Finally home, McConathy’s Demons expect to shake doldrums

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

As Mike McConathy’s Northwestern State basketball team prepares to play its first home game in 40 days Thursday night, a glance at the Demons’ record is undeniably discouraging.

No way to dress up an overall 4-16 mark, or an 0-3 start in the Southland Conference.

It is what it is. But it will not drag down the Demons when they tip off in Prather Coliseum at 7:30-ish Thursday night.

Doesn’t hurt that Northwestern is hosting Incarnate Word. The Alamo City-based Cardinals already have fallen to the Demons, 83-80, on Jan. 7 at the Southland’s unique Tip Off Tournament in Katy, Texas, and they’re hitting Natchitoches with an identical substandard slate.

So the quick read is NSU should have confidence, and will, Thursday night.

But even if UIW was unbeaten, the Demons would be going in feelin’ good. That’s McConathy magic.

Nearly everyone else, understandably, thinks his team is in a miserable funk. McConathy, his staff and players believe they are building toward a major shift in fortune.

When many coaches would be ducking and covering given Northwestern’s worksheet so far, he’s not.

He’s believing, not belittling, and playing the long game. He’s not sulking, he’s not stewing, he’s just steadily guiding the Demons confidently along the schedule – having completed a collection of non-conference contests that ranked among the 15 toughest among the country’s 351 Division I teams.

It’s the daunting nature of that schedule which has the Demons defiantly undaunted right now, said their top scorer and rebounder, second-year freshman Kendal Coleman, a Captain Shreve product.

“Most people don’t take that into account. We’ve played several of the top teams in the country, top 25 teams, No. 1 Baylor on down. Coach Mike keeps the negativity out of our group, even though he and our coaches do tell us what we did wrong, where we need to get better. They’re not bashing us. They’re teaching us.”

It’s been a recurring pattern in the 22 previous seasons the Bossier City native has coached NSU. McConathy’s squads have typically traveled to challenging non-conference foes, only occasionally hosting a Division I opponent while making visits to Power 5 venues for “guarantee games” for which the home team pays an appearance fee, nowadays in the $60-75,000 range (down about 33 percent from the pre-pandemic take).

Take away those 109 “buy games” in his career (seven this season), and McConathy’s Demons have won 55 percent of the time (320-266). At the pinnacle: the only three NCAA Tournament appearances this century by any North Louisiana men’s program (2001, 2006, 2013) and a 2-3 record in March Madness – on neutral courts, BTW.

Each of the last two seasons, Northwestern surged late with seven wins in nine games, netting No. 4 seeds in the Southland Tournament, and reaching the semifinals. The Demons have played in the championship game seven times and additionally made four semis.

His approach is validated, again and again. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is educational.

“It’s Coach’s mindset. He knows what buttons to push, and he binds everybody together, not letting us split apart. It’s pretty amazing to watch,” said longtime assistant Jeff Moore. “He just never gives up on anybody. It’s not in his DNA. He finds the good in people and players, and gets them to believe in that, and it draws the best out of them.”

“Most teams with this record, they’d come to practice like it’s an obligation,” said Dave Simmons, in his second stint at NSU with McConathy sandwiched around 12 years as head coach at McNeese. “Mike helps our guys see each day as an opportunity, and we see them growing because of the faith he shows in them.”

How did he develop his unyielding, unabashedly optimistic approach?

“A lot has to do with considering how you would want to be treated,” he said. “Growing up in Bossier City, I had so many coaches – not just in basketball, but in little league baseball and even junior high football, then into college – men who saw the big picture and encouraged us, patiently, believing in us.”

He’s a product of mentors like his dad, former Bossier schools superintendent Johnny McConathy; and coaches including Jerry Mosley in junior high football and basketball, Gerald Kimble in junior varsity basketball, his Airline High basketball coach J.C. Howell, and even his little league baseball coach, Tommy Henry. As he became one of Louisiana Tech’s greatest, Scotty Robertson, then Emmett Hendricks showed him the way.

“To me, you either coach out of fear, or out of love. You’ve got to discipline them, you’ve got to teach them, but they’ve got to know you care about them, and they’ll respond so much better.”

He’s counting on that come Thursday night.

“It’s like it’s been raining, thunder and lightning, for 40 days,” said McConathy, “and now, the clouds are clearing and it’s a whole new day.”