College Sports

How Ben McCollum turned Northwest Missouri into the nation’s best basketball team

Northwest Missouri State coach Ben McCollum on his team’s preparation for Elite Eight

The Northwest Missouri State Bearcats men’s basketball team, led by coach Ben McCollum, will play in the Division II Elite Eight on Wednesday.
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The Northwest Missouri State Bearcats men’s basketball team, led by coach Ben McCollum, will play in the Division II Elite Eight on Wednesday.

It’s 8 a.m., and Ben McCollum is deep in his element inside a Northwest Missouri State office. Film on one computer. Ed Sheeran music on the other. Coffee in his left hand. Notepad in his right.

McCollum will sleep only a few hours tonight. Back to do it all over again tomorrow. A change of clothes sits on the floor. He’s been known to stay awhile.

“I love film,” McCollum says. “It’s one of my favorite things to do. It’s like a puzzle. Some people like crosswords. I watch film.”

A week earlier, McCollum poured 50 hours into one game. Scouted the opponent. Scouted teams who played well against the opponent. Watched teams who played similarly. Watched teams who played well against those teams, too.

“My family is very understanding,” he says. “They know I’m going to be grouchy this week.”

McCollum was 27 when he was hired to be the Northwest Missouri State men’s basketball coach 10 years ago. Hired to replace the man for whom he played and idolized, Steve Tappmeyer. People thought the athletics director who took a chance on him was crazy.

McCollum knew it was an uphill battle toward national relevance. He played at Northwest. He understood the dynamic here. It’s a football school. Still is. Heck, just 18 months ago, the football team won 39 straight games, nearly setting an all-time record.

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When you drive into Maryville, a town of 11,500 just 90 miles north of Kansas City, you will see a church with a football trailer stationed in the parking lot. A business has an inflatable football helmet sitting on its lawn ... four months after the season ended.

Bearcat football games draw an average of nearly 8,000 people. Tailgates. Barbecues. Beers. This is “Football Title Town,” residents boast.

But the basketball team is quietly building its own staple in the locale rarely known for it. The Bearcats will meet Mercyhurst in the Elite Eight at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday in Evansville, Ind.

They’re 35-0. Three wins shy of completing the first undefeated season in Division II basketball in a decade. And a 37-year-old coach who might soon be a hot commodity is within reach of securing a second national championship.

“I almost quit,” McCollum says. “Can you believe that?”

How it started

Late after a 2011 game at Truman State, McCollum called his mom while traveling back to Maryville. “I’m done,” he told her. “End of the year, I’m done.”

The Bearcats were bad in McCollum’s second season. Finished 10-16. But Truman State was a game they should have won. Maybe he just wasn’t cut out for this.

His mom talked him out of quitting. She illustrated some ways he could provide his players more positivity. Perhaps they would feed off his energy, she explained.

“If he was ever pessimistic or doubting things in those early years, it was only because he expects so much out of himself,” said Austin Meyer, his former assistant who has since taken over the Northwest women’s program. “But I was always confident we were going to get it turned around just because of how competitive of a guy he is. I knew how hard he worked.”

McCollum entered the coaching fray on something of a whim. He had completed his playing career at Northwest but needed one more semester to earn a degree, so he returned for the fall. He had a job lined up with Wells Fargo, alongside a teammate, Scott Fleming.

“He never said anything about coaching when he was a player,” Fleming says. ”I think we all thought he was going to get into the business world.”

The whim: One day during that final fall semester, McCollum was walking by the gym as players were cycling through basketball drills. The itch returned. A week later, he was back in it. He joined Tappmeyer’s staff as a graduate assistant, then spent a few years at Emporia State as a full-time assistant under David Moe. When Tappmeyer retired in 2009, Northwest returned to McCollum.

He’s 238-75 in the 10 seasons since, including 216-44 over the past eight. He’s won six straight MIAA conference titles, which had never been done before. The school’s first national title came in 2017.

In 2011-12, Northwest went from worst to first in the MIAA. From 10-16 to 22-7. And it’s just never stopped winning.

How? How does a basketball program in the heart of a football town become one of the nation’s best?

Naturally, more than a few things have to fall into place. But it all reverts back to one game — aided by the conversation McCollum shared with his mom.

The turnaround

Late in the 2011 season that once prompted McCollum to consider quitting, Northwest traveled to top-five ranked Fort Hays State. Before the game, he scrapped a season’s worth of offensive game plans. He realized he had overloaded the kids with information.

So on this night, he kept it simple: The Bearcats would run flex offense for 15 seconds every possession, then pitch it to their playmaking point guard at the top of the key and set a ball screen for him. Just let him go to work. Over and over again.

They fell behind 15 points. McCollum remembered his mother’s advice. Stay positive. He clapped often. He focused on the next play, ignoring the blunders.

