Before Dana Ford was old enough to play basketball outside, he started inside with a sock for a ball and a hanger for a hoop in the small town of Tamms, Illinois.
He says the love of basketball is in his DNA.
“I grew up in a trailer with my grandmother and my only dream growing up was to go to the NBA,” he says. “I was a small-town boy with big-city dreams.”
His dream shifted as a freshman at Illinois State University to becoming a coach. He jokes he was having too much fun with college life to focus on being a great athlete. But he’d seen the impact a coach could have.
“My high school coach was probably the best thing that ever happened to me outside of my family,” Ford says. “He really helped me understand the importance of maturity, education and helped me understand I was going to have to go off to change my life.”
His first head coaching job came a decade later at Tennessee State University. He led his team from a 5-26 record his first year to 20-11 the next. It earned him the Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year and National Association of Basketball District 19 Coach of the Year honors, as well as the Ben Jobe Award as the nation’s leading Division I minority coach.
At 29 years old, he felt the pressure of the top job.
“Everything falls on the head coach,” he says. “You’re not necessarily responsible for doing everything, but you’re responsible for how everything gets done.”
Ford says success cannot solely be determined by the numbers on the scoreboard, and he points to communication and culture as the better measure.
“You’re trying to win, but that can’t be everything,” he says. “If you build a winning culture, then you’ll win basketball games.”
That’s the attitude he brought with him in March 2018 when he signed a five-year contract with a base salary of $375,000 as the 18th head men’s basketball coach for the Missouri State University Bears.
He says his goals are to cultivate a culture and mindset of winning.
“I’m talking about wanting to do what it takes to win and then being able to overcome adversity whenever you do what it takes to win and you still don’t win,” he says. “That’s the five-hour, five-day and five-year goal.”
Settled into Springfield with his wife Christina, who runs The Rebound Foundation supporting victims of violence, and their four kids, Ford says he wants to pack JQH Arena to unify the city.
“Hopefully, we bring a lot of joy. Joy is such an underrated aspect of sports, also togetherness,” he says.
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