Ever since his days as a student at Notre Dame, Paul Ferguson had been intrigued by the idea of coaching high school basketball in Indiana.
When the opportunity to do so finally came at Columbus North, Ferguson jumped at it.
A New England native, Ferguson caught the coaching bug in the summer of 1990 when his high school coach, Tom Tindall of The Master’s School in Connecticut, brought him along to work at Five Star Basketball Camp. His first big break came during his sophomore year in South Bend. After an unsuccessful bid to make Notre Dame’s team as a walk-on, Ferguson was offered a spot as a student coaching assistant under John MacLeod.
After two years on the Fighting Irish staff, Ferguson graduated in 1994 and landed a job coaching at Brother Rice in Chicago under Pat Richardson. He landed his first head coaching job in 2006 and had a successful seven-season run at Wheaton Academy, posting a 133-55 record and winning a pair of regional titles.
He spent the past two seasons as an assistant at Wheaton College before a friend let him know about the open job at Columbus North.
Ferguson was immediately interested — and so was North athletics director Jeff Hester.
“As we started going through the reference checks, he just kept rising to the top,” Hester said. “Great recommendations; (former Notre Dame assistant and current Iowa head coach) Fran McCaffery is just really high on Paul. I talked to several of his former players, too. … A lot of them said the same thing over and over — best coach they ever played for, changed their lives, things like that. And that was the type of coach that I was looking for — someone that was transformational instead of just transitional. I wanted a transformational coach, and that’s what Paul is.”
A transformation is what’s currently underway at North, which is effectively starting fresh after posting a 76-22 record during the past four seasons. With almost an entirely new roster, the transition hasn’t been as smooth as Ferguson might have liked.
“It’s a new era in Columbus basketball right now,” he said. “I think they lost 80 percent of their scoring last year, and we’ve got one returning starter and a lot of guys that haven’t played varsity minutes. So a lot of new, inexperienced players, on top of the fact that anytime a new coach comes in and is putting in a new system, there’s an adjustment period for the players and also for the coaches. And we’re working through that right now.
“I think our players are learning to play our style and what we expect of them, and as coaches we’re trying to figure out and learn what’s the best way to coach these players. So we’re in that learning curve right now.”
“I told him that when I hired him,” Hester added. “I said, ‘This is not going to be easy. You’re going to be lucky to win a handful of games this year.’ And he still wanted the challenge.”
Both Ferguson and his team have taken the challenge head on. Though the Bull Dogs are 1-7, having just closed out a winless stretch of six straight games away from home, they have shown flashes of potential along the way.
North led a veteran Martinsville team for much of the second half before losing the game at the buzzer, and it battled back from an early 12-point deficit at Columbus East to take a brief fourth-quarter lead before running out of gas.
“We’ve had some games where we’ve played really, really well,” said Ferguson, who also teaches social studies at North. “We’ve been close, and we just haven’t been able to close out a game. We need to regroup over Christmas and refocus on who we are as a team and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
For Ferguson, Columbus offered not only a great coaching and teaching opportunity but an ideal landing spot for his wife, Michelle, an Indiana native, and their five sons. He’s pleased with the bond he and his family have already built with the community — a bond that a winning team would certainly strengthen.
Hester, for one, is confident that the Bull Dogs’ on-court struggles aren’t going to last for very long with Ferguson around.
“I know it’s hard for him, because he’s not used to losing himself,” Hester said. “Every program goes through this, but the future’s bright. It’s going to take a while, but it’s going to get there.”