The worst team in MIAA beat the best team in the league that night. The postgame locker room celebration mimicked an NCAA team securing a ticket to the Big Dance.

McCollum was invigorated.

“I learned that it was OK just to be myself,” he says. “I think it helped me understand that you have to figure all this out on your own a little bit. You don’t have to follow the ‘basketball book’ or do it exactly the way you planned on doing it or exactly the way everybody else does it. You have to be able and willing to adapt to your personnel.”

It’s a staple of the program. Or the staple of the program.

Adaptation.

McCollum and his staff landed two high-quality guards in their first recruiting class, DeShaun Cooper and Bryston Williams. They had bulldog mentalities. In the second recruiting class, they targeted winners and signed five state champions. “Those guys expect to win,” McCollum says. “There’s a big difference between expecting to win and wanting to win. We needed guys who expected to win.”

Nearly a decade later, the Bearcats have tinkered with the formula again. In the opening scrimmage of this season, McCollum followed suit of several high-majors and played a proverbial stretch four — a power forward capable of shooting the ball. But he didn’t like the rhythm of it.

The solution? Five guards. No true post players. Five guys who can get to the basket. Five who can shoot the heck out of it.

Northwest Missouri State unleashes almost exclusively three-pointers and layups this season— a model that NBA analytics gurus would gush over. And its defense actually might be better than the offense.

The Massey Rankings, a computer-based rating system, has Northwest Missouri State as the 39th-best college basketball team in the country.

In any division.

That’s the best team in the state. Thirty-four spots better than the Missouri Tigers, 101 spots better than any other Division II team.

“I’d almost consider (Northwest) for an at-large in the D1 tournament,” Massey wrote a week ago.

And then he provided the evidence. A zig-zag representation of their schedule. Northwest beat Central Oklahoma, who beat Lubbock Christian, who beat St. Edward’s, who beat Texas at San Antonio, who beat Old Dominion, who beat Syracuse, who beat ...

Duke.

‘That’s Coach Mac’

Each summer, a group of 30-somethings from Maryville and Kansas City travel to Nebraska for an annual basketball tournament. Most of them are graduates of Northwest.

McCollum is, well, you just have to see it.

“He plays like it’s the NBA Finals,” Fleming says. “He’s slapping the floor on defense; he’s picking guys up full-court; he’s yelling in the huddles. That’s just how he is. He has about as intense of a personality as you’ll probably ever meet.”

McCollum tore his calf muscle one spring. It was eight weeks before the annual Nebraska tournament. He rehabbed every day. Come June, he was playing. His team won, too.

“This is something that should’ve held someone out 12 weeks, but he wouldn’t miss it,” says Andy Peterson, the Northwest Missouri State athletics director who plays on the team and is a former assistant for McCollum. “That’s Coach Mac. If there’s competition involved, no one takes it as seriously as he will.”

As a kid, McCollum was a handful to coach. A loss sent him into “a complete and utter breakdown,” as he phrases it. But eventually, he figured out how to harness the competitiveness and turn it into a driving force. Motivation, not an inhibitor.

He reads books on dominant figures. Sports coaches. Franchises. Companies.

His takeaway: Culture wins. That phrase is littered throughout the program. T-shirts. Wall paint. Speeches. He no longer has to recruit state champions. The culture within the program takes care of those expectations.

The bulk of his focus rests on the process. Game days can be some of his least enjoyable as a coach, even during a season in which his team is 35-0. He literally shrugs when asked about his emotions after winning the national title.

He loves the process. Practices. Study habits. Some will tell you a good coach spends two-plus hours planning the perfect practice. He spends five minutes. But he can’t wait to get there. Usually improvises during them, too.

It’s truly his program now.

For as long as he wants it. He’s on his way to another national coach of the year award. He’s won various such honors in two different seasons already. The Division I schools will surely come calling sometime soon. He’s not sitting back and waiting, he insists.

“I’m a day-to-day guy, focusing on my kids. That’s where it’s a tough dynamic for a guy like me. I’m loyal to my kids, so I try to focus on them,” he says. “Sometimes in basketball, especially at the higher levels, you get to where you focus so much on the next job or the next thing that you lose sight of the reason you’re in college athletics in the first place. That’s to make impact on kids’ lives.”

Those around him think it would have to be the perfect landing spot. He won’t jump at the first offer he gets simply to call himself a Division I coach.

But that’s the future. It’s unpredictable.

McCollum has made a career of operating on the predictable. That’s the point behind the film work. Over the weekend, he pulled it up, despite expecting a visitor at any moment. He doesn’t waste an opportunity, even in short segments. And sure enough, he picked up on something.

“When you find that tendency, I’m just trying to figure out if I can get my kids to either take away what they do or attack those tendencies,” he says. “And when you find something that might work, it’s just like putting down that final puzzle piece.”

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Sam McDowell covers Sporting Kansas City, the Royals, Chiefs and sports enterprise for The Star.


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