MOREHEAD, Ky. – It might be time to give Bill Hodges the Satchel Paige line: Don't look back, Bill. Steve Prohm might be gaining on you.
Hodges was the rookie coach at Indiana State in 1978-79 who won his first 33 games, not losing until the national championship game. It helped that he had a kid named Larry Bird on the team.
Prohm is the rookie coach at Murray State who has won his first 19 games, the most recent being a hard-fought, 66-60 victory Wednesday night over rival Morehead State. Prohm isn't blessed with a Bird, though he does have a special point guard in Isaiah Canaan. And he has a team on a fairly amazing roll.
Prohm is believed to be on the best start to a head-coaching career of anyone since Hodges. Bill Guthridge won his first 17 games at North Carolina in 1997-98. Prohm Tennessee-waltzed past that Saturday by beating Tennessee Tech. Then he dispatched the Eagles. Next up is a visit to SIU-Edwardsville on Saturday.
If Murray wins out in the regular season, Prohm will be 29-0. If Murray wins the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, Prohm will be 32-0. If Murray wins two games in the NCAA tournament, Prohm will assign Hodges to the dust bin of history.
But don't mention those presumptuous propositions to Prohm. He's enjoying undefeated now. He doesn't want to even think of undefeated then.
"Our first goal is to win the Ohio Valley Conference championship," he said. "Second is to win the OVC tournament. Then advance as far as we can in the NCAA tournament.
"Great seasons, they develop."
[Recap: Murray State 66, Morehead State 60]
How great can this season be for Murray? That question remains intriguingly open-ended. Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall opined Wednesday night that this Racers team is not as good as the 2010 bunch that upset Vanderbilt in the NCAA tournament first round and took eventual national runner-up Butler to the brink in the second round. Nor does he think Murray is as good as Tyndall's own Morehead team last season, which beat Louisville in the round of 64. But if Murray gets back its best big man, Ivan Aska, who has missed five games and counting with a broken hand, Tyndall says that may change.
The important thing Wednesday was winning on the road against a rival, without Aska and without the Racers' "A" game.
On a night when Morehead State threw a raucous crowd, a problematic trapping zone and a blazing Drew Kelly (he made every field goal and every free throw he attempted for 20 points in 26 minutes) at the Racers, the Racers won anyway. On a night when Murray shot well below its season averages (43 percent from the field, down from 48; 28 percent from 3-point range, down from 42; and 68 percent from the line, down from 74), the Racers won anyway. On a night when they led for just 26 seconds in the game's first 33 minutes, the Racers won anyway.
Senior guard Donte Poole admits that at one point he thought, "Oh, man, are we going to dig in, or are we going to get our first loss?"
The Racers dug in, particularly veteran guards Poole and Canaan, with a big assist from fearless freshman guard Zay Jackson. Despite going a combined 10-of-26 from the floor, that trio combined to score Murray's final 31 points to pull the Racers out of a nine-point, second-half hole.
"They haven't cracked at all," Prohm said. "They haven't shown any jitters."
Neither has their coach. Even when Murray was on the ropes, Prohm was preternaturally calm on the sideline. He wouldn't call a timeout at gunpoint – didn't call one until the final minute, letting his team play through the rough patches time and again.
"He trusts us," said Canaan, who somehow scored 20 points on an off shooting night.
When Murray was down 5-2 at the first TV timeout, Prohm told his team, "Erase the first four minutes." When Murray was down 14-4 at the second TV timeout, Prohm told his team, "OK, erase the first eight minutes." He never yelled at his players.
"I'm not going to change my demeanor," he said.
[Slideshow: Murray State turns back Morehead State]
Low-key persistence has gotten him this far. Prohm once worked at a Blockbuster store to supplement his non-existent wages as a volunteer assistant, and once lived in the basement of a Centenary College dorm known as "the dungeon." But he hitched on with a winner in Billy Kennedy, working for him at Centenary, Southeastern Louisiana and then Murray State.
When Kennedy got the job at Texas A&M last spring, Prohm looked like the heir apparent at Murray. His interview with athletic director Allen Ward went five hours – but no offer came. Then he met with an assistant AD – but no offer came. Finally, after players went to bat for him, Ward met with Prohm and made him an offer on the spot.
It was accepted, and the rest is undefeated history. Now Murray State is dealing with more attention than it ever has received. This week alone, there was an all-access visit from ESPN, and The New York Times and multiple national media outlets were at this game.
"The best thing about this is what it means to the community of Murray," Prohm said. "They're having the time of their lives."
[Forde Minutes: Too many college hoops coaches set the wrong example]
Phil Martelli knows the feeling. The head man at Saint Joseph's is the last college basketball coach to navigate the regular season unbeaten, accomplishing the feat in 2004.
He remembers how fun it was. And how draining, as the national spotlight suddenly zeroed in on a somewhat out-of-the-way program.
"For a first-year coach to handle that?" Martelli said. "God bless him."
Steve Prohm feels pretty blessed as it is. He'll keep chasing Bill Hodges as long as he can.
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