CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Ben Jacobson has chosen this moment to unload a lot of mental baggage. Right here, right now, in his office, the day before the season opener for Northern Iowa against Division III Coe College.
For months the thoughts have been hemorrhaging in the psyche of a 45-year old, square-jawed, solid Midwestern mid-major coach like a ruptured spleen. There's no surgical procedure for this sort of lingering pain. But it's clear when something hurts this bad, you gotta get it out.
"It took me until about mid-summer," the Panthers' coach said from across the table. "If I was doing something I was fine ... But if I wasn't doing anything, my mind would immediately go to the plays."
The plays. They're right there on YouTube, living in infamy. In the span of about 35 seconds last March, Jacobson's Northern Iowa team blew a 12-point lead at the end of regulation in a second-round NCAA Tournament game against Texas A&M.
Northern Iowa eventually lost in double overtime 92-88, completing what an NCAA official quickly tweeted out was the biggest comeback in history with less than a minute to go.
"Going into overtime I had the same feeling as everybody else in the building in that moment, which was, 'They just let one get away. There's no way they're going to win now.' "
None of it would have been as bad had UNI not won a historic opening-round game two nights earlier. Northern Iowa's Paul Jesperson became one of those One Shining Moment guys, nailing one from half-court to beat Texas -- the first-half-courter to win a tourney game in 35 years.
But none of them were thinking about going from perhaps the highest high to the lowest low in NCAA Tournament history. Jacobson was trying to convince himself as well as his players.
"By the time I turned around to get in the huddle [for overtime], I said, 'Guys, this is going to be the greatest win in the history of the NCAA Tournament,' Jacobson said. "They're looking at me, like, 'I don't think so.' "
It didn't matter that Jacobson had long ago declined the glory and riches of being a high-major coach. Or that blowing the game wasn't the Panthers' one and only shot. Heck, they had made it to the Sweet 16 in 2010.
The 2014-15 season ended with a second-round loss to fourth-seeded Louisville. That Northern Iowa team won 31 games and finished ranked 11th."We had a team that could have gone to the Final Four," Jacobson recalled. The painful irony of losing a game that seemed almost statistically impossible to lose is that the Panthers had defied the odds to even be in position to do so, not only with the unlikely victory against Texas, but by going 12-1 down the stretch to even get into the tournament. They had to win three games in three days in the Missouri Valley Tournament -- taking each game to the final minute -- to get the auto bid.
But on the night of March 20, none of that mattered. After they had returned to the hotel room, finally alone, Dawn Jacobson hugged her husband and said nothing.
"It was sad, he wanted it so bad for those guys," Dawn said of the man she met while both played at North Dakota -- she on the golf team, he as a point guard. "The [two-game] swing. I don't know if there has ever been such a high and such a low in the NCAA Tournament."
Jacobson's torture, the second-guessing, were only beginning. All of it coming from within. What could he have done different? It took until about July for him to squeeze the constant replays out of his mind. It took him until September to watch the game tape.
"I can see them all happen in my mind," he said. "I might not have them in order but I can get to them all if I think about it."
Time has passed. Seven players remain from last year's team. They are all off to a 5-5 start and will face North Carolina on Wednesday night. It's easy for kids to forget. Just give them the next game. Just give them the ball.
"It's like it all went by in a blur," junior guard Wyatt Lohaus said. "There's not anyone that can say they experienced the same thing as us. That moment, being on top. Then all that joy, then knowing your season is over."
A glimpse back: Northern Iowa led 69-57 with 44 seconds left. The lead was still 12 with 31 seconds left when A&M's Admon Gilder rebounded Alex Caruso's trey and laid it in. In the final 23 seconds, Northern Iowa turned it over three times. The Aggies scored each time -- seven points total. Give 'em credit, A&M made its last four shots of regulation.
In the end, the Aggies essentially dropped in the equivalent of six baskets in the space of one shot clock (30 seconds). Social media burped up the metrics soon after. With 38 seconds left, A&M's win probability was exactly 0.01 percent.
Like you had to be told.
"They had to make every play right and we had to make every play wrong," Lohaus surmised.
But there was still that overtime and even then the Panthers confidently took a 3-point lead. Twice. If someone had written a script, this would have been the point where the Panthers were stabbed in the back -- the knife twisted.
A&M's Danuel House climbed into the stands. Aggies fans hugged each other. Selfies abounded.
The eventual loss Jacobson could not accept. Still can't. Oh sure, it happened. The season ended. Four seniors -- three of them starters -- have gone their separate ways. There are those seven new players.
But the soft-spoken coach from North Dakota they call "Jake" won't let it go.
It was his fault. Still is, to him.
"It is my job, and my job alone," Jacobson said. "This is on me. It doesn't matter what I was saying, I didn't say it the right way or I didn't say it soon enough. Whatever I was saying and the timing of it, I didn't bring it home.
"When you add it all up, there's only one guy's job to bring it home. If they're going to play that way for 39 minutes, 16 seconds it's one guy's job [to finish]."
Really? It didn't matter that trusted floor leader and chief inbounder Matt Bohannon went out late with a twisted knee? It didn't matter in the final seconds, Jesperson, a senior, tried to bounce it off an Aggie out of bounds? Jesperson missed so badly he might as well have handed it to Aggies' swingman Jalen Jones who dunked it, cutting the lead to three.
"If we throw the ball down the court once or twice we win the game," Jesperson said.
Klint Carlson provided what he thought was insurance, a dunk of his own that put the Panthers up by five with 19.6 seconds left. But when Caruso converted a three-point play seconds later, the Panthers actually lost a point off their lead in the exchange.
"Maybe," Carlson thought, "I should have pulled it out and run off a couple of more seconds."
