KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Missouri State was on the tail end of a loss to Nebraska in the Hall of Fame Classic but, as pep bands will do, the Bears musical contingent stuck with them. They sang John Denver. They sang Journey. They sang Baby Shark and when the Cornhuskers missed a free throw with under a minute left, they cheered wildly.
Their team was down by 25.
It was the biggest test early in the Bears’ first season under Dana Ford who, at 34 years old, is already in his fifth season as a Division I head coach. After engineering a turnaround at Tennessee State, he’s taken on rebuilding MSU, which hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1999, and is seven years removed from its last winning record in the Missouri Valley.
The Bears would lose their second game of the Hall of Fame Classic to USC, but Kansas City’s Sprint Center was right where Ford wanted to be.
“This is awesome for us. It’s a great facility,” Ford said following the Nov. 19 Nebraska game. “We need to be on this stage because we need to learn what it takes to be on this stage. [Nebraska’s] got a program and hopefully we can get ourselves there one day as well.”
Ford did just that at Tennessee State, setting up a 15-win turnaround between his first and second seasons. If he does something similar at MSU, he might have a frenzy on his hand that goes beyond a loyal pep band. MSU is located in Springfield, Mo., a town whose name the Simpsons made the gold standard of American anonymity. But the metropolitan region of over 500,000 has plenty that stands out, like being an Ozarks hub or the home of Bass Pro Shops.
It also knows how to throw waves of support behind a basketball program in ways few other communities can match.
Jackie Stiles knew her teammates would give her a hard time. It was unavoidable.
During the 2000-2001 season, the Missouri State senior guard was approaching history game by game. As she inched closer to Patricia Hoskins’ then-NCAA record 3,122 career points, the excitement surrounding her grew, at times to suffocating levels.
“It got to the point where our fans are just amazing and it was hard to warm up because people would come down and want autographs,” Stiles said.
So the university did something about it. When MSU took on rival Wichita State in late January, Stiles all of a sudden had a bonafide bodyguard by her side, earpiece and all. It stayed that way the rest of the season, which would end with the Lady Bears making their second Final Four appearance in nine seasons.
Stiles ultimately broke Hoskins’ record during an early March home game against Creighton in front of a capacity crowd. Though she said she was desperately trying not to focus about the record, the fans made it hard to think about much else.
“I could hear the fans counting, and loudly, not just one person, they were counting the points,” she said. “When I broke the record that was definitely a very special moment, I remember it being so deafeningly loud.”
Packed houses in Springfield weren’t limited to historic moments like that back then. Cheryl Burnett had spun up a dominant program in the early 90s, making five straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 1991-95, including a trip to the 1992 Final Four. The MSU community responded the following year, leading the nation in attendance by putting over 111,000 people through the turnstiles. Since then, only high major schools UConn, Tennessee, Ohio State and South Carolina have finished in that top spot.
Those electric atmospheres were one of the reasons Stiles committed to Burnett and MSU ahead of the 1997-98 season. She finished her career with 3,393 points, which would stand as the record until Washington’s Kelsey Plum broke it in 2017. But as a sophomore in 1999, she was just a fan of another skyrocketing MSU team. The men’s team, led by 35-year old coach Steve Alford, went to the Sweet 16, capturing some of that frenzy.
“The energy and enthusiasm around the community was electric and contagious,” Stiles said. “We experienced that and were like, ‘we want to do that.’”
Can Ford build a program that can tap back into that madness? Stiles, who is now an assistant with the Lady Bears and down the hall from the first-year head coach, has been impressed in the early going.
“I’m just blown away by his energy and his enthusiasm,” she said. “I am exhausted, I don’t know if I could survive one day in his life. How much he’s gotten out in the community, his energy and passion for the game, he’s a perfect fit for Springfield and Missouri State.”
That energy was apparent during Ford’s introductory press conference. He wasn’t shy when it came to fan support, challenging the MSU community to get behind his team.
“There’s a price to be paid,” Ford said. “There’s a price to be paid if you want to be a champion, if you want to be good. That goes for the fans, too. Your price to pay is a season ticket. That’s it. That’s easy. These guys are the ones paying the real price. They gotta give the blood, sweat and tears.”
Dwindling attendance had been a concern for the MSU administration during the Paul Lusk era, as the Bears’ per game average dropped by just over 3,000 fans over the former coach’s seven-year tenure. But the simple truth is that tickets get sold when there’s winning basketball on the court, and Ford may be off to an encouraging start in laying that foundation.
Ford’s first year at Tennessee State was spent breaking in a roster with scant Division I experience. Other than then-senior point guard Jay Harris, the rotation was made up almost entirely of freshmen and Junior College transfers. Understandable growing pains followed, as the Tigers finished 5-26, including just 2-14 in Ohio Valley play.
This put Ford’s career win-loss record in an early hole, something that MSU put in perspective when it hired a coach with a 47 percent career winning percentage.
“Not a lot of times will you have a president or an athletic director or a committee who will have enough courage to look past (a losing record) to hire someone, because of public opinion,” Ford said. “I think the Lord worked it out.”
Ford had begun digging out of that hole before it even existed. He landed a trio of impact transfers during that first offseason at Tennessee State who would spearhead a 15-win improvement in his second season. There was Tahjere McCall, who had been a bit player on a 26-loss Niagara team, but developed into one of the OVC’s best point guards. There was also Wayne Martin, who would be one of the league’s top rebounders over his two seasons in Nashville after transferring from St. Francis (NY).
Along with the players that had cut their teeth during that first campaign, McCall and Martin helped the Tigers go 29-21 in OVC play over Ford’s last three years in charge, and make a CIT appearance in 2016.
Despite a 3-4 start to the season, MSU has reason to believe a similar talent infusion is on the way in Springfield.
The Bears have given significant minutes to a number of newcomers over the season’s first three weeks. Keandre Cook and Kabir Mohammed — both Junior College signees — have fit the aggressive, free throw-hunting offense that Ford favors, with Cook especially thriving against high major defenses in the Hall of Fame Classic (21.5 PPG, 9-22 FT over the two games).
“It’s a good chance to learn with all these new guys that haven’t played at this level yet. It’s just good to play these type of teams to build it up for a long season in the Valley,” said senior Jarred Dixon — the team’s returning leading scorer — after the loss to Nebraska.
The Bears are also working in South Florida transfer Tulio Da Silva, who was recently declared eligible, and will get Jared Ridder — a Xavier transfer that signed with the previous staff — on the court in mid-December. Ford also locked up Nevada transfer Josh Hall and Middle Tennessee transfer Tyrik Dixon, who are both sitting out this season.
But the most encouraging movement for the long-term may be Ford’s early work in a region with under-the-radar prep talent. An instant after getting the job, Ford locked up a key local recruit in Springfield-native and three-star small forward Tyem Freeman, and would follow that up by signing Dajuan Harris, another in-state, three-star prospect.
That local prep momentum could be an avenue to sustainable success.
“The Ozarks is consistently producing multiple low- to mid- guys in every class, and it’s only getting better over the next three to five years,” said Jordan Burton, a Southwest Missouri-based college and prep basketball writer. “The area is eager to get back to those rabid fandom days. Dana Ford winning those recruiting battles to keep local kids will only help that cause.”
Whether Porter Moser knew it or not, he ended up talking about himself.
In an interview last Fall, the Loyola Chicago coach talked about why he wasn’t concerned about a league-wide drop off in the Valley after Wichita State’s departure to the American.
“We’re going to do it again,” Moser said. “Somebody is going to rise among these teams and the Valley will be back. I said this at media day, there will be teams and players that you’re not talking about that’ll be key guys you’re talking about at the end of the year.”
That team and those guys, as it turned out, were his Ramblers and their jaw-dropping run to the Final Four. It remains to be seen whether Loyola Chicago can catapult into a year-in, year-out power after that magical March, but through key transfers (Clayton Custer, Marques Townes) and local high school signees (Donte Ingram, Cameron Krutwig), Moser has put the program on solid footing.
It’s the same thing he tried to do as the coach at Illinois State from 2003-2007. For three of those seasons, he relied on a guard from from downstate Illinois that had signed with the previous staff: Dana Ford.
The still-astoundingly-young head coach will now try to be that next team to jump out of the Valley. If he can make that happen — something Lusk wasn’t able to do despite heavily-talented teams — there should be no shortage of noise in the Ozarks.
He may even need a bodyguard.