by Will Aubrey
I wrote this article two years ago for Basketball Times when they named Steve Prohm their National Coach of the Year.
March 7, 2012
You often hear coaches say, “That kid would run through a brick wall for me.” But if you talk to Steve Prohm's players they'll tell you that he would run through a brick wall for them.
“If he could put on a jersey he would get out there and play with us,” Isaiah Canaan said of the first year Murray State head coach. “He'll do anything he can for us. He loves us like we were all his sons.”
Prohm will tell you that's the foundation of all he does.
“Coaching is about relationships, relationships with my players, my staff, and people on campus and in the community,” he said. “I want our program to be like a family. I want my players to know I care about them and that's of the utmost importance to me. That's why I'm in this business.”
When Billy Kennedy left MSU for Texas A & M last May the Racers hired Prohm, his long time assistant, to take his place. What happened next was like something out of a dream.
After being picked third in the Ohio Valley Conference at the beginning of the season, Prohm led the Racers to 23 straight victories as Murray State was the last unbeaten team in the nation. At one point they were ranked 7th in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll. They enter the NCAA tournament with a 30-1 record and are ranked 10th by the coaches and 11th by the Associated Press. They have been ranked for 14 consecutive weeks.
Murray State finished the season with the most road wins of any team in the country and they are 3-0 against the top 35 teams in the RPI.
So it shouldn't be surprising that Prohm is Basketball Times' choice for National Coach of the Year.
“It's an extremely humbling honor,” he said when told of his selection. “I'm thankful for having the opportunity to work at a tremendous school like Murray State. And for having a talented group of players and a great staff. This wouldn't have been possible without them.”
Although Prohm had been at MSU for five years, his assistants were all new and he had five new players coming in. He knew it would take time to get everyone on the same page. So he scheduled an August trip to Canada to help the players and coaches get to know each other.
“It was great to go up there and have a lot of fun with our guys and really get to know them,” he said. “But it was also fun to finally get to coach. Even though it was in Canada it's only natural to be nervous when it's your first game. And those nerves subsided a little in our second and third games up there. But the main thing was the fellowship.”
Prohm learned his craft under Kennedy and he retained his mentor's emphasis on defense. But he tweaked the offense a little. He emphasized scoring in transition even if that meant taking an open three-pointer. He also used more ball screens and called more plays in the flow of the game.
Those changes paid immediate dividends as the Racers started 4-0, scoring 80 points twice in that span. The fourth victory came at UAB where they won 62-55 after trailing by 12 points with 10 minutes to play.
“I called timeout and I told them they could either get beat by 20 or they could make it a game,” Prohm recalled. “Then we started to play defense, started to make some shots, and before you knew it we were back in the game.”
Three days later the Racers were in Anchorage, Alaska playing in the Great Alaska Shootout. And after a 90-81 double-overtime victory over Southern Mississippi in the title game, Prohm knew he had something special.
“That game told me a lot,” he said. “We led the whole way. We were up big at halftime. Then they came back and took the lead in the first overtime. But we were resilient and managed to send it into a second overtime and then win the game. After that I knew we had a chance to be very, very good.”
The Racers broke into the top-25 after beating #21 Memphis on the road on December 11. A 73-40 victory at Eastern Illinois on December 30 pushed their record to 14-0 but starting center Ivan Aska broke his hand in that game and would miss the next six games. Surprisingly, Murray State didn't miss a beat.
“When Ivan got hurt we had to change things a little,” Prohm said. “We had been playing with two posts and we went to one post with four out and one ball-screener. And our players adapted and made it work.”
As the wins piled up people started to take notice. Suddenly, every game was a sell-out, both on the road and at home. The national media found its way to Murray and the students started a campaign to bring Dick Vitale to town. On February 18 they got their wish as Vitale came to cover the Racers' Bracket Buster game against St. Mary's.
Students camped out overnight and rushed into the CFSB Center to get a good seat as soon as the doors opened. Inside it was a zoo, with signs, bigheads, and people in costume everywhere you looked.
On the floor, Murray State showed it was for real by beating the 21st ranked Gaels 65-51 as Canaan hit 9-of-13 shots and scored 23 points.
MSU's lone defeat came at home against Tennessee State. But they avenged that loss by beating the Tigers by 18 on the road. Then they beat them 54-52 in the OVC championship game.
Prohm was named OVC Coach of the Year and his players all but swept the league's end of season awards. Canaan was named Player of the Year. Jewuan Long was named Defensive Player of the Year. Donte Poole was named MVP of the OVC tournament. And Canaan, Poole and Aska were named to the all-conference team.
But numbers aside, if you want to know what makes Steve Prohm a success, listen to Donte Poole, “He's honest, loyal, and emotional. He'll tell you how he feels and he means it. If he's mad about something he's going to let you know. But he also lets you know when you've done something good. And if he wants to cry he's going to cry. But he would do anything in the world for us.”
That kind of devotion is both rare and powerful.