Growing up on a farm in Cascade, Iowa, Greg McDermott watched his older brothers go off to college to learn the family business. And, naturally, they went to the place where Iowa’s aspiring agriculturalists go: to Ames. From an early age, Iowa State University was part of McDermott’s life.
Like his brothers, McDermott enjoyed farm life, even serving as FFA president. But ultimately it was basketball – that pure and perfect game of grace and grit which he loved to play, analyze, and even organize – that captured his heart. And when it came time for McDermott to go to college, he followed his own path to Cedar Falls, where he would don the Purple and Gold on Jim Berry’s Northern Iowa basketball squad.
McDermott thrived at UNI, earning all-conference basketball accolades, a history degree, and an opportunity to play professional hoops overseas. After highly successful coaching stints at Wayne State and North Dakota State, McDermott became the head basketball coach at his alma mater in 2001.
“Basketball has taken me to some great places. I’ve met so many wonderful people and developed so many special relationships as a result of this game,” McDermott says. “Basketball has definitely given more to me than I’ve given to the game of basketball. I owe it a lot.”
McDermott has seen the world through basketball, but his roots remain distinctly Iowan. And Iowa’s a small state, a place where things tend to come in serendipitous full circles. On March 21, 2006, the university that once meant something sort of far away to a little brother shooting baskets in Cascade provided a defining moment in the life of Greg McDermott. The opportunity is now his to lead Iowa State basketball to the top. In his home state, with family and friends standing beside him, Greg McDermott’s dreams are coming true.
The newest Cyclone is the first to admit it’s been a whirlwind year. He led his Panthers to a school-record 23 wins and another NCAA tournament appearance last season, all while his wife of 18 years, Theresa, battled breast cancer (“For the first time in my career I didn’t hang on to the victories as long…at the end of the day it’s just a game, and this is just a job,” McDermott says). And before he even unpacked his office at Hilton Coliseum this April, he was on the road recruiting players to Iowa State, which was hit hard by defections following the dismissal of McDermott’s predecessor, Wayne Morgan.
“The coaching change happened so fast for [the players],” McDermott said. “They [found out they] lost a coach late Thursday or early Friday, and by Tuesday they
McDermott should know; he experienced a coaching change following his third year at Northern Iowa, when Eldon Miller took over the Panther program.
Ultimately, some of the players on ISU’s 2005-2006 roster decided to pursue other opportunities, about which McDermott says he harbors no ill will. “Iowa State basketball will go on for many years, and Greg McDermott will hopefully be coaching here for many years, but these players only have a short window to compete at the college level. And they have to do that at a place they think fits them best.”
Finding new players who do think ISU is a good fit became McDermott’s challenge in April, when he found himself having only a month to recruit several players to a university that was still largely a mystery to him. He’s found some great fits, but also acknowledges that it’s unrealistic under the circumstances to expect to fill out a full 13-scholarship roster for the upcoming season. “My challenge is to make myself be patient and understand that this is a marathon,” he says. “We want to build a program that’s going to be successful many, many years from now.”
For having played the recruiting game so late, McDermott has been amazingly successful – something he credits in large part to ISU’s already stellar reputation. Hilton Magic, he says, epitomizes the Cyclone basketball tradition.
“Iowa State is an easy product to sell,” he says. “The fact that Iowa State has some of the best fans in the country is not a well-kept secret, and that’s made it easier for us to make [recruiting] inroads in places where we haven’t been involved all year. We’re selling an opportunity to play in a great conference and to play in front of some of the best fans in the country and in an arena that has historically been difficult for opposing teams. We’re [also] selling a family atmosphere that we’re trying to build in our program.
“It’s important that the young people who join our team are choosing Iowa State for more reasons than just Greg McDermott or one of my assistant coaches, but because they really truly believe the total package is a fit for them,” McDermott adds. “And that’s why we’ll do a thorough job of selling what life at Iowa State will be like. That will help get them through a tough day somewhere down the road, because they’re not always going to agree with everything I say or do. They’re gonna need to look at themselves in the mirror and understand that they chose to come here for all the right reasons.”
When players choose Iowa State for the love of Iowa State, McDermott says the on-court product will always be successful. “I know they’re going to give 100 percent and play with passion and be proud of what the front of their jerseys say. If they do that, they’ll be doing everything that the coaches and fans can ever ask of them.”
As for next season? “We’ll be a team that can defend and rebound,” he says, “and always give ourselves a chance to win. Will we win them all? Probably not. But we’ll represent the university in a way that will make the fans proud. And there are educated basketball fans at Iowa State, so they understand some of the challenges that we’re faced with. They’ve supported this program through good times and bad for as long as I’ve been watching Iowa State basketball, and I would expect that would be the case regardless of how our season turns out.”
It’s hard to dispute that a lot of Iowans will be pulling for McDermott’s Cyclones when the 2006-2007 season rolls around. As someone who has embraced friends, family, and the game of basketball from Denison to Dubuque, home for Greg McDermott isn’t just Cascade or Cedar Falls: it’s the state of Iowa, where moving 90 miles to Ames is just another of many homecomings.
And it’s good to be home.
About the Writer | Kate Bruns is the ISU Alumni Association's assistant director for electronic communications.