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Northern Iowan

The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

Jacobson’s journey

A look into the accomplishments of men’s basketball Head Coach Ben Jacobson
Head Coach Jacobson is the winningest coach in the history of the Missouri Valley Conference.

When you think of UNI men’s basketball, there are several names that come to mind. Ali Farokhmanesh, Seth Tuttle, Paul Jesperson, AJ Green and a ton of other iconic players. Another  big name that comes to mind when you think of UNI men’s basketball could possibly be a coach. The man that was the mentor for all of these players is men’s basketball head coach Ben Jacobson. Jacobson, who has been UNI’s head coach since 2006, had a unique journey compared to other college basketball head coaches and started his career in an unlikely place.

Jacobson grew up in rural North Dakota, where he experienced an early love for all sports, taking a special interest in basketball. “We moved around a little bit,” he said, adding “I have a brother that is a year older and a brother that is a year younger.” “We were always doing something,” he reflected. “We were always playing something, and basketball was a big part of that.” Jacobson, along with his brothers and several friends, would always play basketball, no matter what time of the year it was.

Basketball has been a huge part of not just Jacobson’s life, but his family’s as well. “My dad played basketball and then he went on to referee when I was growing up,” he said. “He started to play city basketball so he would take us to those games with him,” he added. Jacobson would practice shooting a basketball on the side courts while his dad would play, and this sparked his love for the sport. 

After playing basketball in junior high and high school in Mayville-Portland, he got an opportunity of a lifetime. Jacobson received a scholarship to play basketball at the University of North Dakota in 1989, a Division II school at the time. “We had some great teams up there,” he said. “We won some championships and (I) made some of my bestest friends,” he added. Jacobson played for legendary head coach Rich Glas, who was the head coach from 1988-2006. One of his assistant coaches was former UNI head coach and current Creighton head coach Greg McDermott. In his playing career at North Dakota from 1989-1993, Jacobson was a two-year starter, two-year captain, set the school’s all time record for assists, was a part of two conference titles and helped North Dakota reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division II tournament twice.

After graduating from North Dakota in 1993, he decided to follow his dreams and begin a basketball coaching career. “My time playing high school, the later part of high school and then playing in college with the teammates and coaches that I had drove me to get into coaching,” he said. His coaching career would begin shortly after graduating from North Dakota. “When I finished playing, I was a student assistant with Coach Glas at North Dakota,” he said. “I was a graduate assistant for a couple of years and then I was able to get the full time assistant coach job with him,” he added. He was with Greg McDermott for one year at North Dakota State University as an assistant coach. One year later, he got offered a position that would change his life.

In 2001, McDermott was hired to be the head coach for UNI, and he offered Jacobson to be the assistant coach for the program. “We were working together when he got the head coaching job here,” he said. “I was able to come with him as his assistant coach and those were great times,” he added. The two coaches were together once again to lead a program that had just one NCAA tournament appearance since moving up to the Division I level in 1973. Little did Panther fans know that these two hires would turn the team’s fortune around.

When he first stepped onto UNI’s campus, he was blown away by the entire university. “I really enjoyed the first guys that I coached,” he said. “It was exciting because the University of North Dakota was a Division II school at the time, they’ve since moved to Division I. I was excited and anxious to see what the Division I level was like,” he continued. He was impressed with the facilities and the overall home-like feel of Cedar Falls. Jacobson and his wife got married the same year that he got the job at UNI. For the next four years, Jacobson would be an assistant to Coach McDermott’s Panther teams, where he led them to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2004-2006. Jacobson was UNI’s assistant coach from 2001-2006. Then in 2006, he would receive a chance to do something that he had never done before. Jacobson learned some valuable skills and keys to being a great coach from McDermott.

In 2006, Jacobson would get a chance to do something that he had never done before. After McDermott left to become the head coach at Iowa State, Jacobson was promoted to be the head coach of the UNI men’s basketball team. This would be his first head coaching job after spending 13 years as an assistant in various roles. When he took over, he made his priorities clear. “You’re digging to recruit and working to get young guys in here that want to be a part of this,” he said. 

When he got promoted to head coach, he had to face some new challenges that were unfamiliar to him. “The difference in responsibility is significant. You’re now responsible for everybody and everything and it’s awesome,” he said. “It’s one that I wouldn’t trade for anything. It’s so much fun to be a part of recruiting young guys of 16 and 17 years old and you have them until they’re 21 or 22,” he added. He makes it a priority that his players are ready for whatever they decide to do after they graduate, whether it’s playing professional basketball, beginning a coaching career or getting that dream job in their field. 

In his first season as head coach in 2006-2007, the Panthers finished 20-13 overall. This included winning his first career game as a head coach on November 12 vs Nicholls State, becoming the first UNI head coach to win their debut since Eldon Miller in 1986. The Panthers would lose in the quarterfinals to Bradley, capping off a great debut season for Jacobson. However, this was just the start for Jacobson and the Panthers. 

Three years later in 2009-2010, Jacobson would lead UNI to arguably the best season in school history. The Panthers would finish the season with just four losses and won the MVC Tournament for the second season in the row. They would be the No. 9 seed in the Midwest Region, the highest NCAA tournament seed in school history. The Panthers beat UNLV in Round One, then they pulled off a massive upset over top overall seed Kansas in Round Two. The season ended with a Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State, ending the season with a 32-5 record. This is still one of the best seasons in UNI Basketball history, with the Panthers getting their first NCAA tournament win since beating Missouri in 1990. 

Several of his players have gone on to big success after playing for UNI. Farokhmanesh, the hero of the team’s 2010 Sweet 16 run, is now an assistant coach at Colorado State. Seth Tuttle, the third all time leading scorer in UNI history, is currently one of Jacobson’s assistant coaches for the Panthers. AJ Green, one of the best players in program history, became the first UNI player to play for an NBA team. He is currently playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, where he is having a great season. “It’s been so much fun especially right before the all star break when he got in five to six games in a row,” Jacobson said. “I have loved watching my players thriving once they leave UNI and I’ve been so proud of each and every one of them,” he added.

Since becoming head coach, Jacobson has led the Panthers to four MVC Tournament Titles, four NCAA tournament appearances and four NCAA tournament victories. He also led the Panthers to becoming the first college basketball team ever to represent the U.S. in an international tournament in 2007. As for coaches he looks up to, he lists a couple along with Rick Glas. “McDermott would be one of them, playing for him has had the most impact on my playing career and coaching career,” he said. Jacobson is now not just the winningest head coach in school history, but now in MVC history, which he achieved on Jan. 20 against Southern Illinois. He said that the moment felt surreal and that there was pure joy in the locker room.

In regards to his future, he wants to stay at UNI until he decides to call it a career and wants to coach his son Hunter, who is a freshman on the team. He has some great advice for anyone that wants to get into coaching: “Keep working at it and it will take some time. Eventually, you will be able to reach your goals.”

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