Sometime in his motley team’s come-from-behind basketball win over the Kyrgyzstan Collegiate All-Stars in 2009, Tim MacAllister registered a distinct clicking into place of all the cosmic tumblers and knew that this was what he wanted to do.
It was the very first time the then-20-year-old Airman First Class had ever coached a basketball team and made up, as it was, by other Air Force servicemen who were older than he was and outranked him, he nevertheless saw his destiny in the biggest arena in Bishkek.
“Something happened in that game,” said MacAllister, now in his second season as the video coordinator for the Creighton University men’s basketball team and a student in Creighton’s Master of Science in Organizational Leadership program. “There was a point when it flipped and I said, ‘I want to do this. I want to coach basketball.’”
With a father who has spent a career coaching basketball at the high school and collegiate level, coaching is in MacAllister’s pedigree, he just never thought he’d enter the family business. Now, as the video coordinator, watching hours upon hours of film daily and prepping Creighton’s coaches and players for each opponent, he sees how the game, and his calling, waited for him.
After his first semester at Murray State University in 2007, MacAllister realized he did not have enough money to continue making tuition. Ever-inspired by his father and grandfather, both Air Force veterans, he joined the Air National Guard and the spent seven months in basic training and working a detail in security forces.
He returned to Murray State and picked up jobs with the college newspaper and also as a stringer for the Associated Press and for a year, it appeared MacAllister was settling into an academic career pointing him toward sports journalism.
Then, he got a call: his unit was deploying to the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan, to a base just outside the capital city of Bishkek.
“It was eye-opening,” MacAllister said. “I came out of the Air Force as a staff sergeant, but I went over on the bottom rung. I was doing security on the front gate to the base, standing on the line 12 hours a day, letting people in, keeping people out. I never thought about becoming a basketball coach. I was going to fight terrorism and stand at that gate in minus-10-degree weather.”
In the midst of the deployment, a base-wide email went out, seeking volunteers for a base basketball team. Missing the game and thinking he could contribute in some way, MacAllister replied that he’d be willing to help in any way possible.
“I’m thinking they have an established team,” he recalled. “They’ve got players. They’ve certainly got coaches. I’d helped my dad coaching before and I figured I could lend a hand here or there. They wrote me back and said, ‘You’re the head coach. You hold the tryouts, set the practices. Create the team.’ And I’m thinking, ‘What just happened? I’m 20 years old. I’m an Airman First Class. I’m going to be the youngest guy out there and I’ll be outranked by everyone.’”
Nevertheless, MacAllister called tryouts and found himself, inexplicably, amidst a wealth of basketball talent. He had a former walk-on from Mississippi State University, a hard-luck backup point guard from Purdue University whose college career ended in injury, a Division III shooting phenom from the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, a league known for exploding scoreboards.
Having assembled the team, MacAllister now began leading workouts four or five times a week for three weeks running. But he was still not sure toward what end the team was practicing.
“It was a couple weeks of just getting things up and running, but I could tell it was a competitive team,” he said. “Toward the end of the three weeks, they came and told us: ‘In three days, you’ll be playing the Kyrgyzstan Collegiate All-Stars. And, oh by the way, the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan will be there. And the sports minister of Kyrgyzstan will be there. And it’s possible the prime minister will be making an appearance, along with about 1,000 people.’”
The event was billed as a friendship match, a show of goodwill between the Air Force and their Kyrgyz hosts.
“But I don’t think there was any question that we wanted to win,” MacAllister said with a laugh. “Now, my boss, the base commander, a major, is sitting behind me while I’m coaching, and every now and then I can tell he’s giving me the ‘keep it calm’ look. But I’m a fiery guy. It was tough. And the officials? How do I say this? It was a little slanted. We had our work cut out for us.”
The Air Force team got down early and went into halftime facing an eight-point deficit. It fell to the young coach to deliver a pep talk.
“It wasn’t exactly a win-one-for-the-Gipper speech by any means,” MacAllister said. “I just told them, ‘How many times will you get to wear that USA on your chest and play for your country? Let’s go out there and give it all we’ve got.’”
The Americans came out hot for the second half, ultimately winning the game by 15.
MacAllister’s squad went on to play another four games, including exhibitions with professional teams in the region. When his deployment ended, MacAllister departed Kyrgyzstan with a 3-2 record.
Coming back to Murray State, MacAllister sought out the Racers’ head coach and former Creighton assistant, Billy Kennedy, and said he’d do anything to help the team. When Kennedy left for Texas A&M, MacAllister stayed on as a student assistant for Steve Prohm, now at Iowa State University.
After graduating, MacAllister moved to Emory University in Georgia as an assistant, helping guide that team to an Elite Eight finish in the NCAA Division III Tournament in 2014.
Following his posting at Emory, MacAllister, whose wife is the head rifle coach at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was just moments away from taking a job with Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska, when he took a chance at a volunteer opportunity at Creighton. That spot ultimately opened into his current position on the coaching staff. Quickly recognizing the name and the reputation of the Bluejay program, along with the basketball mind of men’s head coach Greg McDermott, MacAllister jumped at the chance.
McDermott said MacAllister’s story fits right in with the gifts and the character the young coach has brought to Creighton.
“Tim owns a bright future in coaching,” McDermott said. “The passion and energy he brings to our staff, in addition to his relentless work ethic, make him a great fit for Creighton. We’re lucky to have Tim, and would not be enjoying our current success without his contributions to our program.”
Wading through film of each conference opponent’s 30-plus games a season and also balancing his schoolwork in Creighton’s MSOL program, MacAllister said he’s found the next major signpost on the road to his ultimate goal: becoming a collegiate head coach.
“I love having a connection with the guys and seeing guys get better,” he said. “I think that’s something that Creighton truly cares about and it’s something we get to see a lot of in the competitive spirit and the passion that coach McDermott brings to the floor. I see that in the classroom, too. The leadership program here has opened me up to new styles and new thinking about how to lead and how to lead different people on different levels. The interactions I’ve had in class with people from all walks of life has been instrumental to me in life and in coaching and I’m very grateful for that.”