The new NCAA hot spot: Cedar Falls, Iowa for Northern Iowa

Northern Iowa celebrates a watershed upset of No. 1 overall seed Kansas. “We are a true team,’’ Ali Farokhmanesh says.

Associated Press

Northern Iowa celebrates a watershed upset of No. 1 overall seed Kansas. “We are a true team,’’ Ali Farokhmanesh says.

ST. LOUIS — You are a college basketball player. Kind of short, a little slow, but a decent shooter. The kind of guy who will be a ringer at the YMCA in a year or two. Then one day, in an 8 a.m. Principles of Investments class, you get a text message.

It says you're on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

You are a college basketball coach. Well liked and well respected. The kind of guy who would toil happily for more than a decade as an assistant at schools in North Dakota and Iowa. Then one day, you wake up to find your name being linked to jobs all around the country.

That's when the boss offers you a 10-year contract.

You are a fan of a Division I basketball program. Nice school, decent team, but not exactly the big time. The state university to the West is in the Big 12, and the one to the East is in the Big Ten. You're in a mid major.

Yet today, you are the center of the NCAA universe.

This is what one game has done for the folks of the University of Northern Iowa. Well, one game and a lifetime of work and dreams. Just 107 years after fielding its first basketball team, Northern Iowa has reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament tonight against Michigan State.

"Being in the Sweet 16 changes the credibility of your program nationally. This is our fifth NCAA Tournament in seven years, and nobody ever really looked at us as a credible threat," said athletic director Troy Dannen. "Now, all of a sudden, because we've beaten somebody, everything changes. You may be the same program you've always been, but people will look at you differently."

Of course, the Panthers didn't just beat any ol' somebody. They beat Kansas in the second round of the tournament Saturday night. No. 1 seeds are not supposed to lose in the tournament's first weekend. And because of their unenviable spot in the brackets, No. 9 seeds hardly ever live to see the Sweet 16. Since the tournament expanded 25 years ago, Northern Iowa is just the fourth No. 9 to reach this far.

So it's no wonder that Ali Farokhmanesh was left staring at a picture of himself on SI after hitting a clinching 3-pointer against Kansas. And it's no wonder that Ben Jacobson has as much job security as any coach in the country after agreeing to his new contract extension.

They are survivors. Just like a lot of other people associated with the program. Let's face it, the best recruits in the country are not lining up to play in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Heck, the best recruits in Iowa have never been that interested in heading up U.S. Highway 218.

Yet, in a way, Northern Iowa has turned its weaknesses into strengths. Because the school is not recruiting NBA prospects, it rarely has to worry about players checking out of school early. And so there is a much better chance of building continuity within the program.

Consider the five starters in the Northern Iowa lineup. Adam Koch has started 100 games, Jordan Eglseder 74, Kwadzo Ahelegbe 72, Farokhmanesh 68 and Johnny Moran 66.

Jacobson is also not shy about using his bench. He substitutes in groups so the Panthers are always coming at teams in waves on defense. Northern Iowa has nine players averaging more than 10 minutes per game. Koch was the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year, and yet he didn't score a single point when the Panthers beat Wichita State in the conference championship game.

They work as one unit. They move as one. They clown around as one. During Thursday's practice at the Edward Jones Dome, players were goofing with fans in the stands and running their own side bets while shooting 3-pointers.

"We're probably a hard team to figure out because we have so many different guys who can score," said Farokhmanesh (pronounced Fuh-ROAK-muh-nesh). "You can't focus on any one guy at any point in the game, and that's got to be hard for other teams. We are a true team."

That whole concept of continuity is the reason the school jumped on the contract extension for Jacobson this week. He got the job four years ago when Iowa State wooed Greg McDermott away after he led Northern Iowa to three consecutive NCAA appearances. Now the Iowa job is open — along with several other high profile jobs around the country — and so Northern Iowa appealed to Jacobson's sense of stability.

The 10-year deal is not particularly lucrative by big-time NCAA standards — Jacobson's $450,000 salary is only fourth-best in the conference — and there is always the chance another school pulls up in a Brinks truck to buy out the deal. But, like his players, Jacobson is in no hurry to leave.

"Personally, the University of Northern Iowa has been a great fit for my wife and I. Our boys are 4 years old and 6 years old, and we're just getting started with our family," Jacobson said. "So it was a very short conversation with my wife."

You're a player. You're a coach. You're a fan.

Why would you want to leave Northern Iowa today?

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

The new NCAA hot spot: Cedar Falls, Iowa for Northern Iowa 03/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 25, 2010 11:29pm]

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