When his North Dakota State Bison got knocked out of the tournament after upsetting Oklahoma in the first round, Phillips cried on the podium. Not because his team wasn't good enough but because he wasn't going to get to coach his group of six seniors again.
"Got to watch a group of guys that deserved it and wanted it so bad and made it a priority in their life and did everything I asked them to do. This season - wow," Phillips said after the Bison's loss to San Diego State.
Sometimes you can just tell when a coach is special. Phillips has all the makings of being that.
When a coach connects with his players so profoundly that it brings him to tears, well, Phillips put it best - wow. His next group of players is noticing that too.
Watching videos of Coach Phillips.. Love his passion for the game and his players.. Seems like a great hire for us #BobcatNation
— Treg Setty (@Treginometry) April 6, 2014
That's already a good sign.
Jim Christian, who departed Athens for an ACC job with Boston College, did a fine job with the Bobcats. Many didn't like his hire or his tenure but he won 49 games in two seasons. That's far from mediocre and a resume strong enough to capture a power conference school's attention.
However, something tells me we may look back at this as a blessing in disguise, similar to when former Ohio coach Tim O'Shea bolted for another opportunity on the east coast.
As with Christian's departure, the news of O'Shea leaving came out of left field (more so because it was for Bryant University and not a prestigious, northeast gig O'Shea had been rumored to desire). Whatever the reason or feeling in the aftermath, O'Shea's exit opened the door for John Groce's entrance and two of the most magical runs in program history.
Groce was a young, hungry assistant replacing a guy whose resume reeked of a MAC lifer. Most of us knew that Groce, if he reached his potential, was not going to be Ohio's head coach for an extended period of time. Reaching the Sweet 16 meant Groce's profile rose even higher, even sooner and earned him a Big Ten job with Illinois.
Christian's hire was a contrast to Groce. No doubt the former Kent State coach had the MAC pedigree and track record but his return to the MAC only four years after his departure was an interesting development.
By no means do I think Christian is a bad coach, as some have made him out to be. I don't think he's a traitor or a liar for taking the BC job after only two years with the Bobcats. This happens in college sports. As Jason Arkley aptly wrote in his piece examining Christian, I don't think he was duplicitous.
However, my biggest concern with Christian was one that presented itself again in Athens. Despite all of his regular season success, Christian's teams never found that March magic that catapults a coach to prominence. Those six 20-win Kent State squads made only two tournaments and were bounced both times in the first round. The best one, the 28-7, 2007-8 Flashes, were a No. 9 seed in the tournament, very high for a MAC champion. Yet, they had a historically bad, embarrassing 10-point first half in a loss to UNLV after a historically impressive season complete with a major Bracketbuster win on the road vs. top 25 St. Mary's.
The ability to conjure that magic has just been missing for Christian. You really can't qualify why but, like Groce, Phillips has proven he too has it. He brought his Bison to the dance in their first year as a Division I program and then led them to a tourney win four years later.
Christian still has zero NCAA Tournament victories to his name. That's a stat that's hard to argue or shake.
Phillips may not have the recruiting ties in the region that Christian had but he has a proven capacity to build something from the ground up. If he does it right in Athens, we may very well have another coaching search in a few years. And that's OK.
Athletic Director Jim Schaus knows how to hire these guys. Phillips may or may not be another Gregg Marshall, who Schaus tabbed as Wichita State's head coach and has created a serious contender, but we should have faith in Schaus to continue to make the right call in advancing the program.