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South Dakota State coach Scott Nagy: 'There's a lot of reasons why we're still here'

South Dakota State head coach Scott Nagy watches his players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Minnesota in Minneapolis, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015.
South Dakota State head coach Scott Nagy watches his players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Minnesota in Minneapolis, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. (Ann Heisenfelt / AP)

SPOKANE, WASH. — Scott Nagy was fresh out of college at a Division II school in Mississippi when he went to work as a graduate assistant at Illinois, where his father Dick spent 18 years as one of Lou Henson's assistants.

It was 1989 and the Fighting Illini featured a lineup that, for awhile, changed the way college coaches recruited. There was no true big man and every starter ranged in height between 6-foot-4 and 6-7.

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Behind the play of Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill, Steve Bardo and Kenny Battle, the Fighting Illini won the Midwest Regional over favored Syracuse to advance to the Final Four in Seattle, where it lost to Big Ten rival Michigan in the semifinals.

"We were such an athletic team," Nagy recalled earlier this week. "It was so much fun to watch them practice."

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Still, the younger Nagy wasn't sure he would follow his father into the family business.

"My dad tried hard to talk me out of coaching," Scott Nagy said. "When I went to college [at Delta State], he told me to major in business instead of education. Even the year at Illinois, I was a little unsure [about the future]."

More than a quarter-century later, Nagy is still coaching. The 49-year-old coach will lead 12th-seeded South Dakota State (26-7) into the Spokane Arena against No. 5 seed Maryland (25-8) Friday in an NCAA tournament first-round game.

Nagy's route to Brookings, S.D., started right after the 1989 Final Four, when another of Henson's assistants took the head coaching job at South Dakota State, then a Division II powerhouse. Nagy went there as an assistant, left in 1993 for Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and returned as head coach in 1995.

He has been there ever since.

"People ask me, 'Why have you been there that long?'" Nagy said. "And for a while I was fortunate to be here this long because when we made the transition from Division II to Division I, we had one of the best Division II teams in the country, but that transition really hurt us."

In the team's first three years as a Division I independent, the Jackrabbits were a disastrous 24-62. In its first three years in the Summit League, South Dakota State lost 20 or more games twice.

Nagy proudly points out that he is "one of the few coaches who have won 20 games, lost 20 games and won 20 games again at the same school." It's not that he hasn't thought about leaving, given the success the team had in making back-to-back NCAA tournaments in 2012 and 2013.

"I do think it's hard for coaches to stay at a place too long because even if you're successful you can make only so many friends," he said. "I've heard my dad would say, 'You need to get out of there because you're going to do nothing but make enemies.'"

The most interesting aspect to Nagy's longevity at South Dakota State is that he has never had more than a one-year contract, which is in accordance with state law regarding state employees.

According to Nagy, the same is true for football coach John Stiegelmeir and women's basketball coach Aaron Johnston, who have been at the school 19 years and 16 years respectively.

Nagy doesn't expect the policy to change unless one of them leaves and they try to attract another up-and-coming coach as they once were. Not that he expects to  be leaving any time soon, even if the Jackrabbits beat the Terps Friday.

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"When we came here, we had one child and he was 1 ½ years old, now we have five children, that's all they know," Nagy said. "There's a lot of reasons why we're still here. We like it and they [the administration] like what we're doing."

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