LOUISVILLE - Ken Shields has not yet picked out a tattoo parlor. That would be presumptuous, or at least premature.
The head basketball coach of Northern Kentucky University is a systematic man, if not always a cautious one. He has agreed to have a three-leaf clover etched into his left shoulder should the Norse win the Division II national championship, but he needs one more win before he will authorize the needlework.
Shields does not want to get ahead of himself until there is no one else in front of him. This is his second straight trip to Division II's title game, and Ken is keen on finishing the job.
''The bus only goes by so many times in life and you need to jump on that bus,'' Shields said Friday afternoon. ''I think it is our turn.''
This afternoon, at the Commonwealth Convention Center, NKU meets Cal State-Bakersfield for the penultimate prize in college hoops. Compared to the NCAA's Division I extravaganza - The Big Dance - the Division II tournament amounts to a small-scale sock hop.
A chance to be the best
But try telling that to a man who has spent 33 seasons in search of an ultimate victory. Try diminishing this moment in Ken Shields' mind.
''To be at the pinnacle would be so fulfilling to me,'' he said. ''I would just be truly ecstatic ... to be a national champion, a national champion, when there are something like 287 teams that were pursuing this carrot - that would just be the ultimate.''
One of the best things about sports is that the participants get to decide if what they're doing is a big deal, whether or not the networks or the newspapers or the crowds concur.
NKU does not need Dick Vitale around for validation, no more than Nelson Mandela needed the Nobel prize. Victory, like virtue, is its own reward - however small the stakes. A national championship of any description guarantees goose bumps.
''We will be The Show at that time,'' Shields said of today's telecast. ''Almost 35 million people watched us last year ... There have been people who were in the Bahamas, in Hawaii, on a Caribbean cruise, in Europe, all over, who watched the game last year. This is March Madness and people hunger for it.''
NKU Athletic Director Jane Meier said she expected between 2,000 and 3,000 Norse fans to show up for today's game, and she promised to get a street named for Shields should he prevail. (Working title: Shields Boulevard. Location: To Be Determined).
Down a dead end road?
A street sign makes a modest monument, but nothing would be more appropriate. Not so long ago, Shields seemed as likely to hit the road as to be honored with one of his own. He suffered five straight losing seasons between 1988-89 and 1993-94, and for a time his job security was as tenuous as a tipsy tightrope act.
But Shields' current senior class has strengthened his position like reinforced concrete. Paul Cluxton, Shannon Minor and LaRon Moore are 80-15 over the past three seasons, and have brought their popular coach a sense of permanence and an aura of success. In designing his prospective tattoo, Shields has designated one clover leaf for each of these three players, and a stem to represent the rest of the team.
''My wife struggled with it,'' Shields said. ''She's worried about little kids doing it because coach does it, which there's some credence to. I see it as an extrinsic motivating factor.''
Two years ago, Shields offered to shave his head if NKU reached the NCAA Tournament. Last season, he agreed to wear an ear ring on the condition that the Norse advanced to the Elite Eight. Both times his players forced him to follow through. No greater love has a middle-aged man than to permit himself to be pierced for a cause.
''I probably felt more awkward with my head shaved than the ear ring to tell you the truth,'' Ken Shields said.
Greg McDaniel, owner of Covington's Mysterious Ink Tattoo Studio, said he would consider giving Shields a complimentary clover for the sake of the publicity.
''For something like that, it would take about 20 minutes,'' he said. ''I'd go easy on him.''
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS TO THE PINNACLE?