- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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As he surveyed the bustling scene in a ballroom at Chelsea Piers, Greg McDermott resembled a linebacker on the hunt for quarterbacks more than a basketball coach.
The 6-foot-8 leader of Creighton's burgeoning program has that Dick Butkus jawline. Put a throwback jersey on him, and he'd blend perfectly with the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s.
But during the Big East Conference's media day in New York City earlier this month, his solemnity belied his broad frame as he reflected on the father-son relationship that ultimately converted the Bluejays from a cute and cuddly mid-major team to a contender for the inaugural title in the new conference.
It's imprudent to credit Doug McDermott alone for the wealth that Creighton has enjoyed since he arrived in 2010. That year, Doug nearly redshirted his freshman season -- on his father's team. Now, a definite national player of the year candidate, entering 2013-14 after averaging 23.2 points per game (49.9 percent from beyond the arc) and 7.7 rebounds per game last season. And he's doing it all under Greg's tutelage.
Their collective ability to balance the relationship that parent/coaches and player/children often mismanage is as critical to Creighton's rise as the range and rebounding ability that have made Doug one of the best college basketball players in the country.
The coach paused and lowered his head as he looked across the room at Doug and considered their journey together.
Yes, the success is enjoyable, but at the same time, he's still just Dad to the All-American who anchors his program.
"With each passing year that I've coached Doug, I've just become more and more cognizant of the fact that he needs me to be his dad at times, too, and not wear that coach's hat all the time," Greg said. "I want him to be able to come out to the house and know that he's not going to get grilled by me for missing three block-outs in practice that afternoon."
While Nick McDermott -- Doug's brother -- played video games, Doug would spend the day near a rim. A bouncing basketball was the percussive rhythm of his youth.
The middle child in the family, Doug was a shy kid. His mother, Theresa, said he was easy to please. Just give him a ball and a hoop and he was happy.
"I remember the day I told him to stop dribbling in the house," she said. "Thank goodness he never listened to me."
As Doug began to embrace the game, Greg played the role of a cautious father, not a college basketball coach. It's a delicate line.
He wanted Doug to love the game because of his passion, not because his father had lived it. Greg played basketball for Northern Iowa before he entered coaching.
But he was always deliberate about ensuring his relationships with his children -- he has a teenage daughter too -- weren't reliant on sports.
"I was a believer when Nick and Doug were young that I wasn't going to force them into basketball," he said. "I wanted them to like basketball because they really liked it, not because I wanted them to like it."
But basketball eventually became a passion for Doug, who was overshadowed at Ames High School in Ames, Iowa, by Golden State Warriors standout Harrison Barnes. At one point in his prep career, he was barely a top-five player in his own school.
Doug improved. Quickly. He was good enough to earn a scholarship to play for his father's alma mater, but when Greg left his post at Iowa State to accept Creighton's offer prior to the 2010-11 season, Doug decided to follow his father.
That season, Doug emerged as a star on Creighton's roster, even though his father had considered redshirting him. He averaged 14.9 PPG and 7.2 RPG.
And that's when the challenges began for father and son -- coach and player.
Doug had never viewed Greg as a coach. So he had to adjust. And Greg wanted to show the rest of his roster that he wouldn't give his son any special treatment. Both struggled with the switch.
In a home loss to Wichita State during the 2011-12 season, Greg and Doug had a memorable, fiery exchange on the sideline. Greg screamed at Doug, who went nose-to-nose with his coach. Hours later, the father-son spat had gone viral.
"It got a lot more attention than it needed to," Greg said. "It was just an attempt by me to get our best player to ratchet up his game in hopes that me jumping our best player would get everybody to say, 'All right, I'd better get myself going if he's being that hard on Doug.' … I had to deal with Mom when I got home. That's part of it."
The family has a rule now: Basketball stays at the gym. Theresa has helped the family stick to that mantra throughout the years. When Doug needs to vent about something that happened at practice, he calls his mother and they discuss the matter in confidence.
"I think at first, just from talking to Doug, he was used to my dad being his dad," said Nick McDermott, Doug's brother. "He wasn't used to getting yelled at. I think it was tough his freshman year trying to get used to looking at Dad as coach and not my dad."
Greg escapes the pressures of the hardwood by playing golf with his sons. On the course, Doug jokes with Greg because he's the biggest guy in the family but he can't outdrive his sons.
It's a necessary diversion for all.
During a summer trip to Mexico, Doug and Greg debated only about whether the family should go to the beach or the resort's pool.
Defensive drills and jump shots can wait, they've learned.
"Off the floor, they're still father and son," Creighton senior Grant Gibbs said. "It's not an easy thing to do. … They've done a great job of balancing it."
Added Doug: "It's just been great. A great three years."
At Big East media day, Doug was a rock star trapped in a stream of meet-and-greets. He did not shy away from the multitude of interview requests. He simply retold the stories he's recited for the past three years. Most queries were associated with the fairy-tale plotline of a former potential redshirt-turned-All-American on his father's Division I squad or his decision to come back for his last season.
Doug, who has earned an assortment of individual awards, will turn pro soon. There will always be room in the NBA for a 6-8 forward who makes half of his 3-point attempts.
But Doug does not carry the diva persona that sometimes hinders young stars. He's personable and approachable, a young man who strives to remain humble.
"For our team, I don't think there's a better guy to have the spotlight on him because that stuff doesn't matter to him," Gibbs said.
Doug didn't have to come back. He wavered in the weeks prior to his final decision. But he was unsettled about departing prematurely as his team began its tenure in a new league.
"If it were the Missouri Valley, I don't know if I would've come back," he said. "This is the way I have to go out."
Plus, Doug knew that the 2013-14 campaign offered unique possibilities. With Gibbs back for a sixth season, Creighton will possess one of the most experienced crews in the new Big East, a league that provides a stage that Doug, Greg and the rest of the Bluejays have always desired.
This season is the culmination of an ambitious goal that has transformed Doug's life and an entire program.
"Deep down in my gut, I felt like I owed it to Creighton University and the fans, not just Creighton, but college basketball in general," he said. "I feel like a lot of guys leave for the NBA for the wrong reasons and maybe, just for the money, and I feel like there's so much more to my decision to come back."
The trek will end with a father and a son who've successfully deciphered difficult terrain. It didn't start that way. But Greg and Doug matured together and became a tandem that has contributed to Creighton's ascension.
It's impossible to separate the two as their next chapter begins.
Doug's return is centered on the things he wants to do for everyone else.
That's Doug. The guy who decided to give the program he loves one more season. The young man who'd rather hang out with his teammates than live in the spotlight. The athlete with an improbable tale that Hollywood couldn't script. The likely first-round pick who told the NBA to wait because college life would not.
But he's also a son. And this season, he hopes to leave his father's program in a healthy state as it begins life in a major conference.
"It's hard to think about because so much has happened and it has all happened so fast," he said. "I'm just enjoying the ride. I'm just really thankful for being able to play for him and having my family at my games and being able to play in front of a great fan base."
Without Doug, the Bluejays wouldn't be in the Big East. Without Greg recognizing the difference between the son he had to raise and the player he could become, Doug would have never carried Creighton there.
"Obviously, there were some rocky times early as we both tried to figure out how this whole dynamic is going to work," Greg said. "Since that time, it's been absolutely incredible. I think it's something that even 10 years down the road we're going to look back on and probably enjoy it and cherish it more than we do today."