Long before he went dancin’, he went dancing.
Before he led Wright State to The Big Dance — Thursday’s NCAA Tournament game against Tennessee in Dallas — Scott Nagy was struggling through a tough stretch in his coaching career at South Dakota State University, a stretch that eventually would have him doing everything from hip hop to 1960s dances like The Twist, The Pony and The Hully Gully.
During a span of six straight losing seasons – from 2004 to 2010 – his teams had years when they won as few as six games and lost 24, 21 and 20 twice.
“People were calling for my head,” he said. “In terms of coaching, it was obviously the hardest time in my life.”
He had won big earlier in his career and then when he wasn’t, he was thrown for a loop.
“I had just started to identify myself with winning all the time,” he said Wednesday before his team held a public workout at the American Airlines Center, home of the NBA Dallas Mavericks. “And all of a sudden I wasn’t winning and I felt like a loser.”
The SDSU Jackrabbits – which he had led to eight NCAA Tournaments in nine years when they were a Division II program – had moved up to the D-I level and immediately struggled.
“He didn’t have an assistant, didn’t have a league, didn’t have (D-I caliber) players,” said his dad, Dick, a longtime college coach who spent 17 years as an assistant at Illinois and another five at UIC.
“They travelled all over the country playing the big people and would get beat by 30 and 35 points. They got beat down before they ever got to a part of the season where they had a chance to win a game.
“It was a tough time.”
Scott’s wife, Jaime, agreed:
“It was awful. I remember not reading the newspaper back then. He had some bad press.”
In hopes of getting some good ink, she said he agreed to be part of a Dancing with the Stars competition at South Dakota State.
“He was asked to be the celebrity dancer,” Jaime said with a laugh Wednesday as she watched her husband and the WSU team take the practice floor. “Back then he was willing to do anything to keep people alongside us and to keep the support of the fans and the students.
“I helped him, but he actually is a good dancer. He did hip hop. They had him do a contemporary piece that he just hated. He did a Hairspray number. It was hilarious.
“He said it was like an out of body experience. But… he won.
“That’s an example of what you’re willing to do when things are real low.”
Nagy did a lot more than just dance.
He soon had the Jackrabbits winning 27, 25, 24 and 26 games in a season. They made the NCAA Tournament in 2012, 2013 and again in 2016.
That success got him to Wright State last year as Billy Donlon’s replacement and this season the Raiders are 25-9. He was named the Horizon League Coach of the Year and WSU is playing in its first NCAA Tournament in 11 years.
A better coach
“The thing with Scott is that he’s spiritual,” his dad said. “He believes in God. He relies in God and when things were bad, he trusted God.
“Now I’m not saying he was Job, but it was the same kind of situation. He was being tested and he had to believe in the Lord.”
And he had to believe in himself, as well.
“He had been successful before and you don’t just forget how to coach,” Dick said.
But he did have to rethink his job, Scott said:
“We had won 80 percent of our games at the Division II level. In terms of percentages, I was one of the top coaches in the country. It was almost easy.
“And when we made the transition it became very difficult. We couldn’t keep players. We’d have them one or two years and they’d transfer.
“But all that made me a much better coach. When winning was easy, I didn’t have to do much. But then all of a sudden I had to start coaching because we were playing people that had better players than us. I had to figure out how to be better at strategy, the Xs and Os part of the game and so it helped me.
“One thing I had always told our players was that whether you win or lose, it doesn’t say anything about who you are. It was easy for me to say, but I didn’t feel that way (about myself.) And so I had to readjust some things in my own life.”
He drew on those lessons again this season when the Raiders suffered some numbing losses early on.
Ryan Custer, a promising 6-foot-7 forward, injured his spinal cord in a swimming pool accident and was left wheelchair bound.
Last year’s leading scorer, Mark Alstork, transferred to Illinois and senior stalwart Justin Mitchell quit the team halfway through the season.
The Raiders started the season 0-3.
Although Nagy told the players they could turn their fortunes around, senior leader Grant Benzinger admitted Wednesday: “Some of us didn’t believe when we were 0-3.
“Then I would say around the Georgia Tech game, when we beat them, we really bought in. And ever since then it’s been a completely different team, a different mindset, a different attitude.”
The team – with Custer and his fight to be courtside at practices and games as the inspirational lesson that fuels his teammates – “has great chemistry,” Dick Nagy said. “They love each other. There’s no jealousy. They don’t care who gets the credit.”
The result is an expanded outlook said junior guard Mark Hughes:
“Now we know this shouldn’t just be a once-in-11-years thing. Why not every year, just like Coach Nagy has been saying?”
Knowing what’s important
In Dick Nagy’s 17 years at Illinois, the Illini went to 14 NCAA tournaments and the Final Four in 1987.
“I’d say people are more conservative, they play more carefully in the tournament,” he said. “And regardless of what everyone says about not getting tight everyone does.”
To that point, it helps that his son has taken three previous teams to the NCAA Tournament. Although each trip – playing name opponents like Baylor, Michigan and Maryland – ended up as a first-round loss, he has learned what’s important.
That was never more evident than Tuesday when the Raiders’ trip from Dayton to Dallas was plagued by delays.
They waited for almost two hours for a plane and a pilot just to leave Dayton, said one school official.
There was trouble loading Custer and his wheelchair onto the plane and then more trouble getting him into the team bus in Dallas for a trip to Southern Methodist University for a private practice.
It took almost an hour to get the automatic wheelchair lift on the bus to go down. Finally the team transferred to another bus.
As the ordeal went on, Scott Nagy said he could see Ryan’s parents were troubled that they were holding up the works:
“I think the family got a little uptight because they were affecting our schedule. They were starting to get upset and I just went back and said, ‘Look, if everything was screwed up because Ryan was with us, we would rather have him with us. If we have to miss practice it doesn’t matter.
“’We would rather have everything go wrong because we have Ryan with us than everything go perfectly and not have you here.
“’I just want you to relax and know we’re thrilled to have you here.’”
When it comes to The Big Dance, Scott Nagy knows all the right moves.
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