College Sports

How 35-year-old Ben McCollum helped lift Northwest Missouri to its first basketball title

Ben McCollum, men’s basketball coach of the Northwest Missouri State Bearcats, brought the NCAA Division II championship trophy back to Maryville last week following a 71-61 victory over Fairmont State (W.Va.) in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Ben McCollum, men’s basketball coach of the Northwest Missouri State Bearcats, brought the NCAA Division II championship trophy back to Maryville last week following a 71-61 victory over Fairmont State (W.Va.) in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Ben McCollum isn’t finished with his Blitz burger yet — or his cheddar chips, a specialty at Carson’s Sports Grille downtown — when an old friend makes the way to his booth.

It’s the third time Northwest Missouri State’s men’s basketball coach has been greeted in the last 20 minutes, and this conversation ends with the man telling McCollum he’s already paid for his lunch.

McCollum admits he’s not yet accustomed to all this yet — the life of a national championship coach and changes that have taken place since Northwest Missouri’s 71-61 victory over Fairmont State (W. Va.) last week in Sioux Falls, S.D.

A trip to Wal-Mart took twice as long because of the well-wishers. McCollum had 289 text messages after the game and has gotten double that in the days since … and that’s even without him checking his inboxes on Twitter and Facebook.

“It’s nice,” McCollum said, “but I’m more of a low-key guy.”

That hasn’t changed in the past few days.

The 35-year-old McCollum pokes his head up over the booth a few times to chat with Northwest fans at the table next to him. He tells the owner of the bar, Carson, that he’s working too hard, and an hour later near his office, he greets the janitor Mark on his way down the stairs with the national championship trophy.

“Do you carry that all the time?” Mark says.

“I don’t want anyone to touch it,” McCollum answers with a laugh.

Perhaps these moments help explain how the Bearcats were able to win their first men’s basketball championship at a school known more for its football dominance.

Northwest Missouri State University men's basketball coach Ben McCollum spoke about his Bearcats team winning the NCAA Division II championship Saturday in South Dakota.

McCollum, from all appearances, appears to embody the culture he wanted to build long ago.

“There’s natural rules that are set up that aren’t ever written or spoken,” he said. “It’s just, ‘This is how you act.’

“I don’t have to tell you to say thank you to a waitress. I don’t have to tell you if you see somebody cleaning something up to help them clean it up. I don’t have to tell you to open doors for people. That’s what you do.”

McCollum admits this success wouldn’t have come if not for some helpful words from his mother.

He didn’t start out as a winner. McCollum, who was hired as his alma mater’s coach when he was 27, went 12-15 in 2009-10, his first season, and 10-16 in his second. He was so dejected after one loss his second year he remembers telling his mom he didn’t think he could do this anymore; he simply wasn’t a good enough coach.

Mary Timko was the voice of reason. She spoke to him about his tone, telling her son he couldn’t expect his players to not get frustrated on the court if he was angry himself.

“After that, I was just positive and understood my impact on their emotion and the next-play mentality,” McCollum said. “It seemed to help quite a bit.”

The birth of Northwest’s two mantras came shortly after that.

One was “Impose your will.” McCollum stole inspiration from the fifth century B.C. book “Art of War,” wanting his players to be proactive in all aspects of life, whether that was attacking a workout or sprint drill or responding to an official’s call.

“If you don’t respond to it and move onto the next play, you’ve imposed your will on it,” McCollum said. “You’re going to act how you act regardless of what’s going on.”

That served Northwest well in its final game. Because Fairmont State played a West Virginia-like havoc style — coach Jerrod Calhoun was a former assistant coach for Bob Huggins — McCollum’s main message to his team was to be the aggressor and play its tempo with physicality.

The Bearcats did that, handling Fairmont State’s press while holding a double-digit lead through the majority of the game.

McCollum also believes in the words “Culture wins.” He’s learned there’s one type of player he doesn’t mesh with it, and that’s someone he describes as “moody.”

The coach works hard to make sure those guys don’t end up on his team. He does extra research on personalities, and it’s probably not a coincidence that 13 of the 14 players on this year’s roster came from places that are within two hours of Maryville — a town of about 12,000 tucked in the northwest corner of Missouri.

McCollum also has created his own rule with recruits: He wants them to pick up his phone call, but he promises that the conversation won’t last more than four minutes. That way he can develop a relationship while also catering to the faster-paced lifestyle of millennials.

