McFeely: Former Bison basketball coach Phillips delivers in the clutch

Northern State coach helps woman in labor, stranded in snowstorm, get to Nebraska town to give birth

Saul and Nicole Phillips share a laugh as they talk about the process of finding a home with the help of the TV show "House Hunters." Saul is the new head coach of the Northern State University men's basketball team. John Davis / Aberdeen American News

Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them because they make a questionable decision to drive through a blizzard from Sioux Falls, S.D., to Wayne, Neb.

Or something like that.

All Saul Phillips knows is that at one point during a chaotic ordeal in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday, Jan. 18, on a rural highway in northeast Nebraska, he was plotting a way to reconfigure the seats in his Nissan Pathfinder so a woman he rescued from a stranded car could give birth to a baby that was coming quickly.

This was not something that was covered in Basketball Coaching 101 classes. Improvisation, though, has always been one of Saul's strong suits. The best coaches have to alter game plans, after all.

The Northern State men's basketball coach, formerly a North Dakota State coach and husband of Forum columnist Nicole Phillips, found himself doing just that outside of Wakefield, Neb., (population 1,400) when in the middle of a raging blizzard he happened across a car stopped along a rural highway, in the ditch a few feet and facing the wrong direction. Stopped himself because of whiteout conditions, Phillips decided to check on the other car just to make sure its occupants were OK.


"Nine times out of 10 I just keep going. The car had its lights on and you figure they have a cell phone with them to call a tow truck, so you think they're probably OK," Phillips said. "For whatever reason this time I thought, 'I better knock on the window just to make sure.' It was terrible outside and I was stopped anyway, so I got out and walked over to the car."

What greeted him in the car was a young man and a young woman who appeared to be in their 20s and an older woman. They were enveloped in a sense of desperation. The young woman was very pregnant, in obvious distress. When Phillips asked how she was doing, she answered, "I'm in labor."

To which Saul says he responded incredulously: "You're in what?"


The father of three children with Nicole, Phillips asked if the woman was having contractions.

"Yes," the woman said.


How often are you having them?

"All the time," she said.


The trio was trying to drive to the hospital in nearby Wayne when they got stuck. Now the baby was coming. Fast.

"I told them I didn't think a tow truck or emergency vehicle was going to be able to get to them because of how bad the roads were, so I had them get into my vehicle to map out a plan," Phillips said.

It turned out the man spoke only broken English mixed with Spanish and the older woman, likely the mother of one of the younger people, didn't speak any English. The pregnant woman appeared to speak better English, but was in such pain from the contractions that she had trouble communicating.

The man had dialed 911, but was having trouble describing their location to emergency dispatch because of the language barrier. So he handed the phone to Phillips.

"I told them I thought we were about a mile and a half from Wakefield and I was looking at the GPS on my phone trying to describe where we were. In the meantime, I could hear them in the background saying they didn't think they were going to be able to get to us because the roads were so bad," Phillips said. "I'm talking on the phone, trying to comfort a woman in labor and thinking in my head how I'm going to configure the seats in my car so she can give birth."


How Phillips found himself in this situation is a story in itself. His basketball team had a game against Augustana (S.D.) on Friday night in Sioux Falls and Saturday against Wayne (Neb.) State. He normally rides the bus with the Wolves players and coaches, but wanted to drive his own vehicle from Aberdeen, S.D., to Sioux Falls to Wayne so he could spend extra time talking with alumni and boosters in Sioux Falls.

When he left Sioux Falls after the Wolves beat Augustana on Friday night, the plan was for Phillips to stick close to the team bus for the two-hour drive to Wayne because of the chance of poor driving conditions. The heavier bus traveled a little faster than Phillips felt comfortable driving, so he slowed down.

"Everything was fine and then it just hit out of nowhere. The wind started blowing about 50 miles an hour. It was as bad of a whiteout as I've ever seen. I was alternating between driving 5 miles an hour and stopping completely. At one point I couldn't see well enough to turn around. I thought, 'This is not good,' The bus ended up being about 30 minutes in front of me and they didn't experience any problems. They got to Wayne just fine. That's how quickly it hit," Phillips said. "I have to admit, not the best decision I've made to be driving in those conditions. Nobody should have been out there."

These were the conditions in which the Wakefield Volunteer Fire and Rescue emergency personnel were trying to find Phillips' vehicle at 12:30 a.m. Saturday.

A snowplow, a police car and an ambulance eventually located the stranded party. The pregnant woman, the man and the older woman got into the ambulance.

"I asked one of the EMTs whether I could follow their caravan to the hospital in Wayne, which was probably 12 miles away, and she said, 'Sir, she's not going to make it to Wayne. We're taking her to the fire hall in Wakefield.''" Phillips said. "Wakefield doesn't have a hospital. Too small."


Instead of stopping at Wakefield, Phillips kept driving to Wayne to get to his team's hotel. The roads were good for the drive from Wakefield to Wayne and Phillips arrived about 2 a.m. He found out later the woman gave birth to a healthy baby girl and "we were cutting it close." Mother and daughter eventually were taken to Providence Medical Center in Wayne.

Nicole first told of Saul's adventure in a blog post and on social media. It's likely she'll write more about it for an upcoming Forum column.

"There are angels among us," Nicole wrote. "Sometimes we need one, sometimes we get to be one and sometimes it all happens at the same time."

Saul Phillips, an angel? He denies it.

"I did nothing. Nothing," he said. "I was stopped next to a car in a snowstorm and I went to check on them. I would like to think others would have done the same thing. It wasn't like I was some calm guy making things happen. It was chaos and I just happened to be there."

There is a mother and a little girl born safely in the Wakefield fire hall who might beg to differ.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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