Mac Column

Coach Ben McCollum directs his players in the second half of Northwest’s semifinal win over UCO March 5 in the MIAA Tournament. Two days before the game, McCollum was named MIAA Coach of the Year for the seventh season in a row.

At first, this story was meant to be a list, essentially — an assortment of facts I gathered from two full seasons of interviews and press conferences with Northwest men’s basketball coach Ben McCollum, as he and Northwest get set to enter another Division II Central Region Tournament.

But then I thought, “Is that really what people need to know? That Coach Mac is from Storm Lake, Iowa — God’s country, he calls it — and drinks his coffee black and checked himself into the hospital once in college to get an IV so he wouldn’t have to tell the trainers he was sick and sit out of a practice?”

The obvious answer is no. People don’t really need to know anything more about Coach Mac, I guess. But if they’re going to know something, it should be something more than a list of assorted facts that might make his Wikipedia page one day. They should get the not-all-that-behind-the-scenes look that I got for two years as a reporter, and so, in a few anecdotes, this is what that is.

This disclaimer here is that I only covered McCollum for two years, adding some press conferences here and there this season when I served largely just as a photographer on the men’s basketball beat. We’ve never talked for more than 30 minutes at a time. I can’t really even pretend to know him well, but the following stories paint the clearest picture of what I think the real Coach Mac is like.

It’s somewhat well-documented how competitive McCollum is. He ran a 5K in fall 2019 and took fourth. He ran another one this spring and finished fourth again. He wasn’t beat, in either of them, by anyone older than him, nor by anyone who was that close to his own age.

I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered someone who wants to win as much as he does. I asked him once, off-hand in a press conference, if he was the most competitive person he knew. “Yeah,” he said.

His desire to win stretches beyond his own program. Last football season, in 2019, as Northwest was in the midst of playoff run, I had started wearing a sweatshirt with a cardinal on it. I had picked it up at a thrift store in St. Joseph because I thought it was ridiculous and it was, like, $3. I wore it to the next week’s press conference and it grew into an icon, somehow.

Rich Wright, Northwest’s head football coach, was sure the sweater had luck. It was there in Hays, Kansas, when the Bearcats put together a 17-point comeback and won on a field goal in overtime. It was there at Bearcat Stadium when they stomped the previously-undefeated UCM Mules. He wanted me to keep wearing it, politely and subtly suggesting that I keep packing it.

McCollum was a little more adamant. After his team had beaten William Jewell by more than 40 points in late November, just days before Northwest football’s first-round playoff game, McCollum’s postgame press conference had deteriorated into something less than a press conference. There were few serious questions being asked and even fewer serious answers being given.

After Mac lectured me on biology because I’d asked about his receding hairline — hair comes up more often than it should with Mac — he quizzed me about my attire for the upcoming weekend.

“You wearing the bird sweater this weekend for football?” McCollum asked me after we’d told him we were out of questions.

“Yeah, I mean, Rich kind of wants me to, and it’s tough because I don’t want to be biased,” I said. “But also, like, if Rich Wright asks you to wear a sweater …”

“Did he ask you to wear it this next weekend?” Mac asked.

“He asked me at the presser (on a Tuesday), he was like, ‘Where’s the sweater?’” I said. “And I was like, ‘I can’t wear it twice a week every week. I’ve got to do laundry. So, I did laundry today.’”

“You can wear it twice a week,” McCollum said, and we all engaged in a minute-long discussion about how often you should wash sweatshirts and how often thrift stores restock their racks and how often you should do laundry and whether Mac washes his tie. (He doesn’t — but he washes everything else after one wear).

The conversation, as it tends to with Mac, had trailed pretty far off course. So, McCollum brought it back to what he thought was most important.

“You better wear that damn cardinal thing,” McCollum said. “Just wear the bird shirt this weekend — that’s all I ask.”

I can’t imagine what his assistants and players hear on the bench in the middle of close games. And I think the closest I’ve really gotten to that was at that Northwest football playoff game, when Mac and one of his sons were watching from behind the north end zone as Harding was attempting a 2-point conversion while trailing Northwest 7-6 late in the fourth quarter of the first-round matchup.

After complimenting my sweatshirt, he looked at the field and yelled, “Let’s get this sh—!” He said it with the same animation he possesses on his own sideline. Then he looked at me and said “Sorry,” and I assured him that it was OK.

I turned back to the field. Harding ran an unsuccessful rush to the left. Northwest’s defense essentially sealed the first-round victory with that stop. I tried to get some photos of the play and ensuing celebration, and by the time I turned back to gauge Mac’s thoughts, he and his son were walking out the stadium’s east gate.

Mac admitted, or maybe boasted, two seasons ago that he was self-evaluating while cutting down nets in Bearcat Arena in the aftermath of an MIAA-clinching 2-point win over Missouri Western.

