For the first time in 23 years, Saul Phillips is not coaching a college men’s basketball team.
Like so many in his profession, Phillips was fired as a head coach. It has been fairly argued that he wasn’t given enough time or support during his five years at Ohio University.
But you won’t see Phillips crying over his dismissal that was announced last week. In fact, he plans to drive 2½ hours Wednesday with his three children from Athens, Ohio, to Dayton to watch North Dakota State play an NCAA Tournament game against North Carolina Central.
If you happen to be in Dayton and run into Phillips, you will most likely notice that Phillips is the same outgoing, charismatic and comical guy who coached NDSU to two NCAA Tournaments during his six seasons as the Bison head coach. The way Phillips sees it, it’s time for the next journey in his life — which most likely will be coaching basketball somewhere at some level.
“It’s different … I’ve never been in this position before,” Phillips said. “I want to keep coaching. I don’t know what that looks like right now. A lot will happen in the next couple weeks. I wish I could move it faster.”
It has given Phillips time to do things he hasn’t done in a long time, if ever, like climbing on the roof of his house to scrape branches and debris off the shingles. He grew up working in his dad’s hardware store in Wisconsin, but he admits it hasn’t helped him with chores involved in prepping to sell his house in Athens.
“Packing up and tearing down, that’s the extent of my job,” said Phillips, who will be in Dayton with his daughter Jordan, now a 15-year-old high school freshman and his two sons, 13-year-old Charlie and 7-year-old Benjamin. “My family has been unbelievable about all that has happened. They have been just even keel and embracing whatever comes next.”
That includes his wife Nicole, who not too long ago fought off a bout with breast cancer.
“I think that ordeal we went through put a good perspective in our lives of what is really important,” Saul said.
So for the time being, Phillips will cherish watching the Bison play Wednesday night. He has watched them play on TV about 10 times this season. He couldn’t be happier for Dave Richman, his assistant at NDSU who replaced him as head coach.
When the Bison reached the NCAA Tournament during Richman’s first year as head coach in 2015, Phillips admits he cried when he heard the news. When the Bison won last week’s Summit League Tournament to reach another NCAA Tournament, Phillips said he just smiled.
“It was a much softer, gentler reaction,” said Phillips, now five years removed from the Bison program. “These kids on this year’s team wouldn’t know me if I walked into the gym.”
But he knows Richman well. He remembers the year they hopped on a rented RV to travel to the NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis. Craig Smith, the head coach at Mayville State, joined them. Then Bison head coach Tim Miles met them in Indy.
Many years later, Phillips is without a job. Miles is on the hot seat as Nebraska’s head coach. And Smith, a longtime Miles assistant, has guided Utah State to an NCAA Tournament appearance in his first year as the head coach.
It wasn’t unusual for Phillips to call Miles or Richman during this past season.
“We would lament each other’s situation,” Phillips said. “We have all been on that ‘struggle’ bus and we were there to pick each other up.”
Especially true for Richman and a Bison team that started this season with a 2-7 record. It was yet another stark reminder of how difficult it can be to consistently reach the Big Dance when you are a coach at a mid-major program.
Just ask former Bison assistant Ben Jacobson, who in his 13 seasons at Northern Iowa has coached in four NCAA Tournaments but hasn’t been in one since 2016. Ask former Summit League coach Greg Kampe, who has missed the last eight NCAA Tournaments at Oakland (Mich.). Ask former South Dakota State coach Scott Nagy, who with three 20-win seasons at Wright State has made one trip to the Big Dance.
Then there’s Richman, who will be coaching in his second NCAA Tournament during his five years as NDSU’s head man.
“What’s neat about this, player development has always been the cornerstone of the program and that hasn’t wavered over time,” Phillips said. “Kids just got better and that’s what you need to do to be successful at this level.”
It couldn’t be more true of this year’s Bison team that Phillips will see firsthand Wednesday night — especially with not one senior on the roster.
“A couple of months ago Dave was in a tough spot with this group,” Phillips said. “But he stayed at it and stayed at it. And that to me, is just good coaching. I can’t wait to watch them. It will be fun to watch, but with not as much stress.”
The only big decision Phillips has to make is how he will dress his kids in green and gold Bison colors. They’ve outgrown their old Bison clothes.
“We’ll have to get creative,” Phillips said. “Maybe some face paint.”