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McFeely: Saul Phillips, back in Dakotas? This will be fun

Former North Dakota State men's basketball coach Saul Phillips was named the head coach at Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D., on Tuesday, June 11. Forum file photo1 / 3
Former North Dakota State men's basketball coach Saul Phillips celebrates after the Bison beat Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament. Phillips was named the head coach at Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D., on Tuesday, June 11.2 / 3
Saul Phillips, center, greets members of the Northern State University men's basketball team at the Barnett Center after Phillips was announced as the new men's basketball coach Tuesday morning. John Davis / Aberdeen American News3 / 3

OK, I admit it. This grizzled columnist with a charcoal briquette for a heart has a soft spot for a college basketball coach.

Saul Phillips, you're all right.

That's why I was hoping the former North Dakota State men's coach would get the head coaching gig at the University of North Dakota that instead went to Northern State's Paul Sather. Having Saul playing the Bison twice a year in the Summit League and perhaps in the postseason tournament? Too much fun.

It would've been like Robin Williams on steroids.

Don't misunderstand: Sather was a good hire for the Fighting Hawks. He'll be fine. But Phillips isn't just a media-savvy comedian. He can coach, too. He took the Bison to two NCAA Division I tournaments and built the team that got there one year after he left for Ohio University, where things admittedly didn't go as well as they did in Fargo.

But he wasn't even a finalist for the Fighting Hawks job. That seems odd, given his resume of success at a school 70 miles from Grand Forks in the league to which UND belongs.

Now Phillips is back, this time taking over for Sather at Northern State. It's an NCAA Division II job, a couple of notches down from the mid-major Mid-American Conference to which Ohio belonged and a notch down from the Summit League. But it's perhaps the best Division II job in the region in a strong conference.

Phillips wanted a head coaching job, was rejected for a couple of low-level mid-major Division I jobs at Idaho State and UND, and took the best job he could get. He'll be the King of Aberdeen.

But the soft spot isn't necessarily based on the basketball side of things, although it will be fun to see Phillips at Minnesota State University Moorhead once a year. No, it's more centered around the idea that Saul Phillips is good people.

I know this personally and it comes from experience beyond the usual press conferences or post-game interviews when Phillips was at NDSU.

It comes from watching Phillips, while he was in the middle of coaching his team in Athens, Ohio, try to make the life of late NDSU radio broadcaster Scott Miller as good as possible in its final weeks. This is no easy task since Athens is 1,100 miles from the hospitals in which Scott was residing.

Scott's great friend Jeannie Wohl was his true angel during his fight against cancer, particularly in the last weeks before his death in February 2016. Many others — from his family, NDSU, the media, the health-care world — supported Scott.

Saul, though, was a one-man long-distance dynamo, working the phones to do what he could. He talked with Scott, Jeannie, his contacts at NDSU, me and anybody else he believed could make Scott's final weeks more comfortable.

We were on the phone often with each other, Saul trying to work through me because he couldn't be in Fargo and me leaning on him for advice. It was simple, really, in Saul's eyes: "Scotty is a member of our family. We're all his family. Let's take care of him the best we can."

That stuck. Did it go beyond the usual coach-media relationship? Yes. So sue me. Scott was that kind of guy to make humanity more important than whether dogs and cats can work together.

Since then, I've been a big fan of Saul Phillips and was hoping he'd land on his feet after losing his job at Ohio. He has. It's a bonus it's at Northern State, where he'll at least be on the radar once in awhile.

You didn't think charcoal briquettes could be soft, did you?

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