By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports
“I find it a little ironic that the Demons hired a saint.”
That from Ryan Kelly, sports director at Tallahassee’s WCTV Channel 6, talking about new Northwestern State basketball coach Rick Cabrera, who leads his Tallahassee Community College Eagles into the Elite Eight of the National Junior College Athletic Association championships today.
Cabrera, 47, a veteran of 13 seasons as a Division I assistant coach and with a 151-44 record in six years as a junior college head coach, was announced Wednesday as the Demons’ replacement for one-year wonder (22 wins) Corey Gipson.
“Through the two years I’ve covered him, Rick Cabrera has been so gracious, so kind,” said Kelly. “That intensity that he brings on the floor is obvious. You know how animated he is, how invested he is, and it’s because he’s invested in his players. You can see by the way they perform on the floor that they feed off that.”
It’s happening in Hutchinson, Kan., at the NJCAA Tournament. TCC (30-5) entered as the 12th seed, scored a three-point win Tuesday (for Cabrera’s 150th career coaching victory), then shocked No. 5 Salt Lake 94-93 in overtime Wednesday.
“This team is playing without arguably its best player, and it doesn’t mean anything. He has a point guard drop 48 (Wednesday) like it’s no big deal,” said Kelly. “That’s what these guys do. They play hard for him. They hustle for him, because he’s done the same for them. He’s willing to take chances on them, to fight for them.
“A players’ coach, yes, and I get that in some corners that’s not always well received because people assume he’s not disciplined. He runs a tight ship, and TCC is better for it. It’s very clear that everything he does, it’s with his players in mind, and he’s inclusive. People love the sense of community he’s built around that Eagles’ program,” said Kelly.
Even more compelling: rave reviews from two former NSU coaches who worked with Cabrera in a couple of his previous Division I stops. One is former Tennessee Tech head coach Steve Payne, his boss with the Golden Eagles as Cabrera worked first as an assistant coach, then associate head coach from 2012-17.
“I adore the guy, and he’s just a fantastic fit in Natchitoches and at Northwestern,” said Payne, who has known Cabrera since 2004. “The NSU family, and that community, will love him and his family. He’ll want people to come watch practice, to buy in, to be included.
“He’ll be great to work with. He’s just a good dude, a really fun, super solid guy,” said Payne, who got his Division I start on J.D. Barnett’s NSU staff from 1994-98.
“From a basketball perspective, he knows good players. He’s brought them into every program he’s been in. People in the profession like him. They’re going to try to help him succeed. His players will love him.”
Travis Janssen, who was Austin Peay’s baseball coach while Cabrera was an assistant on the Governors’ basketball staff from 2017-19, and Janssen’s wife Christy were overjoyed.
“He personifies class in every way. Be sure that’s in there,” said Janssen, a Demon baseball assistant under Mitch Gaspard from 2002-04. “He’s a stud, a family guy. He and his wife will embrace the town, with their four kids making great friends. They’ll be visible. I think the world of Mike McConathy, one of the great people I’ll ever know. I think Coach Mike will love spending time with him. Rick is a purely good person.
“When I heard, I was shocked, in a good way. I told Christy, ‘How great is this?’ About every November we say, ‘wouldn’t it be great to come back to Natchitoches for the Christmas Festival,’ and with three kids and all we have going, we haven’t made it yet. Rick being there, that would make it even more special to get back.”
As to Cabrera’s coaching chops, what he’s accomplished in Tallahassee is winning as an under-resourced member of the Panhandle Conference, anchored by powerhouse programs Northwest Florida State and Chipola CC.
“There are so many obstacles because other programs have big legs up in this league, and he has been able to power TCC past all that,” said Kelly. “To see what some of the others have compared to what TCC has, and know his teams are not just competitive, but they’ve won the league, it’s really impressive and I commend him for it.”
Contact Doug at firstname.lastname@example.org