What does a coach do, when he finally gets a chance, and then goes 5-26 and 5-25 the first two seasons?
What can he say to his players, after they miss 29 consecutive shots and score only four points the entire first half?All part of the long -- and at first, excruciating -- journey for Mark Montgomery at Northern Illinois. Here’s something you don’t see every day in college basketball. Patience.
Northern is 18-8 and one game off the West Division lead in the Mid-American Conference. And to understand why the Huskies and their coach are so elated to be where they’re at, you need to know where they’ve been.
Four years ago, 5-26 in the rookie season for Montgomery, a longtime Tom Izzo assistant at Michigan State. The next year, 5-25, which included the immortal day at Eastern Michigan, when Northern Illinois shot 1-for-31 the first half. The next two years, 15-17 and 14-16. Clear improvement, but still losing seasons and not quite over the hump.
So how often does a coach in today’s hyperventilated landscape go 39-84 in four years, and is around for a fifth? But Montgomery is still on the job, and Northern Illinois already has the most victories in a season in two decades.
"There had to be a lot, a lot of patience. Probably the best way to put it,’’ he said. "The first two years was like, is there light at the end of the tunnel? The tunnel kept getting a little longer, a couple more turns and curves. You had to dig yourself out.’’
This from a guy who had spent a decade at Michigan State, meaning annual berths in the NCAA tournament, and multiple trips to the Final Four.
"I told somebody,’’ Montgomery said, "that I had won so many games the previous 10 years, maybe the basketball gods were getting back at me a little bit."
It had to be a nightmare.
"You learn you have to stay positive. You might think you have to change how you coach and think you have to scream and yell and go longer in practice. It’s not about that,’’ Montgomery said.
"It’s hard, because when you’re getting one of these jobs, they don’t ask you, what’s the speech after your lose four or five games? Or 10? So you have to ask people who have been through it. Lean on your mentors, and your good friends.’’
There was the morning after Michigan State had lost a tough game, and Montgomery was on the phone with his old boss. "He was a little down,’’ Montgomery said of Izzo. "I said, Coach, you’ve got one loss in January. I’m searching for one win." We kind of laughed about it, and he said, "That kind of puts it in perspective.’’
It was easy to spot one Huskies’ problem back then. They. Just. Couldn’t. Score.
In December of 2012, they managed five points in the first half at Dayton. Can't get any worse, right? Wrong. Two months later came the record futility at Eastern Michigan, when they set an NCAA mark with four points in one half. They shot 8-for-61 for the game, 1-for-33 from the 3-point line. The final score was 42-25. It was one of 12 times that season that Northern Illinois could not break 50.
"I told them, guys, the next shot has to go in,’’ Montgomery said of his halftime talk that day, noting that his Huskies had continued to play defense through the deep freeze. "`Everyone looks at our four, but they don’t look at what Eastern had (18). When adversity hits, you have to go play harder.’’
With such a memory, you think that 80-75 win the other night over East Division leader Akron didn’t feel good?
"I remember those games to this day,’’ said senior guard Travon Baker. "It’s like a high school game you can’t get back. It’s going to eat at you, but you can’t really do anything about it. But the wins, they do help.’’
Some nights, it was easy for Montgomery to wonder how long he still have his office.
"It’s always in the back of your mind. All coaches. I know I’m a good coach and I’m from a good system. The third year, you go from five to 15 wins, you get an extension, so you feel they are going to be a little more patient with you, but you never know.
"So I was a little concerned. But I stayed with this; we have to keep marching forward, we have to keep getting better, we have to keep recruiting better, and put the negatives out the door.’’
And now look at the Huskies. Their defense is allowing only 39.8 percent shooting, they’re outrebounding opponents by six a game, and 58 percent of their own baskets come off assists.
They hit a five-game skid, but came out of it by beating Akron, and the Bowling Green. Eleven different players have scored in double figures, so it is a balanced effort, from Baker, who has never missed any of 118 games in his career and is the school’s all-time steals leader, to a deep freshman class that is accounting for more than 37 percent of the scoring.
"It’s been a beautiful thing to watch,’’ Baker said of the revival. ``Our togetherness and the way we interact with each other on and off the court is a 100 percent turnaround.’’
Added Montgomery of Baker, "He’s writing his own story and it’s a success story. Right now, the freshmen think it’s always like this. I’m very, very happy for Baker because he was here in the dark ages.’’
Indeed, nobody cherishes winning more than a coach and program that has struggled so long to do it.
"I can appreciate it now because I was here when we didn’t win a game in January,’’ Montgomery said. ``So it’s not fake when we go in the locker room after a win. We’re happy. We’re excited for each other.’’
They’re at West frontrunner Ball State Friday, with a chance to get the lead. "At least we’re looking down in the standings, instead of looking up,’’ Montgomery said. "That’s kind of fun.’’
Imagine the statement that would come from a MAC tournament title and NCAA berth. "To do it in my senior year after everything I’ve been through, that would mean everything,’’ Baker said.
Things have changed at Northern Illinois, Montgomery said, from the days "I could walk in my own building and some people didn’t even know who I was.’’ When does he reflect on how long the road has been?
"Anytime we play Eastern Michigan.’’