Growing up in a military family and used to moving frequently, Joey James had no idea when he left metropolitan Omaha in 1997 that he would spend most of the next 17 years in Vermillion, S.D.
The Bellevue West graduate would like to extend his stay beyond this season, too. The long-time South Dakota assistant is the interim coach of a Coyote program that comes to Ralston Arena for a 1:07 p.m. Summit League game Saturday against the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“I always thought when I graduated that I'd move down South or whatever,” James said. “But the people in Vermillion and the state of South Dakota have been very good to me. They've embraced my family. I couldn't ask for anything more.”
James, 37, became the Coyotes' interim coach in September, after long-time coach Dave Boots stepped down.
“That caught everybody off guard,” James said. “I figured at some point he would retire, but I thought it would be five to seven more years down the line. But he told me and our administration and our players that he didn't think he had the energy to coach and give 100 percent all the time, and he didn't think that was fair to the players.
“He still loves it. I still talk to him all the time. I know he couldn't be happier, but I know he misses it, too.”
James' audition as the potential coach for South Dakota Athletic Director David Herbster — the former UNO athletic director who elevated current coach Derrin Hansen to his position — has been a strong one. The Coyotes are 8-10 overall, but the nonconference schedule included losses at Kansas State (by two points), Wyoming (twice, once in overtime), Air Force (by eight) and Canisius (by five) and a home loss to Wisconsin-Green Bay (by four).
Then South Dakota opened Summit League play at 3-0, winning home games with Denver, IUPUI and Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne, and is still tied for first after losing Thursday at Western Illinois.
“I absolutely want (the full-time job),” said James, who said he's previously been contacted about head coaching jobs at smaller schools as well as assistant coaching positions in Division I. “I wish they would pull that (interim title) right now. But there's nothing like having pressure.
“I think a lot is going to be based on how we do in the conference season, and then our president and athletic director will evaluate everything. I trust they'll make the decision that's right and best for the program.”
James averaged 24 points per game as a senior at Bellevue West in 1994-95, then stayed around for two more years while playing at Iowa Western Community College, where he averaged 15 points as a sophomore.
He played his final two college seasons at South Dakota, then moved to California, working in a furniture store owned by a family member.
Six months later, he called Boots.
“I can't do this,” he remembered thinking of the furniture business. “Once I came back as a graduate assistant and got into it, I just fell in love with coaching.”
Long known for its matchup zone defense under Boots, which it played about 90 percent of the time, James has taken South Dakota another direction, playing primarily man-to-man — about 75 to 80 percent of the time, he estimates.
“That's not saying we can't switch against a certain team,” he said. “I like being able to hang our hat on having several different ways to defend. I think the energy we get from playing man helps us when we do go zone.”
James said he still is in the Omaha area 10 to 12 times a year, either visiting family and friends or recruiting. And he's been here plenty of times as a Coyote, dating to when UNO and South Dakota were rivals in the Division II North Central Conference.
“The city has changed so much over the years,” James said. “It's unbelievable.”