In Southland Conference and Louisiana basketball history, Mike McConathy has a unique and remarkable place as a player and head coach.
He’s regarded as one of the greatest players in state and conference history, scoring 2,033 points (20.7 per game) from 1973-77 at Louisiana Tech, leading the Bulldogs to the 1976 conference crown as the Southland Player of the Year.
He ranks among the greatest coaches too, entering his 18th season at Northwestern State, where his father (John), his sons (Michael and Logan), and his uncles (George and Leslie) all played.
McConathy notched his 600th career collegiate coaching victory and coached his 1,000th college contest in the 2014-15 season. With 619 victories in 33 seasons, he is the winningest college coach in Louisiana basketball history, eclipsing legendary bench bosses such as Dale Brown, Leon Barmore, Fred Hobdy and Mike Vining. McConathy is 619-419 overall with a 267-260 record at NSU, including 78 regular-season “guarantee” games at non-conference foes, going 262-182 (.591) with the Demons otherwise.
His teams have scored road wins over Oklahoma State, Mississippi State, Auburn and Oregon State, and also knocked off No. 15 Iowa in a 14 vs. 3 seed upset in the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
He is a master of March Madness. McConathy’s Demons have made seven Southland Tournament championship game appearances in their 12 conference tourney trips during his first 17 seasons. Only the Demons (2005-08) and Louisiana-Monroe (1990-93) have made four straight championship game appearances in the five decades of Southland basketball competition. NSU is 18-9 in Southland Tournament play, and captured the 2001, 2006 and 2013 Southland Tournament crowns, with McConathy in charge.
That ’13 title gave NSU its third NCAA Tournament appearance under McConathy. NSU is 2-3 in the “Big Dance,” beating Winthrop (2001) and Iowa (2006). The Demons dumped a Gregg Marshall-coached Winthrop squad in the inaugural Opening Round game in Dayton in ’01 and overcame a 17-point deficit in the last 8:32 to stun Steve Alford-coached Iowa 64-63 in ’06 at Auburn Hills, Mich., in one of the most memorable games in modern March Madness history.
McConathy’s core philosophies include the belief “the MVP of our team IS our team.” His use of a deep rotation, often with wave substitutions of five-for-five, is a tried-and-true method that annually has NSU playing its best basketball down the stretch.
The Demons are toughened each season by a challenging non-conference slate of games – NSU played the nation’s fifth-toughest out-of-conference schedule three seasons ago – and the combination of giving significant playing time to 10-13 Demons all year long helps produce surges like 12 wins in the final 15 games of 2013-14 and a run of 11 wins in 13 games late in 2014-15.
Since the start of his 16 seasons as coach at Bossier Parish Community College in his hometown, McConathy has constantly promoted educational values for, and with, his players. Almost 90 percent of the seniors in his NSU program have graduated. More than half the team has been on the NSU honor roll in the past three years.
The Demons received “public recognition” from the NCAA in May 2014 and in May 2006 for ranking among the nation’s top 10 percent Academic Progress Rate scores in the NCAA’s annual report. They had a perfect score in May 2011 and have consistently ranked among state, Southland Conference and even national leaders in that and the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate in McConathy’s 16 seasons. In July, the National Association of Basketball Coaches gave NSU its Team Academic Excellence Award for posting a team 3.02 GPA in 2015-16.
His program is #Southland Strong: The Demons are 45-27 (.625) in conference regular-season play in the last four years, 61-41 (.598) in the last six. McConathy is 182-139 (.567) against Southland foes, including 164-132 (.554) in regular-season matchups.
They benefit from a big homecourt advantage. Venerable Prather Coliseum has more on-the-floor seating than any other Southland venue. The Demons average over 2,000 fans per game in league play in a tough-for-visiting teams environment. NSU is 37-15 at home overall in the past four seasons, 63-21 in the last five years, and has won 70 percent of its home games (159-68) under McConathy.
Known for years as “Coach Mike” to his players, McConathy is among a select group of major college mentors. Less than two dozen Division I basketball coaches have been at their current school for 18 years. His peers in this distinction include Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), Tom Izzo (Michigan State), and Jim Boeheim (Syracuse).
Three Division I head coaches – Virginia Tech’s Buzz Williams, McNeese’s Dave Simmons and Mark Slessinger of New Orleans – have served on his Demon coaching staff.
