rich grandson and great-grandsons fishing for crappie and sunfish on Lake Loon in Minnesota. It's a family ritual, repeated over and over across generations. It's the kind of quiet, patient, understated pursuit Ben Jacobson is wired for. He'll leave the singing to his dad.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.