Demons’ ‘Coach Mike’ strides away in style

COUPLE OF CHAMPIONS: Retiring Northwestern State basketball coach Mike McConathy and wife Connie exchange a laugh at his sendoff Tuesday in Natchitoches.

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

NATCHITOCHES – Four standing ovations, the first before he said a word.

Not nearly as many tears, cracks in his voice, or pauses to regain his composure as former players and longtime friends expected.

No notes. None.

As always, completely from the heart.

That’s how Mike McConathy rolled through a comfortably brief sendoff Tuesday morning in Prather Coliseum, ending his 23 seasons as basketball coach at Northwestern State.

Following 20-some minutes of an informal program, featuring heartfelt remarks from McConathy and his wife Connie, then the requisite media interviews, and after greeting every one of the roughly 200 friends and colleagues who gathered to salute him and his accomplishments, in less than an hour, it was over.

In the most understated moment of the day, just-hired NSU athletics director Kevin Bostian announced what new university president Marcus Jones hinted at moments earlier. The next time the Demons tip off in Prather Coliseum, under their new coach next November, they will play on Mike McConathy Court.

It’s a self-evident, permanent tribute to the state’s all-time winningest college basketball coach, a man whose impact has cascaded far past 682 wins in 39 seasons at NSU and Bossier Parish Community College, beyond the NSU milestones of three NCAA Tournament berths, two wins in March Madness, seven Southland Conference Tournament title game appearances — and an impeccable record of academic accomplishment and community service by his players.

It was a team effort, he said. It began with the players he inherited in 1999 gradually buying in to his approach, ultimately producing NSU’s first winning record in eight seasons and its first-ever trip to the conference championship game. Utilizing his full roster, routinely going 10-12 deep in his game rotation, was a system that some of his players, especially the better ones, often struggled to accept.

“We’ve been blessed to have great players, great young men that wanted to try to do it the right way. They didn’t always agree with me. I’ll tell you a quick story about Devon Baker. Devon Baker was from New York City. Devon Baker fought me every day, fought me EVERY day. He wrote me something yesterday, and he said, ‘Coach, I didn’t understand then, but I do now.’ That’s a testament to my staff and what we believe in.”

His staff, brimming with young graduate and student assistants, was anchored by cornerstone colleagues Dave Simmons and Jeff Moore. Simmons spent 11 seasons in two stints at the beginning and end of McConathy’s tenure; Moore was alongside for the final 16. Loyalty and trust have been intrinsic parts of McConathy’s “Championship Basketball … with a Purpose” philosophy, along with faith – in the people around him, and personally demonstrated in his Christian lifestyle.

McConathy thanked NSU’s leaders for allowing him to “be who I am in my faith, not hide behind a rock,” a line that drew a 24-second standing ovation.

And he praised those attending, and many more who couldn’t – people from all walks of life whose deep engagement with the program most often stemmed from, and was nurtured by, McConathy’s personal touch and outreach.

“The most important thing is all of y’all – all of you people who have supported us over the years,” McConathy said. “I am truly blessed to have all of y’all in my life. The impact you have made on me is far greater than anything I did (for) you.”

Whether with his team, colleagues, his supporters, even his opponents – Stephen F. Austin coach Kyle Keller and Louisiana Christian’s Reni Mason attended Tuesday’s tribute – one trait stood above the rest.

“He was more concerned with winning hearts than winning on the hardcourt,” said his beloved spouse.

He did that, attested by tributes from opposing coaches, their staff members, administrators and others that have poured in on social media and from elsewhere.

“If you’re going to send a son someplace to learn the game and learn lessons about life, you send him to Mike McConathy,” said iconic, retired LSU coach Dale Brown, whose grandson Peyton spent time at Northwestern. “Generally, players don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. Mike had that down really well.”

Photo by CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State