Neil Dougherty was 50 years old when he went for a jog on a sunny summer day in Indianapolis after the July 4th weekend. He never returned. A night passed, and then another day, before his family back in Texas knew something was terribly wrong.
"He had no identification on him," says Alfarena Ballew, Marion County deputy coroner. "No one came to the hospital. No one knew exactly where he lived."
Dougherty's body lay in the coroner's office, unidentified, until someone finally came to get him nearly 48 hours after he went missing.
He died of natural causes. He was a basketball coach, and had been so for his entire adult life. He spent countless nights in remote hotels, and he never excelled as a head coach the way he dreamed. He died far from those he loved.
But this is not a story of a man who gave his life to a sport and got nothing in return. This is not the story of a man who lived with a whistle and died pathetically alone.
Quite the opposite.
That same July 4th weekend, Dougherty called to check on his kids. Not wanting to bug them, the conversations were brief. It was the last time they spoke to him. "He told me that he loved me," says Neil, Jr., the elder son, "and I told him that I loved him."
That wasn't out of the ordinary for Dougherty. In fact, the reason it took so long for the family to realize something was wrong is because the coach was so reliable, so present -- even in absence. Surely there was some logical explanation.
"He always called his kids, every day, every other day," says Neil, Jr. "It was never a situation where we never had to call him. He was going to call at a certain time every day."
Dougherty had planned to meet with North Carolina head coach Roy Williams in Indianapolis the Wednesday after the holiday weekend. "He didn't show up," says Williams. "I never saw him. I just thought he had to change his schedule. I didn't think too much about it because he did try to cover a lot of events for iHoops and the NCAA."
It was iHoops, an outreach program for pro and college players, that filed a missing persons report. Dougherty hadn't missed a day of work in his 27 years as a basketball coach.
Neil Dougherty holds the Kansas high school basketball record for hitting 16 shots in a state tournament game, a 4A record that has held up for 33 years.
"I don't know if there’s been a better basketball player at Leavenworth High School (Kan.)," says Larry Hogan, the Leavenworth High head coach who was an assistant when Dougherty played.
Dougherty was recruited by and played for Mike Krzyzewski at West Point. He was one of the lead assistants for Williams' staff at Kansas, appearing in the NCAA Tournament every year he was there from 1995 to 2002, culminating with a 2002 Final Four appearance. He helped coach and recruit eight future NBA players, three of whom have won NBA titles including Paul Pierce.
He owns wins as a head coach over Bob Knight and Rick Pitino. He coached his eldest son at the Division I level. He may have died at 50, but he made such an impression that people are having a difficult time reflecting on his life in the past tense.
Dougherty, it seemed, would always be there. The fact that he was unidentified at first is both a poignant tribute and an irony.
Everybody in college hoops knew Neil Dougherty.
"For a man that's so loved by so many people who feel that way about him, that to me was heartbreaking to hear how he went a couple days unrecognized," says Scot Pollard, a former KU star who played 11 seasons in the NBA. "Almost as devastating as passing in the first place."
When Neil Dougherty was in his second year as an assistant under Williams at Kansas, he had a courtside seat for the juggernaut that shouldn’t have been stopped.
Spearheaded by Pierce, a gangly sophomore small forward from Inglewood, Calif., the Jayhawks rolled to 34-2 during the 1996-97 season. For those who came to Kansas during the Roy Williams era, it was Dougherty who would open up his family's home to guys like Pierce, much like he would do in the years to come for Drew Gooden, Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison, Wayne Simien and countless others.
So when that '97 team was upset in the NCAA Tournament by eventual national champion Arizona, Dougherty's sons, Neil and Ryan, would shoot baskets in the driveway in the days following the game, trying to get their minds off what could have been for their dad and that team.
But soon thereafter, their father would join them in the driveway, doing with his sons what he had helped do with Williams’ team of All-Americans and future pros: coach.
"My dad had every chance in the world to go into his room and pout and lounge around, but he just came outside and stood under the basket and just rebounded every single shot of my brother and I, tossing it back to us, telling us to hold our follow-through, set our feet, all the little things," Neil Jr. says. "I remember that meant the world to me.
"Ryan and I were hurting for him. That was his championship team with Coach Williams and he was right there for us."
This loss, much like the others, would pass. It was very small in the grand scheme of life, their dad said. He pounded into his sons, like only a father can do, the importance of living a life of purpose -- with or without basketball.
"He always told us that basketball was the easy part," the eldest son says. "You remove the ball and still listen to his words, and it is still applicable to help us be successful in our life after basketball."
The first time I encountered Dougherty, I was sitting in a plastic purple chair in TCU's Daniel-Meyer Coliseum during a freshman orientation in August of 2004.
We had just sat through a four-minute montage that was themed, "These are the best four years of your life" with Rod Stewart's "Forever Young" as the soundtrack.
Dougherty stepped to the podium and asked the attention of a coliseum full of 18-year-olds. We all gave it to him. He was funny, charming, and urged everyone to be passionate about something.
Years later, when it was clear that building up basketball success at a football school like TCU was a steeper climb than maybe he anticipated, he would tell me that Coach K always told him to forget about the past unless it helps with the future. He smiled, never feeling sorry for himself or the situation. He was the perfect assistant -- able to put his love for basketball over the drive for personal glory.