“Coach Mike” is nationally respected by those who coach, and cover, the game.
For the 11th year, he will be part of the ESPN/USA Today Coaches’ Top 25 voting panel. He does his own ballot each week. He’s been late once in 10 years – and that was on a weekend the team was returning from Hawaii. He has also served a three-year term on the NCAA’s coaches’ regional advisory committee assisting with the NCAA Tournament selection process.
He received the 2012 NABC Guardians of the Game Pillar Award for Education during NCAA Final Four weekend in New Orleans. It is among the most prestigious awards presented by the NABC, representing one of the four core values of the Guardians of the Game program – education, leadership, advocacy and service.
National television and radio analysts and announcers such as Fox Sports’ Tim Brando and Doug Gottlieb, Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery of CBS Sports, Fran Fraschilla and Jerry Punch of ESPN, and Charles Barkley of TBS have expressed their admiration of McConathy, as much for his core values as for his coaching acumen.
Demon basketball has evolved in his tenure from being nearly an afterthought in the historic city of Natchitoches to providing the sports heartbeat of northwest Louisiana in February and March.
His Demons have reached to the Southland Conference Tournament championship game seven times in his 17 seasons (2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2013).
???????McConathy brought the philosophy of “Championship Basketball … with a Purpose!” to NSU in March of 1999. After winning 70 percent of his games in 16 seasons at Bossier Parish Community College, he took over a program that had never been to the NCAA Tournament and had just five winning seasons in 24 years of Division I history.
When he arrived at his father’s alma mater, tasked with turning around a long-downtrodden program, Coach Mike didn’t run off the players in the program so he could bring in his guys right away.
At the press conference announcing his hiring, he talked about bringing Demon basketball back to the level of expectation it had when his father and uncles played for Northwestern in the 1950s. Then, 20-win seasons and conference championships were standard fare.
One veteran media member wondered if the new coach was from Mars, so farfetched that goal seemed. After all, NSU had had never been close to a Division I conference championship or an NCAA Tournament berth.
McConathy only had two scholarships to work with, just a couple of weeks before signing day, but instead of cleaning house, he created a homelike atmosphere. This program, he told the veteran players, wasn’t his. It was theirs. His role was to shape it into something good, for them and for the players to come.
His two pre-teen boys, Michael and Logan, spent as much time in Prather Coliseum as the players did. That wasn’t by accident.
Coach Mike told his team that he wanted to be able to have pride in having his boys around the players. So the McConathy kids had a bunch of older brothers, and the players suddenly had a couple of younger brothers, subtly reminding them their conduct was very personal to their new coach.
Deep inside, McConathy also was determined to build a program that would be solid enough that when his sons finished high school, it might appeal to them to be involved, in some way, perhaps even as players, just like their grandfather Johnny and their uncles, George and Leslie, were in the years between World War II and the Korean Conflict, when the NBA was a fledgling league with teams in Ft. Wayne and Syracuse, a decade before color television made its debut.
Now, beginning his 18th season as head coach, Coach Mike’s vision has long since become reality.
Sticking with the players already in the program worked. His first team posted the first winning season in eight years at Northwestern, and became the first Demon team to reach the Southland Conference Tournament championship game.
A year later, the Demons were back, and they didn’t stop there. The heart of the team he inherited and inspired worked its way to the SLC Tournament title in 2001, into the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever, and to an opening round win as the Demons became “Dayton’s Darlings” and somewhat of a national media sensation at the outset of March Madness.
The swirl of national talk show appearances, the fact that the team’s opening win was the lead story on “SportsCenter” and in the next day’s USA Today sports section, was all part of the bigger picture for McConathy. It was a chance to solidify the foundation that had been established, an opportunity to springboard the NSU program into a position of being a consistent championship contender in the Southland Conference.
A year later, as seven seniors went through commencement exercises, McConathy was preparing for the consequences of a surprising recruiting decision. The coach who spent 16 seasons in the junior college ranks decided against blending juco players with a few prep prospects to replace the departing senior class. Instead, McConathy and assistants Simmons and Slessinger brought in a dozen high school seniors.