The methods appear to have worked. It helped bring McCollum point guard Justin Pitts, the consensus NCAA Division II player of the year from Blue Springs South whose original offers included MidAmerica Nazarene, Graceland and a partial-scholarship tender from Northwest.

Zach Schneider shot fewer than 100 three-pointers in his career at Shawnee Mission East, but made 111 of them this season alone after pledging to become the best stretch-4 he could be.

Through it all, the culture began to take shape. McCollum not only had four- and five-year guys — and the hard workers he desired — but he also saw the older players setting the guidelines for the program.

“You don’t really have to set rules,” McCollum said. “The culture sets the rules.”

McCollum also focused on getting players to recognize how they can help the team. “Be who you are” he tells them often, which encourages both shooters and screen-setters to embrace their strengths.

“It just works out,” Schneider said, “and it results in that special season that we had.”

When former Northwest coach Steve Tappmeyer made the 10-hour drive to Sioux Falls to watch the Bearcats, he wasn’t surprised to see so many Northwest players taking to their roles.

McCollum had done the same thing some 15 years earlier.

When Tappmeyer coached McCollum at Northwest Missouri from 2001-03, he could tell the guard was destined for big things.

In finance, that is.

“I thought he was going to go and make money, and he came walking in said, ‘I think I want to coach,’” Tappmeyer said with a laugh. “I was kind of like, ‘Why?’”

Best known for his intangibles when he was a reserve for the Beatcats, McCollum showed early coaching potential, even if the decision meant a potential hit to his future earnings. He became a graduate assistant at Northwest, where his high energy commanded respect from both players and coaches.

When Tappmeyer retired in 2009, he suggested that McCollum — who had moved on to become an assistant at Emporia State — was the ideal replacement even as a 27-year-old.

“I thought he had everything it took except experience,” Tappmeyer said.

McCollum has gained that over the last eight seasons.

Though he admits that he didn’t have enough of a coaching emphasis in his first two seasons, McCollum remedied that while winning conference titles in five of the last six seasons.

A key moment came that second year after a loss against Nebraska-Omaha. When McCollum rewatched film, he became frustrated when his team allowed layups simply because it wasn’t getting back defensively.

McCollum decided a personal philosophy was going to be an emphasis on areas not determined by luck. Transition defense and rebounding drills would take up a majority of the team’s practice time. Taking care of the basketball and putting up good shots on offense became main points offensively.

“The only thing you really can’t control is officiating and shot-making,” McCollum said, “but we control everything else.”

It all came together in the postseason this year. Northwest previously had three Sweet 16 losses, the first of which starting an unexpected chain reaction.

Three years ago, Northwest Missouri faced Central Missouri in the regional championship when the Bearcats’ all-league post player Dillon Starzl went down with a torn Achilles injury four minutes in. Central Missouri won 60-59 in overtime — and followed that with three more victories to take the national championship.

Shortly after that, Central Missouri coach Kim Anderson became the successor to Frank Haith at Missouri, with McCollum joking with him over the phone this week that it all wouldn’t have happened if not for a freak injury.

In many ways, McCollum’s life hasn’t changed, even after a national championship.

While some of the texts he receives are about recruiting, others are about his 10-year-old son Peyton’s baseball team; McCollum is one of the team’s coaches during the summer.

The coach isn’t oblivious to how this past week could change things. Anderson parlayed his success into another gig, and just earlier this week, Calhoun — the coach McCollum defeated in the title game — left Fairmont State for Division I Youngstown State.

“I’m not in a rush,” McCollum said of taking another position, “because I’ve got a good job.”

Someday, a mid-major Division I program could be a fit. He’s still only 35, and that type of job would allow him to keep his focus on the kinds of kids he likes to coach.

McCollum, who was planning to attend the Final Four in Glendale, Ariz., has always been someone driven by specific goals. When he was a graduate assistant at Northwest, he wrote down that he wanted to become a head coach or Division I assistant by the age of 27.

He was hired as full-time coach at Northwest on April 11, 2009 — the day before his 28th birthday.

For now, McCollum says he and his staff are trying to enjoy as much as they can. And while the goals will remain the same — establishing a culture, imposing their will — this nonetheless will be new.

Maryville is just starting to celebrate its newest national champion, which means free meals and longer trips to Wal-Mart might be part of the deal for the foreseeable future.

And while McCollum appreciates those who stood by the team before this season, he admits the recent response has been gratifying as well.

“We’ll still welcome anybody,” he said with a smile, “who wants to jump on the bandwagon.”

Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell