Jacobson’s passion remains strong in year 14


Courtesy Photo/UNI Athletics

JACOB POTTER, Sports Editor

UNI men’s basketball head coach Ben Jacobson has been an integral part of winning an ESPY, along with leading multiple NCAA Tournament runs, but what drives the veteran coach in year 14 at the helm is making a profound impact on the players on and off the court.

“‘What can I do and what can our staff do to help get these guys in a position, whether it’s with basketball, in the classroom or as they get older with getting ready for being done and graduating?,’” Jacobson said.  “When they leave here, ‘What can we do to help them grow and help them accomplish the things that they want to accomplish?’”

Jacobson’s role as an influential mentor was best exemplified back in the 2009 Missouri Valley Conference championship game when Jacobson shared an emotional moment with Kwadzo Ahelegbe. 

Courtesy Photo/Panther Sports Talk

The savvy starting point guard fought through back-to-back shoulder injuries with the culmination of his comeback being UNI taking down Illinois State 60-57 in the MVC title game behind 17 points from Ahelegbe.

“One of the neatest things I’ve been a part of as a coach was the hug that we shared at that moment and the tears; it was really, really special,” Jacobson said.  “He knows I love him and I would not have wanted anyone else in that spot during his years here.”

Jacobson’s passion for the game goes back to playing high school ball in Mayville, N.D., a small town an hour northwest of Fargo. 

Courtesy Photo/Forum of Fargo-Moorhead

Despite being named North Dakota Mr. Basketball in 1989, Jacobson’s humble nature shined through as he found continued success at the University of North Dakota, ultimately earning the starting point guard spot in his junior and senior years. 

Courtesy Photo/North Dakota Athletics

“Oh boy, describe the way I played,” Jacobson said with a smile while reminiscing.  “Maybe this will shed a little light on some of the things we do as a program. I wanted to guard the best player and I wasn’t concerned about if I scored or didn’t score.”

Jacobson’s approach to defense and unselfish nature are trademarks of past and present Panther teams as two of the program’s cornerstones are stifling defense and seamless ball movement.  

To get an idea of how Jacobson played the game, there are a few former Panthers that compare, “Matt Bohanon but he was a way better shooter than I was, but the rest of the things that he was doing would line up pretty well,” Jacobson said.

Courtesy Photo/UNI Athletics 

“Johnny Moran a little bit.  I thought I was tough but I wasn’t as tough as Johnny.  Johnny is as tough a guy as we ever had. I thought about the game the same way Johnny did and I approached it the same way he did.”

Courtesy Photo/UNI Athletics

The North Dakota native’s leadership skills were also honed early on as a team captain, along with leading the team in assists to end his career as the all-time assists leader in UND history.

“Providing some leadership offensively and then really defending, that’s where I felt like I could have the most impact, so I took a lot of pride in that,” Jacobson said.

“I did everything I could to make it competitive, but make that team stronger because I don’t think there’s anything better than being a part of a team.  I absolutely love being part of a team.”

The 1993 UND graduate’s drive to be part of a team and leadership qualities led to a natural transition as an assistant coach for his alma mater’s basketball program.  Jacobson started his coaching career as an assistant coach from 1993-2000 at UND, followed by a short stint an hour down the road at North Dakota State.

Jacobson went with Greg McDermott, his former coach at UND, to NDSU before McDermott returned to his alma mater, UNI, to take over as the new head coach in 2001.  Jacobson was McDermott’s right-hand man as an assistant coach at UNI from 2001-2006.

Courtesy Photo/Des Moines Register

“We had known each other for a long time and went through all kinds of things,” Jacobson said.  “We had become best friends and I’m very thankful that he asked me to become a part of his staff.”

In 2006, McDermott became Iowa State’s head coach with former Athletic Director Rick Hartzell handing over UNI’s head coaching reigns to Jacobson after 13 years of paying his dues as an assistant.

“That was a really special moment and to have someone believe in you and show it in the way of naming you the head coach of a program,” Jacobson remarked.    

“To have Rick Hartzell put his faith in me and let everybody know that he believed I was the best person for the job at that moment is something that I’ll never forget.  I won’t ever be able to thank him enough for that. Mostly, for me, that Rick Hartzell believed in me. That’s really powerful.”

Since then Jacobson’s success has been well documented, from the Sweet 16, four NCAA Tournament appearances and defeating top programs like North Carolina and Kansas.

Courtesy Photo/UNI Athletics

Now with more years as a head coach than as an assistant, Jacobson has set a high standard in year 14 looking forward.

“After 2010 we’ve talked about that there’s three games we haven’t played in: the Elite Eight game, the Final Four and the National Championship,” Jacobson noted.  “Let’s get a group put together and let’s do the things we do, which is everyday let’s work hard.”

Competing at the highest level in college basketball is the goal, but what drives Jacobson is the grind to get better every day and enjoying the camaraderie of the team.

“I love being around the guys at practice, really enjoy being with them when we travel, really enjoy game nights with them,” Jacobson said.

Courtesy Photo/UNI Athletics

“When I talk about the guys it’s seeing their success. I enjoy their successes and I love it when you see it in their eyes that they know they’ve accomplished something.  For me, that’s something that drives me every single day.”