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Phillips-to-Ohio hiring came together quickly

Saul Phillips teases North Dakota State University athletic director Gene Taylor from the podium on March 16 before the NCAA tournament announcement at the Bison Sports Arena. Phillips has stepped down as NDSU's men's basketball coach to take the same position at Ohio University. (David Samson / Forum News Service)

FARGO – In terms of hiring time, the Saul Phillips-to-Ohio University process was done in warp speed.

The Bobcats hired the North Dakota State head men’s basketball coach, making it official on Saturday night, just one day after the first contact from Ohio was made to Phillips’ agent. It happened so fast that when Phillips left for the Final Four in Arlington, Texas, on Wednesday, he had no clue that Ohio would even be in play.

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“No inkling whatsoever,” he said. “In fact I would have told you there was no chance I would be returning to Fargo not as the head coach at North Dakota State.”

It happened so fast that when he got a call from a search firm hired by Ohio prior to the Kentucky and Wisconsin semifinal game on Saturday and was told to go meet the Ohio athletic department personnel in downtown Dallas, he had no idea a deal would be done before the Wildcats edged the Badgers.

But by the end of the game, he had signed a letter of agreement. He has yet to formally sign his contract, which will pay him $550,000 annually for five years.

“It was clear I was targeted and they knew enough about me going into it,” Phillips said Sunday. “They just wanted to put a real person in front of them and see if I stood the eye test.”

He passed the test in the eyes of Bison fans, especially this year when NDSU went 26-7, won the Summit League tournament and defeated Oklahoma 80-75 in overtime in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Bison were eliminated two days later in the round of 32 by San Diego State, but it was obvious Phillips’ resume – 134-84 in seven years, including 75-45 in the Summit, and two NCAA appearances – would make him an attractive candidate.

It became real on Saturday. Phillips said he immediately called all of the Bison returning players and let them know of his intentions. The agreeing to the Ohio deal was easy, the spreading the news to his team was not.

“It ripped my guts out but they handled it unbelievably well,” Phillips said. “They are dedicated to staying together and moving forward with this thing in Fargo. They seem at peace with this and we decided we’ll race to see who gets into the NCAA tournament first.”

It’s the same message Bison associate head coach Dave Richman got. Richman said Sunday he will apply for the opening and hopes to sit down with NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor in the near future. Taylor said he hopes to move “quickly and efficiently” to name a replacement.

“I’m just ready to be a head coach,” said the 36-year-old Richman, who has been at NDSU for 11 years. “And not only a head coach but a head coach at your alma mater. Tim Miles laid the foundation, Saul built on it. I’ve seen their recipe, I’ve seen what they’ve done and I want to continue to build on that and do it the right way.”

The Ohio job came open when Jim Christian took the Boston College position, which was announced on Friday. Phillips said there were a few feelers from other schools about his interest, but the Bobcats were the first school to get serious. It didn’t take him long to reciprocate the interest because he already knew what the job entailed. He had already been to the Athens, Ohio, campus once as an assistant at Wisconsin and he knew where the program stood in the Mid-American Conference. OU is a successful program that annually contends for an NCAA berth reaching the Sweet 16 just two years ago. Christian was 49-22 in two years. Jim Groce, the Bobcats’ coach before that, is the head coach at Illinois.

Phillips isn’t the only public figure in the family. His wife, Nicole Phillips, writes a column for The Forum and is a former local television anchor.

“It’s really hard to leave Fargo,” Saul Phillips said. “Extremely hard.”

Jeff Kolpack
Jeff Kolpack covers North Dakota State athletics, the Fargo Marathon and golf for The Forum. His blog can be accessed at On the radio, Kolpack & Izzo sports talk show runs from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday morning. April through August, the WDAY Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack runs from 8-9 a.m.