Rick Cabrera’s introductory news conference Thursday afternoon in the Student Union Ballroom on Northwestern State’s campus was just another part of a dream.
“My dream job is being here as your head coach,” Cabrera told assembled media, fans and university staff members. “When I decided to get into coaching, I laid down at night and said I want to be a Division I head basketball coach. This is my first opportunity, so this is my dream job. I’m so greatly appreciative of having this opportunity. Like I said earlier, 363 (Division-I head coaching jobs). I bet the applicants were times nine of 363 for this job. I had people believe in me that I was the next man to win an NCAA Tournament game.
“Just watching a Fairleigh Dickinson, Florida Atlantic. I say, ‘Why not us?’ That’s the attitude you’ve got to have.”
Cabrera, 47, said he wants to instill a “tough” team once the 2023-24 season rolls around in Natchitoches, but Thursday was a chance for the first-time Division I head coach to show the other side of his emotional spectrum.
He fought back tears when speaking about his wife, Danielle, and had to compose himself when his thoughts turned to his late father Hugo Sr., saying out loud through a raspy voice, “I’m not going to talk about dad,” to which his sister in attendance responded, “He’s here.”
A six-year head coach at Lackawanna College and Tallahassee Community College, Cabrera compiled a record of 152-45. He spent 13 years as a D-I assistant at Tennessee Tech, Austin Peay and Arkansas State where he recruited and tutored all-conference players and helped Austin Peay standout Terry Taylor become an NBA player.
“As we went through the search process, it was clear coach Cabrera possessed all the qualities we desired in a head coach,” Director of Athletics Kevin Bostian said. “We wanted somebody who was an elite recruiter and a developer of young men, not only on the court but off it as well. We wanted someone to fit the culture of Northwestern State. His enthusiasm, passion, energy and hands-in-the-dirt approach and grind-it out work ethic were a perfect match for Northwestern State.”
Cabrera’s biggest takeaways from his journey? Patience and the value of family.
“Sixteen or 17 years ago, we went on our first date,” said Cabrera, whose wife claimed it to have been 18 years ago. “We were dating for about a month, and I knew this is what I wanted to do. During a date, we were at an Italian restaurant called Fratelli’s. We’re sitting across from each other, and I said, ‘Listen, this is the profession I want to go into. It’s going to entail some traveling, some moving.’ She had just graduated from Penn State. She’s very close to her family in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I wanted to give her a head’s up to say, ‘Hey, do you want to come along on this ride? If not, you can get out early.’ She looked across with her big blue eyes and said, ‘I’m in.’ Seventeen years later, we’ve been all over the place.
“She gave up her career as an athletic trainer. She went to school and got a degree in kinesiology, and she hasn’t done anything with it in that realm. She’s a teacher, now. I appreciate you more than you ever know.”
Throughout his introduction to Northwestern State and to Natchitoches, Cabrera reference a handful of quotes. One of those belonged to an unidentified speaker, but it related to the Cabrera family as a whole.
“A quote that has always stuck in my head – and I wrote it down – is, ‘A good coach needs a patient wife or husband, a loyal dog and a great post player, but not necessarily in that order,’” NSU’s 11th head men’s basketball coach said. “I definitely have two of the three in a patient wife and a loyal dog. I have a great post player coming, just wait and see.”
For Cabrera, Thursday’s moment was the culmination of a two-decade journey that began as a graduate assistant at Tennessee Tech where he played basketball and baseball. It wound through Miami Killian High School and Keystone College before taking him to Lackawanna College in his wife’s hometown of Scranton.
It was during his time at Keystone that Cabrera had a bit of an epiphany and discovered just how much he wanted to coach basketball.
“I was a dorm director and an assistant coach at Keystone College,” Cabrera said. “I told my wife this a couple of nights ago, but I wish I had kept my first pay stub from Keystone College. I remember it. With taxes taken out, it was $159.38 just for the coaching stipend. That was every two weeks. I’ll never forget it. I’m out of college, and I have a master’s degree. I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ It’s all about patience. It has paid off. It has allowed me to take care of myself and my family.”
It also led Cabrera to a state that helped him develop as a New York City high school basketball player.
“Dale Brown is a great friend not a good friend,” Cabrera said of LSU’s Hall of Fame coach. “I talked to him this morning for 20 minutes. He’s 87 years old and kicking like he did when he was 45. When I was in New York City, Dale Brown was great friends with my dad, and my dad got him a player by the name of Jose Vargas from the Dominican Republic. He said, ‘Bring your son to our camp.’ I went my freshman year, sophomore year, junior year and senior year. One thing I noticed, the heat in Baton Rouge is unbelievable. The camp was the whole month of June. Dale is a mentor of mine. He’s always been good to me. He’s recommended me for a lot of jobs.”
Brown wasn’t the only Louisiana coach Cabrera referenced Thursday, paying his respects to longtime Demon head coach Mike McConathy.
“Mike McConathy is a guy I followed in my Division I career,” Cabrera said. “He was a heck of a coach. One of my assistant coaches, who was in this league last year, came up to me in my first year at Tallahassee in the middle of the season. We were struggling on getting some offense early in the shot clock. He came up to me and said, ‘Coach, listen, I was at Southeastern Louisiana. That coach at Northwestern State, I can’t remember his name, but he had an unbelievable secondary break, a roller replace secondary break. They scored really quickly. At some point, they led the country in scoring (2014-15). I don’t have an ego. I steal from everybody in the coaching community. I said, ‘OK, let’s try it. As a head coach, I’m going to allow you to put it in.’ He put it in and our offense was like, ‘Pop.’ It changed in a day.
“Thank you, coach McConathy. I appreciate that. Your legacy is still here. As an assistant coach, I watched you win a lot. I look forward to talking to you in the near future.”
Photo: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services