Those recruits were the 2005-06 seniors, except for Jermaine Spencer, who had interest from LSU and Texas, among others, but signed with McConathy and the Demons. Spencer took a medical redshirt year as a sophomore, so his senior season came in 2006-07. Behind that 2003 recruiting class, the Demons layered in a handful of talented high school players in 2004 and 2005, and added a blend of prep and junior college recruits since, averting another wholesale rebuilding.
The plan worked. The youngest team in the country battled through two losing seasons, appearing ready to turn the corner in 2003-04 before some key players were sidelined.
In 2004-05, the payoff began: 21 wins (the most for the Demons since 1960), a Southland Conference co-championship, homecourt advantage in the SLC Tournament and an ESPN-televised championship game at Prather Coliseum.
But it was a stunning last-minute loss. That was the painful motivator for the 2005-06 team - the Demons wanted to fulfill their potential, to repeat as champs, host the SLC tournament championship game again, and win there - and in the NCAA Tournament.
They did that, and much more.
The Demons had a school-record 26 wins, including victories at Oklahoma State, Mississippi State, over Oregon State and No. 15 Iowa in the NCAA Tournament. Attendance records were shattered. They earned a TV game in the ESPN BracketBusters. They won the SLC by the widest margin in nine seasons. Northwestern made its fourth SLC Tournament championship game appearance in McConathy’s first seven seasons as head coach. The Demons won the Pontiac Game Changing Performance $100,000 general scholarship prize for the most spectacular play in the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern made four national television (CBS, ESPN2, ESPNU) appearances, let alone the cascade of national coverage during their NCAA Tournament run by the Demons of Destiny.
Each March, national media revisit the win over St. Patrick’s Day win over third-seeded Iowa, capped by Jermaine Wallace’s off-side rebound and fall-away 3-pointer from the corner with 0.5 left. It’s shown over and over on TV, and has continually been featured in lists of all-time NCAA Tournament great finishes and best NCAA games of the decade. In March 2011, an NCAAsports.com vote by fans tabbed the contest the greatest game in NCAA Tournament history.
Seven seniors graduated. For most programs it would be back to the drawing board at that point. For the Demons, it was back to more success in 2006-07 -- starting with a jam-packed Prather Coliseum for a season-opening smackdown of Utah State, and finishing a 3-pointer shy of another NCAA Tournament berth.
For the third straight year, NSU won an SLC title - this time the newly created SLC East Division crown. Again, the Demons were in the SLC Finals.
It was more déjà vu in 2008.
For the sixth time in nine seasons, and for the fourth consecutive year, the Demons reached the SLC Tournament championship game. Another nailbiting 3-point loss kept them from the Big Dance. But their SLC Tournament dominance was palpable to observers and the competition, who are wary of the Demons’ depth that makes them so formidable in the late-season and postseason play. That was borne out again in 2013-14.
Northwestern State posted its third 20-win season in nine years. Prather Coliseum was the least liked destination for Southland teams. March Madness again enveloped the NSU faithful, and in commencement exercises in December and May, Demon players marched in cap and gown -- a recurring theme that was one win shy of a repeat last season.
It’s all part of Coach Mike’s plan. And it’s a home grown product. McConathy has built with Louisiana players as about three-quarters of the Demons who have played for him are from the Bayou State.
That’s fitting. The McConathy family roots, and values, are deep in the red clay hills of north Louisiana, tracing back decades to his family’s farm in hilly Bienville Parish, where his father and uncles did their chores before they used horses and bicycles to make the six-mile plus trip to basketball practice and games.
During his days at Bossier Parish Community College, McConathy had chances to join his college teammate Tim Floyd as an assistant coach at Iowa State and possibly to the NBA, but it never came to pass. He couldn’t put a price tag on raising his boys around their grandparents and uncles and aunts in north Louisiana.
Now, as he’s brought Northwestern State basketball back, and even beyond to a level it reached when his father played for the Demons. His dad passed last spring, but his mother, Corene, will be watching her son’s team from across the court in Prather Coliseum again this season.
The transformation of Demon basketball has been accomplished. The challenge hasn’t ended -- competition never does -- but Mike McConathy has built a program solid enough that he was proud to have his own son as part of the team.
He’s smiling even more broadly nowadays. Michael and Logan graduated with honors after finishing five years in purple and white. But there still is a roster full of “Coach Mike’s boys” who don’t happen to be McConathys, just Demons.
Ask any of them, or their predecessors -- Demon basketball truly is a family thing.