"I remember years and years ago when I was at West Point, Coach K told me that I'd probably be a good coach," Dougherty said at a community event this past February. "I didn't understand what he meant back then, but at that point I didn’t realize the passion I had for the game and for the kids playing it."
That mindset stuck out to Krzyzewski and Pete Gaudet when they brought him to West Point, where he would play for two years before transferring.
"When I recruited Neil, he was well ahead of his years," says Krzyzewski, the legendary Duke head coach. "He had impressive maturity and was one of the great kids I had a chance to recruit to Army."
On the Friday morning Dougherty's body was identified, it was Krzyzewski who would walk over to Williams and tell him the news at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron, Ohio. Between the Tobacco Road rivals, they have amassed 1,470 wins, 18 Final Four appearances and six national championships. Yet at that moment, they were just two guys trying to absorb the news of the untimely passing of a former colleague, a friend.
"He had every quality you want to have in a guy you spend so much time with, a guy you trust so much," Williams says. "For seven years, we worked very, very closely together. When you hire guys as an assistant coach, you’re trusting him with your career, and I trusted him completely."
Though he didn't publically mention it, growing up in Leavenworth shaped him for the better. The blue-collar town may be known to America as home of the prison that housed Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Mike Vick, but locals know it for its basketball tradition, and the Doughertys are its first family. "When you're talking about the Dougherty Family itself, they're probably the best basketball family that has ever come out of that area," says Simien, a former Kansas Jayhawk and Leavenworth native.
Just seven minutes up the road from the high school is Bob Dougherty Memorial Park, named after Neil's grandfather. It's a park where classes of Leavenworth basketball players like Simien, a former NBA champion with the 2006 Miami Heat, would play regular pick-up games.
"He would never let you settle," says Simien, who is the founder of the Called To Greatness ministry in Kansas. "Whether you've had a decent amount of success as an individual or as a team, it was never good enough for him. There was always more that you could give to the team."
Dougherty was inherently quirky. Before each home game at Kansas, he would seek out a Lawrence couple that would give him an Atomic Fireball to pop in his mouth, causing one of his cheeks to swell during games. This resulted in the name "Neil Dougherty's Atomic Fireballs" to be a popular title for any given student group waiting for student seating at home games.
Dougherty didn't like wrinkles in his clothes, often re-ironing his shirts even after they came back from the cleaners, eventually being named the "Best Dressed Coach" by collegeinsider.com in 2004.
He didn't own an iPod.
The day before TCU was to face a Tournament-bound UNLV team in 2008, he gathered the team at midcourt at the end of practice and challenged them to a dance contest, trying to loosen them up. "He threatened to take everybody to the karaoke bar," says Kevin Langford, a former TCU forward and the brother of former Jayhawk star Keith Langford.
But times were tough in Fort Worth. Apathy soon set in during Dougherty’s time at TCU, as five of six losing seasons led to paltry attendance and a difficult job of selling an empty coliseum to football-nuts Dallas-Fort Worth. The job aged Dougherty, and it was noticeable to son Neil Patrick, who repeatedly tells me that his decision to play point guard for his father was one he’s grateful to have made.
"He was more fearful that maybe he wouldn’t do right by me than what he was able to do for so many other guys over the course of 20-plus years of coaching," says 'Little Neil.' His father went 75-108 in his six seasons before being let go at the end of ’08 season.
"I think his best coaching was ahead of him," says Jeff Luster, a former TCU assistant under Dougherty and the director of basketball operations at North Texas. "Just wish he got that opportunity."
Hoping to reinvent himself, Dougherty signed on as the director of athlete and coach programs at iHoops, the youth basketball initiative of the NCAA and NBA. "Some people get (iHoops), and some people don't," says Krzyzewski, a board member for iHoops. "He always 'got' iHoops. He had a great understanding of what it could do for those involved in the sport organizationally and spiritually."
The residual effect in Fort Worth, however, went way beyond wins and losses. TCU had a sterling graduation rate under Dougherty, and his former players continue to excel. Marcus Sloan started up Shoot 2 Score Hoops, a foundation to promote basketball to inner city Houston kids. Another former TCU player works for Dallas Mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Tom Leppert. The Langford brothers used their own money to start an AAU summer basketball team out of Fort Worth. Two former walk-ons and a manager are now Fort Worth high school basketball coaches. Lives are being changed and futures altered.
At a funeral crowded with a mix of NCAA, NBA, Leavenworth, Lawrence, and Fort Worth family and friends, it all becomes clear. Among those sitting there are Dougherty's wife, Patti, his daughter, Megan, and his younger son, Ryan, a guard at Southwest Baptist University (Mo.). "I finally feel like I know exactly what he was telling me," Neil, Jr. says to the crowd, closing his eulogy. "What he was teaching me up to his final breath: Life ... life is the easy part.
"We will all miss him, grieve in our own ways on our own timelines. But we will know he is looking down over all of us, smiling, reminding us that, 'This is the easy part.'"
Back in the Marion County coroner's office, the deputy coroner, admittedly not a big basketball fan, was amazed how the John Doe picked up on Independence Day weekend, the one who was in the office for days, had lived this kind of a life.
"We had no idea who this person was," Ballew says. "And there were so many
people concerned about him. And when everyone found out it was top news.
"It was like, 'Wow'."