Basketball enabled 1968 Ferris graduate Dennis Phillips an opportunity to circle the globe as a player; to become a coach, educator and administrator privy to the mire of collegiate sports.
As faculty athletic representative for the University of Southern Mississippi he spends time reconciling two divergent worlds – the athletic tail that wags the collegiate dog juxtaposed with a university’s mission to educate.
It’s been a fascinating journey.
Phillips was born into a family whose tallest parent stood 5-foot-8. He can’t explain why he eventually stood 6-8 as one of the tallest to play high school basketball in Spokane.
“It was either paint ceilings or play basketball,” quipped Phillips, who came home not long ago to visit his mother, Dorothy.
His dad, Roger, recognized potential and, as the owner of Inland Empire Toys, made sure his son had the accoutrements to succeed. He built a backyard basketball court that, Phillips duly noted with typical humor, his sister once turned into an ice skating rink.
By his senior year he made All-City and just missed winning the scoring title (by a point with a 16.9 average) and broke records for free throws made in a single season (129) while shooting 83 percent from the line. In one game he went 18 of 22.
It earned Phillips a ride to Montana State, but a coaching change sent him west to play ball and complete college at Pacific Lutheran.
He would ultimately earn his master’s degree from Whitworth and doctorate from Springfield College in Massachusetts, the birthplace of James Naismith’s basketball.
Before that, the world beckoned and he witnessed firsthand the sport becoming an international phenomenon.
“I played overseas for several years with a group called Sports Ambassadors,” he said. “I’ve seen 24 countries. It was a life-changing experience.”
Contacts led him into college coaching at the NAIA and NCAA Division II levels, spending several years as head coach at Western Baptist, where he met his wife, Lenora. They have two daughters.
The next logical coaching step, he said, was a move to D-I, but he demurred.
“I had a lot of friends who were never home (because they) were on the recruiting trail all the time,” Phillips explained. “There were many divorces, drug and alcohol problems. That was not the kind of situation I wanted to get into.”
He arrived at Southern Miss in 1992 and is a tenured professor of human performance and recreation.
The Golden Eagles just missed making the NCAA tournament with a two-overtime loss to Memphis – which, like Gonzaga, is a team Phillips follows closely – in the Conference USA tourney finals and played in the second round of the NIT Monday night.
“It was a place I’d never been, located in a place called the pine belt,” he said, adding in jest, “There’s no cotton and everybody has shoes.”
Phillips wanted to stay close to basketball and has worn myriad sporting hats in 20 years at Southern Miss as teacher, clinician, author of books on a wide range of related topics, and as the school’s faculty athlete representative.
“I wouldn’t change things for a minute,” Phillips said of his life. “I’ve seen the world from the benefit of a little orange ball.”