It was the closest game Northwest had played all year, and the closest game they would play for the rest of the season en route to an NCAA National Championship. With the net from Bearcat Arena’s south basket draped around his neck, when he was supposed to be celebrating his sixth-straight MIAA Regular Season Championship, he was telling a group of reporters about how he wanted to get better.

He didn’t even care about the fun part of winning. He doesn’t. It’s like he wins for the sake of winning. And he pretty much always wins.

You shouldn’t approach McCollum before games. I didn’t learn this from some bad experience or anything. It was just kind of a feeling at first.

Usually, throughout the season, Mac stands near the entryway at Bearcat Arena that leads to the men’s locker room and watches the fourth quarter of the women’s game, drinking black coffee from a Scooter’s cup and swaying back and forth. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as focused as McCollum seems in those moments.

In March 2019, in the hours leading up the NCAA Division II National Championship game in Evansville, Indiana, a coworker and I ran into McCollum in the lobby of the DoubleTree hotel where the team was staying. We were there to do an interview for a podcast. We were not there to run into Ben McCollum.

I had covered for him for nearly a whole season by that point, but in that hotel lobby, he seemed to be almost celebrity-like. He seemed even less approachable than he normally does in the hours before the game. He was getting off the elevator as we happened to walk past, and the coworker said “Hi,” but Mac didn’t respond. We noticed and commented on the level of intensity that radiated off of him in that elevator. When I asked him about it almost a year later, Mac said he didn’t remember seeing me. Probably too focused.

“Have you talked to me before a game?” McCollum asked in a press conference in February.

“I don’t, no,” I said.

“That’s a great decision,” Mac said. “Yeah, that’s a great decision.”

“I just walk right past you,” I said.

“Yeah, I would too,” Mac said. “Don’t even look at me. … Don’t talk to me. Stay — you know, I’ve got a bubble.”

“Yeah, it’s the insanity piece — that’s what I like,” McCollum said. “I like to be, to get myself to be where — people are scared of crazy people. That’s what I’ve always thought.”

In a different press conference once, a reporter was quizzing Mac on noon ball, the daily game of pickup basketball a group of coaches, trainers and grad assistants play in Bearcat Arena around 1 p.m., ironically.

“Who do you think the winningest player in noon ba—,” the reporter asked before Mac cut his question short.

“Me,” McCollum said.

I can’t tell with any degree of certainty how big his ego is. But it is there. It has to be. You can’t win national titles and NABC Coach of the Year Awards and receive constant praise both from within and outside of the basketball community without developing an ego. It’s just — I’m not sure Mac’s is all that big.

He’s good and he knows he’s good. But he gives a lot of credit to his assistants. He raves constantly about his players and their work ethics. He mentions, as often as he can, it seems, how lucky he is to coach the players he coaches and that their parents have as much to do with the team’s success as he does. He walks and talks with that humility almost all the time.

In the middle of last season, sometime in January 2019 when Mac’s team was on its way to a perfect 38-0 record, I asked him about the selflessness of Northwest’s three freshmen guards and whether it was something they always had or something he had to teach them. He dove into a two-minute response about having players play to their strengths and limiting negative feedback and recruiting quality kids.

He kept giving the credit to them but had used the phrase “I” a few times when talking about what the team looks for in an athlete and how the team goes about recruiting. And then he changed course, nearing the end of his answer.

“We,” he said. “I should say, ‘We.’”

That always struck me, so much so that I think about it periodically, even 26 months later. If there is indeed an ego that comes with Ben McCollum, it’s one that’s grown more out of awareness than conceit, one applied more to the collective than the individual.

But the awareness extends to himself, too. How could it not? He inherited a solid program and turned it into a powerhouse. He’s won the MIAA Coach of the Year Award seven times. I was in his office last year to do a more personal interview for a feature I was working on about a colleague of McCollum’s. It was March 2, 2020. I knew he had a conference call the hour before our interview about MIAA of the Year Awards, but it didn’t dawn on me to ask him about them, to try and break the news before the MIAA made its announcements. He was about to be named MIAA Coach of the Year for the fifth season in a row.

After our interview about the colleague, we talked about basketball, of course. Mac is a self-described basketball junkie. There was less than a week until the MIAA Tournament. I joked about how he must be nervous for next week, about how the Lincoln Blue Tigers were going to get hot. He laughed, but said that Lincoln coach John Moseley was one of the best in-game adjusters in the conference.

“Who’s the best?” I asked, sitting in front of his desk, where a hoard of MIAA trophies was arranged in front of me on the ground and more than a half-dozen championship nets hung from the wall behind Ben McCollum.

“Who do you think?” he said.

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