Much More Than An Assistant

It shouldn’t have come as a major shock to anyone that the Northwest Missouri State University men’s basketball team won a record setting fifth conference championship.  Head coach, Ben McCollum and his All-American point guard, Justin Pitts will get a lot of the credit.

They deserve all the accolades that come their way.  It’s hard work to win one conference championship, let alone five in a row.  When 10,000 people come to a Northwest football game, a list of conference championships, along with other accomplishments are proudly and prominently displayed on the face of the press box.

Not many people notice the banner that hangs near the American flag in Bearcat Arena.  It’s just a small banner filled with numbers.  Those numbers represent all the accomplishments of the men’s basketball team.  It is very impressive, just like the football numbers that are much more visible.

There is one person who won’t get much credit with the media.  It’s a guy who has been with the basketball program longer than McCollum himself.  That person is assistant coach, Austin Meyer.  Austin was thrust into a major coaching position when recent Missouri Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Tappmeyer, named him as an assistant.

All those years of experience has made Austin a very valuable member of the team and coaching staff.  You won’t see his name much, but the when the Bearcats open play as the number one seed in the conference tournament in Kansas City, check out Austin.

I had an assistant like that once.  When I came to Northwest, I made a great hire when Angie Griffin agreed to be my assistant.  We had a lot of work to do to get talent on the Northwest campus.  We rolled up our sleeves and brought in the foundation that in the fifth year would win a conference championship.

Unfortunately, I lost Angie as an assistant after two years.  The assistant I hired didn’t work out and I had to let go after just one year.  I had just found a graduate assistant for the 2003-2004 season.  It was a different type of graduate assistant than most programs hire.  Lori Hopkins had been a high school head coach and a college assistant at Metro State in Denver.

When I let my assistant go, I knew I wanted to promote Lori as my assistant.  However, the college wouldn’t let me promote her to that status with no graduate degree.  They did allow me to find a second graduate assistant.

Lori had been Mike Power’s assistant coach at Metro State.  Jenny Putnam was about to become Mike’s graduate assistant at Bemidji State in the northern part of Minnesota.   It didn’t take much persuasion to get Jenny to come down south to Maryville.

My fourth year was crucial.  It had to be a turn-around year or the efforts that started with Angie Griffith may go wasted.  The kids we had recruited were now juniors and we had added a few transfers.  Things could have gone either way.

What I didn’t realize was how good of assistants I had, even if they were only earning the pay of free tuition and a little money to live on.  The team really grew that year.  We didn’t win any championships, but when we bowed out in a close game against nationally ranked Washburn in the conference tournament semifinals, Lori, Jenny and I knew better days were ahead.

Not all three of us would be at Northwest to see those productive years.  Jenny Putnam, after just one year as a graduate assistant, was offered an assistant job at Illinois State.  The NCAA I program was being led by first year coach, Robin Pingeton.  As Robin was building her staff, she called me asking about her former player at St. Ambrose, Jenny Putnam.  I had nothing but nice things to tell Robin.  Jenny not only went to Illinois State, but is now with Robin as she leads the nationally ranked Missouri Tigers.

Thankfully, Lori stuck around.  She would assist me for seven more years.  She was very popular with the players.  They felt comfortable bringing their troubles to her office.  It allowed me more time to construct practices and  develop a game plan.

Lori did much more than act as a counselor.  With her coaching help, we won the first conference tournament championship in 20 years and made an NCAA II National Tournament appearance.

There are many stories to be told about Lori.  She met her husband at one of our basketball camps.  Terry was the girls’ coach at Fairfax and had brought his team to our team camp.

Matt Gaarder still blames Lori for missing the part of the play when Meghan Brue hit a half court shot that allowed Northwest to upset the number one seeded West Texas A & M.  Now they sit the same bench for all Northwest home basketball games, trying to stay out of each other’s way.

After eight years, Lori left the team to become the Senior Women’s Administrator and Compliance Officer.  That didn’t stop her involvement with the women’s basketball program.

Without her influence, Gabby Curtis would have probably headed for home to Arizona after an average junior season at Northwest.  Instead, Lori not only got her stay but motivated her to play to her potential.  Gabby was the MIAA Player of the Year and the only first team All American in the women’s program at Northwest.  After that season, Lori made it possible for Gabby to stay two more years to complete her degree.  Then she would go home to teach at the reservation she graduated high school.

Lori will be recognized in the Maryville Daily Forum as an “Everyday Hero.”  I read it on Facebook today.  It’s an excellent article, but only tells a fraction of the story of just what an everyday hero Lori has been since coming to Maryville.  She was much more than an assistant.

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