by Doug Ireland
There will be other basketball coaches following Mike McConathy at Northwestern State, beginning with Corey Gipson, the career assistant most recently at Missouri State, hired March 20 to take charge of the Demons’ program.
There may be success approaching the levels McConathy achieved during the high points of his 23 seasons at NSU, although it’s impossible to envision another “Cinderella Wears Purple” March Madness stunner on the level of the Demons’ last-second 64-63 upset of 15th-ranked Iowa in a 14/3 NCAA Tournament contest on St. Patrick’s Day, 2006.
With the transfer portal and the NIL completely re-configuring the landscape in college sports, it’s ominous for the “low majors” like Northwestern, where finding supporters to legally compensate players is slightly less likely than Donald Trump praising Joe Biden.
But today we’re not here to break down the landscape or see into the future. It’s a chance to pause and appreciate the nuances of a man whose influence went far beyond Prather Coliseum since 1999, a gentleman who truly fits the phrase “living legend,” a man whose vision of his job went far beyond mentoring 15 or so young men during at least part of their college years.
It must be mentioned, prominently, in any description of Mike McConathy that in his 23 seasons as the Demons’ coach, 90 percent of his players earned degrees from NSU. That’s mind-blowing in a sport where the grad rate is commonly a third of that. The number of first generation graduates – those who were the first in their families to receive a college degree – is sky high.
Community service, and servant-leadership, was a cornerstone value of McConathy’s program. It came in organized efforts working with campus and community programs, and in less formal endeavors like helping to clean up campus grounds. Sometimes players were hands-on in the yard work; but you could always count on seeing “Coach Mike” with a rake or clippers or a pressure washer, doing work, in long sleeves even in summer heat.
This sort of labor also took place off campus when an elderly person needed help, or a friend of the program could use a favor. Case in point:
In his first season, in February, Coach Mike’s extremely capable team manager Forrest White lost his only parent, his mother. That left Forrest, a senior, as the head of the family back home in Texas. Two siblings suddenly depended on his financial help.
McConathy put out the word to anyone he could that Forrest would do yard work or odd jobs at a reasonable rate, and could use the help. I had a two-acre yard and after basketball season was consumed with spring football, baseball, softball, track and field, tennis … yard work wasn’t on the list. But there were 99 pine trees on the lot. So Coach Mike lined up Forrest to attack the straw, and lended him the beat-up McConathy family pickup, with rakes and gloves and such.
Forrest showed up on a Wednesday afternoon and worked until dark. He got about a third of the yard done. He promised to come back the next day, and raked up enough to leave half of it cleared. We had agreed on $100, and although he wasn’t done, I paid him and promised another $50 to complete the job. He couldn’t make it back until Saturday morning.
It was 8:30 when I hurried out the door to head in for a morning football scrimmage, followed by baseball and tennis that afternoon. With no time to lend a hand myself, but wanting to encourage Forrest, I walked around the front corner of the houses and saw the pickup parked, backed up to the street.
Forrest was not alone. There was Coach Mike, rake in hand. And there were his two young sons, Michael (probably 12) and Logan (maybe 10), piling straw. About 1:30 that afternoon, McConathy literally staggered into Brown-Stroud Field early in the Demon baseball game. They were finished.
We had a little fun with a naïve supporter. We told him that every first-year coach had to rake my big yard. It got a laugh, and the story still does. But it speaks volumes about the man who constantly searches for ways to impact people from all walks of life.
Another trademark of his – a love of driving. It’s not that he hates to fly, he just sees it as expensive and inconvenient, compared to getting a look at the American countryside on a journey to see a recruit play in west Texas, in Kansas, in Colorado, in St. Louis, in Illinois, and even in Big Sky country, Wyoming and Montana.
Coach Mike was joyful, and still is, with his hands on a steering wheel. Whether it was a recruiting trip, or a trek to visit a friend, or attend a wedding or funeral, he was one who let the rubber meet the road. And it wasn’t necessarily the most traveled roads – Mike McConathy is happiest when traveling on a road where the trees meet and touch over the center stripe. He’s a country roads aficionado.
This would manifest itself with the team bus on road trips. Once, when Lyn Rollins was in his latter days as the NSU radio play by play artist, the Demons were traveling to play Mississippi State in Jackson. The route seemed simple – Natchitoches to Winnfield, either up 167 to Ruston and across to Jackson on I-20, or maybe at Winnfield, it was La. 34 up to West Monroe. Maybe even over from Winnfield to find U.S. 165 near Olla and head north to Monroe.
This time, at Coach Mike’s behest, the bus rolled east out of Winnfield toward Olla, but soon it was off the main drag and on the back roads. How remote? Not the first time, not the last time, but the only time the Demons were on a dirt road, and drove right up to a T formed by the road and a Mississippi River levee. McConathy couldn’t believe we had missed a turn, because his rural route was going to save 30-40 miles.
So many memories cascade through, of the sensational moments, and those that were heartbreaking, like when he got a call on the bus on a long trip, at night, and had to tell a young graduate assistant coach that his father had died suddenly. Those tragedies are seared into the minds of all who shared them. Perhaps the most painful, if you dare to rank them: the night after a game at rival Stephen F. Austin, when star senior center Will Mosley and his wife, who had left their twin babies with family members in Lake Charles, learned their children had inexplicably passed away. Coach Mike ministered to them. His friend, SFA coach Danny Kaspar, the same man accused of racist behavior several years later ending his career at Texas State, made phone calls to supporters and raised several thousand dollars to help the Mosleys with burial expenses. Hard to reconcile that with what Kaspar was alleged to have said and done, but all I know is what happened after that tragic night.
One last road story, because an appreciation of Mike McConathy should wrap up with laughter, not tears. He’s emotional enough – prone to getting choked up for a multitude of reasons, because he cares so much about so many, and is so committed to everything he takes on. The man is not a half-stepper. He knows only one gear, full speed, passionate, and totally committed.
This road trip was one of his massive road swings, first picking up a paycheck to play at Texas Tech (in what turned out to be Bob Knight’s last game as a coach; Knight shook his hand on the court afterward, invited him to dinner that night, and was astounded to learn McConathy and his team were loading the bus to head many hours east to Stillwater, Okla., for another money game at Oklahoma State).
Somewhere in western Oklahoma in the middle of a cool December night, the bus needed gas, and pulled into a truck stop battered by tumbleweeds. A graduate assistant coach, older than most, in his mid-30s, and wearing a nifty sweatsuit his wife gave him for Christmas, kindly volunteered to man the gas pump so the driver could go inside for a bathroom break and some coffee. Something went wrong. Randy pulled the hose early, and gas spewed all over that nifty sweatsuit and most of Randy.
This was a Love’s Truck Stop, but a mini-Love’s. No shower stalls. At about 3 a.m., Randy needed a cleaning, so McConathy and his staff grabbed the biggest cups the store had, filled them with water and kept the bathroom sinks flowing. They circled Randy, who had stripped off the sweatsuit and had a fistful of soap, sanding in his birthday suit. Everybody tossed water on him.
After they refilled for the second round, a trucker walked in the bathroom. He wasn’t sure what he had interrupted, but he sure was back out the door in a flash, exclaiming, “this ain’t my scene, boys!” Rolling with Mike McConathy never lacks for memories. As he begins another chapter, not ready to count clouds at a young 66, he’s going to find something that will create many more indelible impressions – with some belly laughs thrown in. Bless you, Coach Mike. You have certainly blessed all of us.