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The Barefoot Coach

Posted: Monday, Jan 2nd, 2012

Jackrabbit head coach Scott Nagy conducted basketball clinics for youngsters in Zimbabwe this summer, part of his work with Samaritan’s Feet. Nagy reports there are no indoor courts – nor fulltime basketball coaches – in the south African nation. Photo courtesy Scott Nagy / It was to honor his daughter Naika, Scott Nagy says of his involvement in Samaritan’s Feet. He and his wife wanted a way to show their Haitian-born daughter that they had not forgotten about her country, and the shoe project “matched up well with our lives.” Nagy is being honored for his charitable efforts Jan. 9 with the Dorothy & Eugene T. Butler Human Rights Award. SDSU Foundation photo / SDSU coach Scott Nagy (left, on platform) joined Samaritan’s Feet founder Manny Ohonme in Zimbabwe this summer to help build steel-frame schools for rural kids. The travelers distributed free shoes for the youngsters as well. Photo courtesy Scott Nagy

•Coach honored for his work in Haiti, Africa with Samaritan’s Feet

Scott Nagy is among the best at what he does. He just notched his 300th victory as head coach of the South Dakota State University basketball team – the all-time leader in men’s basketball coaching victories at SDSU. He has been chosen for conference Coach of the Year honors no fewer than five times. SDSU has claimed four conference championships under his direction.

For 17 seasons, Nagy’s been known as the spokesman for Jackrabbit basketball.

He’s also become known as the barefoot coach.

This year, on Jan. 9, Nagy will step out of his coaching shoes once again when he becomes the recipient of the Dorothy & Eugene T. Butler Human Rights Award.

The SDSU coach is the 2011 selection of the City of Brookings and its Human Rights Committee, and he’ll be honored on that date at an open house and award ceremony at the Brookings library.

Nagy is being recognized for his work with Samaritan’s Feet, a Charlotte, N.C.-based charity whose goal is to put 10 million pairs of shoes on the feet of 10 million orphans and impoverished children around the world.

Once a year for the last three years, Nagy has coached a game barefoot to draw attention to Samaritan’s Feet. Since 2009, he has raised thousands of dollars and collected thousands of pairs of new and gently used shoes for kids in Haiti and in Africa.

Nagy wasn’t the first shoeless coach around, and he isn’t the only one now. More than 300 coaches across the country are involved with Samaritan’s Feet. The SDSU chief says he first saw IUPUI’s Ron Hunter (now at Georgia State) coach a game shoeless in 2008, and “there were several other coaches in the league who were doing it.”

“The charity just matched up well with our lives,” Nagy explains, speaking for himself and his wife, Jamie.

Though he began to raise funds for Samaritan’s Feet in 2009, it was in 2010 – after the earthquake that ravaged Haiti – that Nagy became a full-fledged partner in the mission.

Scott and Jamie Nagy had four children of their own when they adopted their fifth, Naika, as a 2 1/2-year-old. Her home country is Haiti.

Both the Nagys were adopted as children – Jamie as a newborn and Scott as a teen –“and we had talked about (adoption) for a long time, even before we were done having our own kids.

“I just know that we both had a desire to do it,” Nagy recalls. “On my own, I wouldn’t have, so I know that God placed it in my heart.”

God had a plan for Naika, too, Nagy says.

Naika’s birth mother was still living, but she was unable to feed the child and placed her in an orphanage.

Nagy knows that the mother survived the earthquake, but he has no information of her whereabouts or about the status of her other children, Naika’s siblings.

The high-profile South Dakota coach understood that his bare feet could raise awareness of the grinding poverty in Haiti: “It was definitely not a publicity stunt. But it was a good way to support Haiti, and I wanted my daughter to know that her parents would do whatever they could for her country, that they were not leaving Haiti behind.”

Close to home

In Brookings, the 2010 earthquake hit close to home. Naika, who came from an area near the epicenter of the quake, understood that something terrible had happened, and Nagy says he found it difficult to discuss it with her.

“She’s very intelligent,” Nagy said at the time. “She doesn’t say a lot, but I know it’s heavy on her heart. … At first she thought everybody was dead in Haiti.”

In Nagy’s first year as a shoeless coach, “we raised a lot of money and collected something like 2,000 pairs of shoes.”

Times have changed since then. For one thing, says Nagy, “it’s easier to raise money than to store and ship shoes,” so he’s de-emphasized the shoe collection aspect of his mission.

“I still have people bringing me shoes almost daily,” he says, and he gratefully accepts them. But now, instead of shipping them to Samaritan’s Feet, he turns them over to a Sioux Falls charitable group organized to send shoes to Haiti.

The emphasis has changed to raising cash, not because it’s easier but because “Samaritan’s Feet has its own shoe factory,” Nagy explains, “and they can make a pair for about $5.”

His cash collections have brought in $5,000 and $6,000 over the past few years, and in 2012, Nagy has his sights set on collecting more than $10,000 for Samaritan’s Feet.

Building organization

Several years of exposure have helped Nagy build a “shoeless” organization. Area high school coaches have signed on to the project, and community and regional organizations are starting to line up as sponsors. Sanford Health, for example, gave Nagy $2,500 last year.

And Nagy’s efforts are no longer confined to Haiti. In late July, he accompanied Samaritan’s Feet founder Manny Ohonme to Zimbabwe, where they not only put up steel shelters for rural schools, but Nagy conducted basketball clinics for kids in the capital city of Harare.

The trip was funded in part by Nagy’s home church, Brookings Wesleyan.

“The school buildings were basically wooden shacks with dirt floors,” Nagy reported in his blog from Harare.

During the eight-day visit, the Samaritan’s Feet team put up the buildings but weren’t able to pass out shoes – that part of the mission was held up by government red tape. The shoes ultimately found their way to the youngsters.

Nagy said some of the kids who came to his basketball camp were shoeless – and they worked out for three hours, barefoot, on the hot concrete courts.

A scheduled safari was also a casualty on his Zimbabwe trip, but Nagy was philosophical about it. “I was disappointed, but I figure I can go to the zoo in Sioux Falls if I need to see animals.”

Barefoot again

Nagy and his coaching staff will be barefoot at courtside once again on Jan. 14 when the Jackrabbits host University of Missouri-KC.

“This will be a whole big weekend for us,” says Nagy, whose Jackrabbits also take on the University of South Dakota on the 12th.

That Sunday, the 15th, the coach will take part in a day of service with Samaritan’s Feet in Sioux Falls, washing people’s feet and giving away 300 to 400 pair of shoes.

Nagy is a modest man, and though he’s about to receive a human rights award for his work, he doesn’t wear the “humanitarian” label well.

“Humanitarian?” he says. “It makes me laugh when I hear that. Probably the people closest to me would not consider me a humanitarian, and my basketball players would certainly not consider me a humanitarian!”

To hear him tell it, his charitable work is “not that big a deal, really.” And he doesn’t want publicity, even though he grudgingly cooperates to get more attention for the program.

“That’s not why I do it,” he says.

“If anyone has been helped, it’s been worthwhile. If there’s any kid, because of Samaritan’s Feet, who knows there’s somebody who cares about them, it’s worthwhile.”

“But,” he adds, “any time you help others, you get changed more than the people you help do.”

A reception an open house will be held from 5:30-7 p.m. Jan. 9 at the Brookings Public Library. The human rights award presentation will take place at 6.

Contact Ken Curley at kcurley@-brookingsregister.com.

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