McConathy left his best to a game that said goodbye

When Mike McConathy announced his retirement Monday after 23 years as head basketball coach at Northwestern State, it wasn’t because he wanted to leave the game.

Instead, the game had already left him.

With the speed-of-light institution of the transfer portal and NIL deals, players can skip from one school for another in an instant, in theory for more playing time or more NIL incentives.

The college basketball game we grew up with has left. Gone as a wild goose in winter.

We’re not blaming players. We’re just sending up a flare that the rules are different, which means the reality involving college competition is different. Drastically.

If you’re a coach whose foundation, whose plan for success, is building relationships, is building teams, the odds have turned against you.

If you’re that coach at a lower-profile school — say, for instance, Mike McConathy — and you were already at just a bit of a budget disadvantage, what can you do when the green backs on the other side of the fence look all that much greener than before? How can you coach up a freshman or sophomore, knowing that he could be playing against you the very next year?

It’s hard for a coach to build a relationship with a player and build a team around players when the only guy who plans to stick around is … the coach.

For 23 years.

And so, like everything else, the game changes.

But McConathy hasn’t. And that’s a good thing.

You’ll read and hear and see a lot about his playing and coaching records in the next few news cycles. If you don’t know a lot about McConathy since the Demons have been down recently, you’ll be impressed.

And if you’ve been a fan all these years, you’ll be re-impressed. No one has won more college games in Louisiana than he has so … there’s that.

But no one coaches all the time. They have to leave the court or field or track at some point and be like the rest of us. They have to go to the grocery store or doctor or to church.

And that brings us to the beautiful thing about McConathy: he is as approachable today at 66 and as the winningest college basketball coach in state history as he was as a high school All-America player at Airline High in Bossier City and an All-America guard at Louisiana Tech.

Maybe a little shy and as unassuming as an athletic guy who stands 6-foot-3 can possibly be, McConathy has nonetheless always been about relationships.

He, a brother and two sisters were raised by servant-leader parents, a couple who gave themselves to educating young people, either in grade school or Sunday school. The reddish hair and boyish face and “Aw shucks” vibe — either implied or imagined — earned him the nickname “Opie,” the pure and innocent young star of The Andy Griffith Show he grew up with.

Whether he likes it or not, it fits. Which brings us up against what so much of life is, a sort of paradox, maybe an enigma. Either way, a semi-puzzle.

In the life of a McConathy/Opie fan, you understand that, with the retirement of “Coach Mike,” an era has ended. They’re flying the barber pole at half-staff down at Floyd’s, the courthouse door is locked, and the Snappy Lunch closed for the day right after snappy brunch.

Sort of like a Mayberry Moment of Silence.

But on the other hand, McConathy can sleep a winner’s sleep for the first time since 1980 or so. Not worry about what might have happened to a player or staff member. Not tossing and turning in a hotel bed. Not reading anything about the transfer Port-o-Let or the NIL. Instead, he and wife Connie and their family — plenty of family around for sure — can build even more relationships.

Maybe you’ll see him around. Good for you if you do.

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