Forget about second-guessing. A calculator couldn't add up all the should-have-beens.
What was left was a measure of despair. Jesperson is now on the NBA D-League's Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Teammates will bring it up randomly, once again twisting that knife.
One of them is former Texas guard Isaiah Taylor -- on the floor that night for Jesperson's half-court heave that beat the Longhorns.
"I can't think of anyone else in the tournament," Jesperson says now, "who had the experience to fall that low."
Northern Iowa's most famous alum became sort of a good-luck charm during that run the team needed just to get in the tournament. Kurt Warner, the Super Bowl champion who became friends with Jacobson, threw all his support toward the basketball program.
When approached by a reporter in the quietest locker room you can think of, Warner shook his head no. There were no words.
"Just dead silence," said Jeremy Morgan, who scored a career-high 36 points that night. "I probably couldn't tell you a word Coach Jake said."
"The thing that strikes me is as a head coach, I never thought of practicing being ahead 12 with 44 seconds left," Jacobson said easing back in his chair. "Who would? Up 12 with 44 seconds left, why would you practice that?"
The only formal counseling for Jacobson was looking in the mirror. His mentor and former coach at the University of North Dakota, Rich Glas, summed it up succinctly.
"It could be worse you dumb-ass. Geez, what's wrong with you?"
Sure, it could be worse. But coaching is not so much a job as an avocation. Accountants don't cry when the ledger doesn't add up. Mechanics don't run to center court, hitting their knees to thank God for a victory.
The annual Final Four coaches' convention was small torture for Jacobson. No matter what, he had to walk across a vast hotel lobby each day. In the best of times, the landscape resembles a sweat-suited Star Wars cantina scene of gossipy peers.
"Regardless of who it might be, they're still bringing it up and I'd rather not talk about it," Jacobson said. "I just rolled with it."
At an offseason Nike camp with high school coaches, they wanted mostly to know about the A&M game. To re-direct the conversation, Jacobson asked who had the last half-court shot to win a tournament game. One of the campers finally had to look it up on his phone. It didn't help.
"I screwed up as your head coach," Jacobson told his players that night.
For three seasons, Jacobson was Glas' point guard at North Dakota. Glas then hired him to be a GA. A coaching career was born.
Glas, now 68, recently won his 600th career game. It was Glas who Jacobson turned to when he was considering one of those high-major jobs over the years. In the end, Jake was rewarded with a 10-year contract at Northern Iowa in April 2015.
Over the phone, Glas finally trotted out a cliché for the night of March 20: "No stinkin'-thinkin' allowed."
Don't feel sorry for yourself.
"I was at home watching on TV, kind of melting away myself," Glas said. "I said, 'No, this is not looking good.' But momentum is a fickle thing. It's a game. You got a great family, you've got great friends."
Jacobson: "When you're on the phone with him, with the guy who you've talked to since you were 18, when it's coming from him, it isn't really a way to make yourself feel better. That's reality."
The current Panthers are from Iowa towns such as Waverly, Ankeny, Waterloo, Coralville and Wisconsin towns such as Ashwaubenon and Germantown. That's about as exotic as it gets at Northern Iowa.
But that's the thing about college basketball that is almost totally unlike college football. In 11 seasons here Jacobson has proven that a roster stocked with those kinds of kids can beat, well, anybody.
Last year the Panthers defeated both No. 1 North Carolina and No. 5 Iowa State within a month's time.
Jacobson isn't the only one. Pete Caril and his Princeton offense could confuse scores of teams. George Mason, Butler and VCU have elbowed their way into the Final Four. That's the rough equivalent of Western Kentucky getting into the College Football Playoff.
That's probably never going to happen. But the Northern Iowas of the world know it can happen. They've been there. Six years ago almost to the day of the March 20 Meltdown, Northern Iowa's Ali Farokhmanesh beat Kansas with a dagger.
That day, the knife twisted the opposite way.
Here's the other thing about playing at a mid-major: Although you couldn't tell it in the moment nine months ago, the highs seem to be much better than the lows. At power programs, such a collapse would have haunted these Panthers. You know, faceless critics on social media and all that. We see it all the time when some poor sap fumbles, drops a ball or misses a field goal.
"It was actually surprising how they [fans] chose not to go against us," Lohaus said.
"They were reaching out with words, reaching out with love," Carlson said.
"After the game, nobody's really talking," Morgan said. "Then you get on the plane and see all these messages and Twitter notifications. Friends, family, people that may have seen you only one or two times.
"They're so happy and grateful to be part of UNI."
"Our town was almost more proud of the way Ben and the players reacted to the game than if they had won the game," Dawn Jacobson said.
The game being on a Sunday, the Panthers could have been excused if they blew off Monday classes. Sleep in, wipe out the memories.
"I went," Morgan said, "Most of the guys went to class."
Because that's what guys from Waverly and Coralville do. That's what a coach does who values ... well, values. Jacobson loves fishing with his sons Hunter, 13, and Tanner, 11. August in their time when the dad/coach can finally relax and, just, think.
"He's the biggest thinker that I've ever met," Dawn said of her husband. "He's hardly ever not thinking."
Jake has thought through the future. He has developed depth. Three guys on the roster are now able to inbound the ball. The Panthers will never be caught relying on one guy. For the record, that one guy -- Bohannon -- is now an accountant in Des Moines. That's so very Northern Iowa too.
Jacobson has also started practicing more end-of-game situations. Not up-by-12-with-44 seconds-left situations, but close.
"It doesn't matter how bizarre the situation seems, it doesn't matter. There's a chance it could happen," the coach said. "That's what I learned as a head coach. Once in a 100 years, but it happened.
"We have to be prepared."