DeKALB – He bought the tie seven months ago. Red and black, diagonal stripes, it sharply contrasted in a closet full of Michigan State green and white. Mark Montgomery thought it was perfect.
So just after being offered the Northern Illinois head coach job – before he and his wife even returned home – Montgomery stopped at an outlet store and bought his first piece of Huskie apparel.
“These are my new colors,” Montgomery said Tuesday, holding up his tie. “I’ve been wearing that green and white for so long, I hated red. Now I’m like, ‘Man, this looks kind of nice.’ It brightens up my mood.”
NIU’s first-year coach may have left his green and white in East Lansing, Mich., where he was a point guard in the 1990s and assisted Spartans coach Tom Izzo for 10 years. He’s hoping everything else that made those teams great, the details that led to a handful of Final Fours, will become Huskie basketball.
During Tuesday’s media day, Montgomery talked about toughness, work ethic, “rolling up your sleeves” each day in practice – the pillars of Michigan State’s program. Before Montgomery took the podium, second-year women’s coach Kathi Bennett explained the difference between her first and second seasons, how she feels there is an identity in place that didn’t exist a year ago.
This is the process Montgomery undergoes each day leading up to the Nov. 11 opener at Purdue. It will be fine-tuned ever after the season begins. But his players already seem to be catching on.
“I think we’re starting to get real comfortable with the new identity,” senior forward Tim Toler said. “Coach Montgomery, he’s really teaching defense tough. That’s the one thing we’ve been doing, day in and day out, we really don’t focus on offensive stuff as much because when you look at the guys on the roster – just from high school and previous years – you know we have the scorers.
“The defense is the biggest thing that is going to get us to where we want to go.”
That wasn’t said much last season. It certainly wasn’t executed on a team that was last of 12 in the Mid-American Conference with 73.3 points allowed per game. But players say there is a new philosophy, a new culture.
There also are personnel changes.
Toler, who has lost 45 pounds to drop his weight to 262, spent much of last season on the perimeter. Montgomery said he wants Toler to play 75 percent in the low post. Junior guard Antone Christian will play more at the point after spending last season off the ball.
But, until Montgomery’s players have a chance to grow in the program, there is only so much he can do with NIU’s personnel. Until then, attitude must lead the way.
“We talk all the time about being tight as a team, and being grimy on the court as far as defensively and rebounding,” Christian said. “Just because, right now, we’re talented but we probably don’t number up to the talent at the top tier of the MAC. So we’re just going to have to dig down, roll up our sleeves and do things the blue-collar way as far as working hard.”
As Bennett said Tuesday, an identity isn’t gained quickly. It takes time, an assertive effort.
Montgomery said he talked with his team Sunday night specifically about what the program’s identity will be. The conversation laid the foundation. Now, Montgomery said, it’s up to players to build on it.
“I told them I want our identity to be defense and rebounding, but the guys have to buy into that,” Montgomery said. “But our identity for sure is we’re going to play with a lot of energy. We’re going to play with a lot of effort. We’re going to be competitive.
“So gaining an identity that first year is going to be important, but as long as we are competitive, and we have competitive practices and guys are going after each other and challenging each other, our identity is going to start forming.”